Best Practice Is A Work In Progress

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At a board meeting this past Thursday, I shared that there are advantages to being three days older than dirt. For one thing, I’ve lived long enough to know what doesn’t work. That’s not to say that past efforts were not well intended or that those involved didn’t have children’s best interests at heart. In fact, most folks were probably acting on the best information available, but not every child served in residential care settings always benefitted favorably from the experience.

After serving as a child protective services worker and a regional adoption worker for the State of Texas, I had the privilege of transferring to a residential child-care licensing role. To say it was uncharted territory is an understatement. I was assigned responsibilities of being the licensing representative in three different Texas Department of Public Welfare regions of the state. Consequently, I had a supervisor in San Angelo, a supervisor in El Paso and a supervisor in Waco. None of the three had the same expectations or even the same philosophy of regulation. Consequently, my approach was one of attempting to manage my manager. Fortunately, I was pretty successful. I mostly approached the job from doing what seemed right, reasonable and protective of children in care.

I’ve mentioned before the residential childcare crisis of 1973 in Texas. A reporter from the Dallas Morning News did an investigative report following the death of a child placed at Artesia Hall, a residential treatment center in Liberty County, TX. A 17 –year old girl ingested rat poison, subsequently determined she really didn’t want to die and told the director of the program what she had done. The director, sensing it was a ploy for attention, did not immediately seek medical care for the child. The child died. “Yep”, that will get you on the front page of the Dallas Morning News. It also got the director indicted for murder; however, that charge was subsequently dropped.

A subsequent Legislative overview of residential childcare in Texas became the basis for enacting the Child Care Licensing Act of 1975. Today it is known as Chapter 42 of the Human Resources Code. Residential childcare licensing was subsequently reorganized and centralized in State Office. Consequently, that prompted my move to Austin. Fifteen of my 17 ½ years with the State played themselves out in Residential Child Care Licensing.

I had a mid-life crisis in 1987 and thought I wanted to provide direct services for children and families. The first couple of years were tough, but long-term the transition worked out well for me. Fortunately, after a 17 ½ year career with the State and two years working as Executive Director of a program where the Board was content to maintain the status quo rather than embracing best practice, I knew I had to look elsewhere. Consequently, I turned to Texas Baptist Children’s Home.

I met Charles Wright, Executive Director of Texas Baptist Children’s Home, in the mid-1970s. I always got the sense from Mr. Wright that the only priority at Texas Baptist Children’s Home was to meet the needs of children in care. Everything else was secondary. The agency’s compliance record with standards was exceptional.

In 1976, the State published proposed revisions to minimum standards. One of the proposed standards was to eliminate the use of corporal punishment in the care of children living in children’s homes or foster care. Didn’t it make sense? It did to me. Most of the children in out-of-home settings had been removed from their families by the court and placed in children’s homes or foster care as a result of abuse/neglect. Wouldn’t the use of corporal punishment be counter-productive?

The thing that surprised me greatly was that the folks primarily objecting to the proposed change were representatives from faith-based agencies. They were vocal and they were adamant that it was both their Biblical mandate and God-inherent right. Charles Wright, Executive Director of Texas Baptist Children’s Home was an exception. He supported the change. He reminded folks at a public hearing on the proposed change that a shepherd’s staff also had a crook to gently deter a sheep from harms way.

Eventually, over an extended period of time that included many years, the standard prohibiting the use of corporal punishment in the care of children finally became a requirement. Almost overnight, the industry standard then gravitated to the use of logical consequences for the care and management of children. It was a “if you do the crime, you’ll do the time” concept. Everyone moved to a loss of privileges and restrictions approach. One of the most often used mandates was for a child to be sent to his/her room or to be restricted for an extended period of time.

As with anything, the new approach was either administered with grace or administered with a dose of “I’ll teach you!” (In case you missed it, that attitude often was mean spirited). Not everyone approved of refraining from the use of corporal punishment. They continued to think the kid would be best served if he could be paddled.

I could write a lot more than most of you have an interest in reading, so I’ll move forward. Forward movement and best practice is what “trauma informed care” is all about in today’s provision of child welfare services. It is an understanding of the impact that trauma has on brain development and functioning. Children who come from hard places don’t have the ability to process information the same way other children process information.

Sometimes children appear obstinate and disrespectful when they are not. They simply may not have the cognitive ability to process what’s being asked of them. Consequently, sometimes the only appropriate consequence is asking the child for a re-do: “Hey Buddy, Let’s do that again with respect.”

Instead of sending children to their room for misbehaving, the better approach is keeping them near. When children are sent to their room the clear message becomes: “You aren’t welcomed to be with me unless you’re good”. Opting to provide children structure and support by keeping them close is a better choice. The message then being communicated is, “I’m here for you and we’ll do this together.”

What we now know, based on scientific research and evidence, leads us to a better understanding of brain development and functioning. Sometimes something as simple as ensuring children always have water with them to drink and that they have a healthy snack to eat every two hours is important in neural communication, memory formation, learning and regulation.

Today we have better tools available for knowing how to best meet the needs of children from hard places. Actually, the tools that are now available would be an optimum parenting style for the care and treatment of any child. It isn’t rocket science, but it is supported by science. It is the kind of stuff our grandparents intuitively knew how to do.

Memory is such an incredible gift. Yesterday, I thought about Rev. Lester Roloff, the Rebekah Home For Girls and the Lighthouse. I also thought about the role I played for the State when Roloff had his day in the Texas Appeal’s Court. I was the only witness the State called for testimony regarding minimum standards. The Appeal’s Court overturned the closure of the Rebecca Home, but the basis was not on the efficacy of my testimony. For that I was grateful.

All My Best!

Don

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