Recently published investigative stories by Sherman Smith and Peggy Lowe focused on the flaws and weaknesses of Kansas’ child welfare system.
Their stories about teenagers victimized by parents and older men gained national attention, not because Kansas treats its vulnerable children so much worse than other states do, but because the stories are so tragic.
From coast to coast, schools, communities and states struggle to find better answers for kids in similar situations.
Because of privacy laws, the scope and depth of the problem are often obscured. Sometimes, when a child dies at the hands of a parent or relative, the public will get a brief peek at what teachers and child welfare workers see all too often. But it takes work such as that by Smith and Lowe to bring a better understanding among the public.
These are issues that plague virtually every community. It’s not that no one cares. It’s that families can’t be “fixed” like a car. No sermon on family values will turn a child abuser into a good parent. No government program pushing two-parent families will transform self-absorbed drug abusers into solid citizens. And no shower of cash can force parents to provide their children with a stable, secure home.
For the past 40-plus years, I’ve watched politicians, police, social welfare officials and others try to tackle the issue. Over the years, I’ve reached a few conclusions.
The first is that only lazy politicians attempt to blame a lack of religion and traditional values for social problems. It’s worth noting, for example, that documented cases of child abuse have occurred in religious families and religious institutions. It’s also worth noting that back in the good old days, abusing children or a spouse was viewed as a parent’s right, not a crime.
Churches and other religious institutions can be forces of good, but we all should remember that it’s a free country. You’re free to practice — or not practice — religion as you want, not as the state requires.
You are not, however, free to abuse and neglect children.
Several years ago, a conservative juvenile judge in Indiana told me that after a decade of dealing with kids and their parents, she was convinced that almost all parents wanted to be good parents.
Her point was that very few people set out to abuse and neglect their kids. But they often lack the discipline and the skills needed. Addiction, lack of experience, poor models of parenting and poverty all can play a role in creating dire situations for kids.
Developing community programs to provide mentoring, training and counseling can help. Those efforts should and can involve schools, churches, nonprofits and government agencies.
Money by itself isn’t a solution, but it matters.
Kansas saw a substantial increase in kids removed from their families and placed into foster care as the state cut social welfare programs four or five years ago.
Gov. Sam Brownback and his supporters wanted to push more welfare recipients into jobs by cutting benefits. In many cases, kids paid the price. Whether parents were able or willing to work didn’t change the reality for children who were already struggling in homes with marginal resources.
Spending more money on foster care may serve an immediate purpose, but it won’t bring long-term improvement. That will require a sustained effort that involves an array of people and institutions in communities throughout Kansas.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.