Last December, our youngest granddaughter, Savannah, celebrated her third birthday. She had been anxiously awaiting the arrival of her birthday because it meant she could begin spending the night with “YaYa and Yo”. We decided to let her come over on the eve of her birthday for her first “official” overnight. The day went well enough…she was an angel. At bedtime, the demons were released. No amount of consoling could calm her. We tried her mother’s cell phone…no answer. We called her Dad’s cell phone…he did not answer either. Did they know something? In a last-ditch effort, we called her Aunt Stephanie. Aunt Stephanie was keeping Savannah’s sister, Lexi, so Mom and Dad could have an evening alone. She suggested we bring Savannah to her, which we did. Savannah went to sleep immediately after we dropped her off. I guess we wore her out.
The next morning, we all met at Chuck E Cheeses at the designated time. Savannah and Lexi had ridden in the car with Aunt Stephanie and Uncle Chris. As soon as they arrived, Lexi lunged out of the car, ran to her mother and said, in an almost joyful voice, “Momma, Momma…guess what! Savannah got kicked out of YaYa’s house last night!” If you work at a child welfare agency, you do not want to be known for kicking your three-year-old granddaughter out of your house.
The children and youth we work with at Elks Aidmore are not “kicked out” of their homes. They have been removed by Child Protective Services because their parents are abusive or, in most cases, neglectful. Parents may be unskilled at parenting, struggling to make ends meet, or suffering from addiction. Sometimes, kids come into protective care because their parents have been incarcerated. No matter the reason, the family is separated and the long road to reunification (if possible) begins.
Several years ago, we had a Maintenance Director who decided to build a bridge across a portion of the fishing pond on the Elks Aidmore campus in Conyers. The pond was man-made, with a silt pond on one end. The Maintenance Director ripped out a section of the earthen dam and proceeded to build what appeared to be a structurally sound bridge. Shortly after, however, water began to erode away the adjoining section of the dam and the bridge became unsteady. Eventually, we had to remove the bridge and rebuild the dam.
The scenario reminded me of the gaps we have in the child welfare system. Every dam does not have to been removed and replaced with a new bridge.
Every situation does not require us to disrupt the family and relocate the child. In the work we do with children and youth, it is equally important for us to focus on the family. In many situations, the ultimate goal is to reunify the family. To achieve that goal, we must remain diligent in our efforts to change the family dynamics and create a safe space in which the child can grow and thrive.
Of course, there are situations in which reunification of the child with the family is not a reasonable option. In those situations, when we do have to tear down the dam and build a new bridge, we need to make sure the structure is well-built, and the foundation is solid. Our goal becomes to provide the support and environment that allows young people to redefine their family and their role, or lack thereof, in it. Our job is to teach them the skills they need to become independent and emotionally healthy.
We are grateful to a Board of Trustees who has embraced this vision. We are blessed to have a tenured staff with diverse skills, expertise and experience to meet the often-demanding needs of children and their families. We witness to God who always provides, no matter the circumstance.