Archived Story

Cass revives Youth Council to fight child abuse, neglect

Published 8:42am Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dowagiac Daily News

An indelible image from a book stuck with James Henry, Ph.D., who addressed the Cass County Youth Council Wednesday noon at Southwestern Michigan College Mathews Conference Center for April’s Child Abuse Prevention Month and Blue Ribbon Week April 19-23.

Geraniums matter.

As in, “Geraniums on the shelf died, but the teacher kept on teaching. ”

“To this day I remember that,” he said, “because to me it’s about what we do to talk about what’s really happening versus what we would like to happen. We all loved the geranium, but we’re not going to talk about it because we’ve all got agendas, or we don’t want to feel loss sometimes.”

Youth Council, which is being revitalized, is a subgroup of the Cass County Interagency Council, whose main goal is to help prevent child abuse and neglect, primarily through funding allocated to agencies that provide programs and services.

“It’s not an anomaly,” he said, “it’s reality. It’s an experience that we have to look at as we understand the impact of child abuse and neglect on multiple levels.”

One aspect of teaching elementary school and social work which appealed to Henry was not having to get dressed up for work, although he explained his jeans and leather vest April 14 as being because he rode his motorcycle.

Henry, who started his career in third, fifth and sixth grade classrooms, worked 17 years in Child Protective Services in St. Joseph and Kalamazoo counties.

Now he is a Western Michigan University professor and directs the Child Trauma Assessment Center.

Youth Committee members include American Red Cross, Council on Aging, Cass County Family Courts, Cass County Prosecutor’s Office, Woodlands, the Human Services Coordinating Council, Southwestern Michigan College, Domestic and Sexual Abuse Services (DASAS), Lewis Cass Intermediate School District (LCISD), the four county school districts in Dowagiac, Cassopolis, Edwardsburg and Marcellus (Marcellus High School sophomore Sharon Rimes won the $250 logo contest), the state Department of Human Services (DHS), Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Tri-County Head Start, Midwest Energy Cooperative, Michigan State University Extension, Cass County Sheriff’s Office, Dowagiac Police Department, Cassopolis Police Department and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.

Healing comes through processing “overwhelming” traumatic events which happen, of which perhaps the starkest example was the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Events where we feel helpless and powerless continue to reside in our bodies and brains until we process what happened – not only cognizantly, but emotionally,” Henry said. “Without an open dialogue about what happened, that wound can infect an entire being and ripple through us for a lifetime. Think about the impact 9/11 had on our country. Here we are almost nine years later and it continues to affect our development as a country, our perception of other people and continues to move us to say we have to protect ourselves.

“Whether you agree with the war or not, we’re in two wars because of 9/11. This process is about protection, but also providing a way to heal. Three days after 9/11 I was there in a park down the street. I’m getting very choked up just saying the whole park was filled with memorials. The grief was palatable. People were telling stories of people they missed because stories connect us to reality. Telling the story helps us grieve through what we feel and experience.”

Henry recounted the shocking Calista Springer case.

“We want to keep moving on and see this as an anomaly,” Henry said. “See it as something that would never happen anywhere else because a unique set of circumstances came together and this child died. There’s another part to this that I think is really important, and that is the recognition to say, What did we learn? Calista Springer died in a house about 150 yards from the St. Joseph County courthouse” in Centreville.

“She had been there, tied to the bed, for several years,” he related. “Processing this is to say this isn’t just something that could happen there, it could happen anywhere. What do we take away from this? I think it’s a really important process for all of us to go through because something tragic happened. We need to look at this child who said, ‘I want to be free.’ ”

March 11 Henry visited Port Huron to make a speech.

Checking into his motel, a Times-Herald headline in a newspaper box caught his eye: Stepmother avoids open murder charge.

Jennifer Galvan was bound over on three other counts in the death of “evil” 3-year-old Prhaze Galvan, who suffered multiple battering injuries over a period of time. She was also tied to her father’s arm in bed so she would be immobilized.

“The judge said no 3-year-old child is evil,” Henry said. “A child learns what he or she experiences, which I thought was very wise of the judge. But what’s also important is to recognize that our perception of children directs what we do. ‘Evil’ is a very extreme perception of a willfully disobedient child, but it justifies an action. When we see a disobedient child, that justifies a punitive action. When we see a child responding in a self-protective way because their brains have been wired for danger, that’s a perception that holds a very different response. We all have perceptions of our children that direct exactly what we do. It’s very important,” whether a child dies or feels bad about himself to where it affects optimal development.

Families are “complex. This is not simple,” Henry said. “We always want to simplify to feel like we are in control. Things that happen to children are not simple. The simple thing is to blame one person, and to focus on if they had done something different, everything would have been okay.

“Having been in CPS for 17 years before I came to Western, that’s just not true. It’s not black or white. We simplify very complex situations that shouldn’t be simplified. We want to blame somebody, often the parents. The easy way is to say, ‘Those people were demons.’ I’m not in any way excusing them, but when we demonize people, it simplifies. We’re all adults and I would hope you’d agree with me that we’ve learned to live in the gray areas,” contrary to the “concrete, black or white” absolute outlook of his 2-year-old grandchild.

