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Protect the Children

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It is unfortunate that the author of your November 8 article "Sins of the Mother" is blinded by the same assumptions that prevent our child welfare system from keeping children safe. She describes the travails of Denise, a mother of two young DCFS wards. Denise has a history of failing to feed her children, leaving them while she turned tricks to get drug money. She also has a pattern of being both a victim and perpetrator of violence, including serving jail time for killing a boyfriend.

The article implies that the system is being unfairly harsh on Denise in delaying the process of reuniting her with her children. The article does not give a voice to the children or to the foster family who has had to repair the emotional wreckage left by abuse and neglect. In that way, the article perfectly mirrors the tragic flaws of our current policy toward abused children. Children who have been victimized by their parents' neglect and abuse should be entitled to be placed in safe, permanent homes. Tell me what other victims of physical abuse (and given children's dependency, disappearing and forgetting to feed them constitutes physical abuse) are mandated to live in virtual captivity with the perpetrator?

The article underscores Denise having been herself a victim of childhood abuse. Most child abusers, criminals, and killers were once childhood victims. There is a difference between feeling compassion for people like Denise and allowing them to continue to wreck others' lives. There is a difference, too, between offering parenting classes and drug rehab and thinking that because she has completed her "coursework" that her children would be well served by being placed again under her thumb. The portrayal of her supervised visitation reveals that, in spite of having learned a few catch phrases in parenting class, her impulse is to physically and verbally bully her children. She is also clearly more focused on having her children fulfill her own emotional needs than in fulfilling theirs.

Her children's feelings toward her are mixed: affection and longing, wariness, fear, and anger. But the fact that the situation is complicated should not obscure the absolute need to keep kids safe--above all other considerations. When Denise's children are adults, they may be able to reunite with her on their own terms. At that point, they will be able to keep themselves safe.

As a society, we are much too cavalier about the suffering of children at the hands of their parents. We focus instead on what is "fair" for the parents. Removing children from abusive parents is not about punishing the parents, but protecting children. We take risks with wards of the state that most middle-class families would never take with their own children. On the basis of a parenting class and drug rehab, would most of us hire a woman like Denise to baby-sit our own children? Would we want her to be our mother? Why should we hold her children's lives and safety any less dear?

Andrea Lohan

W. Birchwood

Tori Marlan replies:

As I mentioned in the article, an appellate court overturned Denise's murder conviction and ruled that she had killed her abusive boyfriend in self-defense. And I would have loved to have given the foster mother a voice, but she refused to speak with me.

Lohan may not consider the bond between a parent like Denise and her children worth preserving and strengthening, but the law does. I intended not to show that the system was "unfairly harsh on Denise," but that at times some of its representatives were negligent in their duty to fulfill the system's requirements.

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