Last night I stood in the cafeteria of a government building in Hillsboro, Oregon, with thirteen other people and was sworn in by one of the county judges in juvenile court with an oath to obey the laws of the state of Oregon and to protect and defend the best interests of those children who it is my responsibility as a Court Appointed Special Advocate to defend . The judge spoke some brief and appropriate words about his heavy workload and his passion in seeking to serve the interests of children within a system under extreme strain. The people being sworn in were largely educated people from privileged backgrounds with high social ideals and a history and deep interest in community service. Besides the swearing in ceremony, we turned in our reports, or at least I did, and received some swag, including a lovely lapel pin that I will add to one of my suit jackets to wear regularly to church and a photo id badge, presumably to show when making official visits, and some business cards showing myself in the role of CASA for Washington County, Oregon. Everyone should know how much I like swag , without having to be reminded of it.
The evening itself was a lovely one, if more than a little bit subdued. Quite a few of the people, including myself, had brought other members of our circle of friends and family. My mother was there, and so were three ladies from three generations of my adoptive family. While I was there enjoying some water and watching others snack some, I managed to chat at some length with my new CASA supervisor, who commented on the child I am likely to be helping out as well as his own experiences as a former DHS caseworker who left when the job changed from one based on his ideals of social work to mere case management. He commented at length on the broken nature of the justice system as it relates to children in this county in particular, and his own perspective as a European on the high degree of freedom present in the United States and the lack of family and community in many cases as a restraining force on people being free when they lack the responsibility to handle that freedom well. As it happens, there was in my e-mail inbox already a sad story about a couple that had served as foster parents for more than a decade while apparently being guilty of child abuse against particularly vulnerable young people.
Why is “the system,” as it is referred to by people involved in it, such a mess? For one, our larger culture is in the midst of a period of extreme decadence, where moral standards and conduct are in precipitous decline, with no end in sight. People consumed with their own freedoms and their own rights do not make the best parents, and those who are concerned with gratifying their own chemical dependencies and their own sexual longings are ill-equipped to behave with restraint towards others or set a model of proper moral restraint in those they are responsible for. Many people become parents after enduring their own dysfunctional and broken families, and simply do not have the skills necessary to parent well, not having ever undertaken a serious and systematic examination of what went wrong and what can be done better in the future. Then, when those parents, having been set up to fail, fail spectacularly and have their children removed from them, they often struggle to show the improvement necessary to get their children back, and their children are placed among relatives, some of whom are involved in the generational patterns of failure, or among strangers where trust and intimacy may be a struggle to attain. All of these people, furthermore, are supervised by an overburdened justice system and a state bureaucracy that is focused on managing cases rather than serving the best interests of children and their families. It is little wonder in such a context that the system is so broken.
At least one of the elements of the swearing in ceremony struck a very personal nerve with me personally. The judge swearing us in spoke of his having a young son with whom he has grown up in juvenile court, and explained that he was a somewhat old father who wanted, as much as possible, to give other children what he and his wife have given their son by helping to give parents the skills so that they can raise their own children rather than having those children taken away from them and given to strangers. The story reminded me of my own childhood, when I had heard about the sort of spankings that would be considered child abuse, and had connected those with my own upbringing, where my mother told me that if I called her in that I would never see any members of my family ever again. I have never forgotten that threat, and it has fueled my own desire to help, in whatever way I can, that the lives of other children be less troubled and tormented than my own . My own life experience has thus served as fuels for the fires of idealism that sit sometimes uneasily beside the grimly cynical realism that also shows itself often in my life.
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