Yet for kids in the juvenile justice system, “It’s always gray. Asking, ‘Didn’t you know what was right and what was wrong?’ That’s simplifying. We have to embrace the complexity of gray to really be able to work with people because as soon as we get black and white, it’s all about judging – ‘you’re just a bad person, you’re just a bad parent.’ All kids I’ve worked with my whole life in child abuse and neglect, I can almost guarantee you 100 percent of those kids thought they were bad, even if they don’t always verbalize it. And the reality is that 80 percent of parents are carrying unresolved trauma.”
Henry quoted Wendell Berry to say, “Maybe when we no longer know what to do, we come to our real work. And when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.”

“To me this speaks of a real challenge to us in this room,” he said. “Anybody who says, ‘I know what to do to fix these kids’ ” is a liar or a sham because it’s too complex. Repetition and relationships. However many experiences our kids have had that traumatized their brain and wired it for danger, they need that many experiences and many more to rewire the brain the other way. It’s not as simple as going to get some therapy. I have to live with the uncertainty of not being able to fix” every situation. “I have to recognize the limits of what I can do, which is not easy. It’s painful.”

“Our child welfare system has enormous flaws,” Henry acknowledged. “I don’t just mean DHS. ‘If they only did what they were supposed to do, none of this would happen.’ This is not true, but it’s easy. When I was a CPS supervisor in Kalamazoo, I tried to go to as many schools as I could. It was very obvious as soon as I walked in that people were mad that I was not doing my job because CPS is supposed to protect kids. ‘I thought you were supposed to educate kids. How come your kids aren’t passing the tests?’ We can point fingers all around, but recognize a whole system surrounds our kids.”

He referred to Detroit News coverage of DHS facing a lawsuit over treatment of Michigan foster children.

Henry said, “If we look at it systemically, benchmarks weren’t done earlier because there was not enough money. Yet this suit is costing Michigan millions of dollars. All of us in this room want to do the right thing, but we have limitations.

“If I gave each table $100,000 for kids in Cass County, you could do a lot, but nobody’s giving you 100 grand. We have to look at this in terms of flaws from the top down – not just on the baseline floor. The suit really addresses that.”

Henry said to blame, incompetence and responsibility, add a fourth component, defensiveness, because “nobody likes to be told they’re not doing a good job,” such as a teacher if a child cannot read.

“You feel your back go up a little bit,” Henry said.

“We do it different ways, but you go into self-protective mode. Some of us shut our door, go home, get red in the face, some of us get on e-mail. The point being that underneath this self-protection is vulnerability. You’re not getting reinforcement that you’re okay, so you begin to think you’re not. And when you don’t think you’re okay and you begin to doubt your own competence, it hurts and affects your whole life. This is not something that gets left at the office. It goes home with you because it’s not about the work you do, it’s about who you are and how you view yourself.

“An 11-year-old girl who was sexually abused said she (withdraws) when my foster mom (of three years) gets mad at me because then she’s back with her real mom. It’s so overwhelming it affects her perception of everything. All of us have voices from our past that get triggered and come back.”

Henry advocates moving away from traditional mental health models that “blame children for being willfully disobedient” toward “a trauma-centered system that asks, What has happened to this child?’ ”

From the school’s perspective this is very difficult, Dowagiac guidance counselor Ken Jordan agreed with Henry.

“Our system is built on choosing good or bad,” Henry said. “And our mental system diagnoses good and bad. Those of you who followed the Calista trial, a counselor gave a statement from a mental health perspective: ‘Children with pervasive development disorders will stop at nothing to manipulate people to make others feel sorry for them.’ It’s a stretch to think that kids who have this kind of autistic characteristic could actually manipulate people to feel sorry for them.”

Henry testified next.

“I got on the stand and said, ‘If any of you jurors were hog-tied in a bed, would you try to run away? You would do something drastic, like try to run away 18 times. The behavior Calista exhibited makes complete sense, but from a mental health perspective of pervasive mental health disorder, she looks manipulative.

“As I said in the beginning, it’s about our perceptions of children that count, that dictate what we do and how. How many of us manipulate? All of us. We all want our way, so we try to figure out a way to get it. Some get mad. Some pout. I was raised Catholic, so I know the wonders guilt works. Our children can exhibit normal behavior that is seen as manipulation and is extreme with trauma.”

Another thing that came out of the Calista trial was the need for supervision.

“I need people I work with to help me see the larger picture,” Henry said, or “I’m going to make what may not be the best decision except for what Jim Henry thinks. It doesn’t take in other perspectives.”

The Child Trauma Assessment Center at WMU has a pediatrician, an occupational therapist professor, speech and language and a clinical social worker for just that reason.

“This affects all of us in our daily decisionmaking,” Henry said.

Advocacy “is a necessity a responsibility,” he said.

“When our next step is complacency, our kids are at risk. I don’t know how many of you have ever seen a 5-year-old girl raise her hand, ‘You know, I’m being sexually abused. I wish the system would take action.’ I’ve seen precocious girls, but I haven’t seen that yet.
“By the time they’re 15 they just say, ‘Drugs and sex feel much better than the sexual abuse.’ Advocacy minimizes the risk to all of our children. It’s such a privilege and a challenge to work with kids. It’s a sacred duty.”

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