I've been reading recently - a handful of memoirs about growing up in families ravaged by alcoholism. What is both sad and intriguing to me is how common many of the experiences are. Some of the stories are simply heart-breaking. In most of the autobiographies - the father is a severe alcoholic, and the mother works hard to deal with him and to provide for her children.
In Rick Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin', his mother fought to care for her sons. Despite being beaten by their father when he tried to look for work. And, at multiple points, she picks up and returns to her family, swallowing her pride, so her children wouldn't starve.
Jeannette Walls' family, in The Glass Castle did not have such a strong mother figure. In almost every instance, her mother did not support the physical needs and well being of her children. She would descend into self-pity, hiding under the covers and eating chocolate while her children went hungry. Despite having a teaching degree (and license), she refused to teach until begged to by her children. Even then, her pre-teen daughters had to wake her up, help her with lessons plans and grade papers for her. After a year, the mom quit to spend more time with her art. The family, at this point, lived in a shack with no indoor plumbing and garbage rotting outside. The parents refused to go on welfare, as it would damage their children's "self-esteem".
Instead, the children dug through the garbage after lunch at school to eat what had been thrown away by other students.
Would either author be as gifted without these experiences? I am a firm believer in "That which does not kill us, makes us stronger".
With that said, I think as a society, we have to have a system to help these struggling families. At times, it may mean that children are removed from their families. (As an aside, for the record, I don't feel that would have been necessary in Rick Bragg's case, I don't know all the details, just wanted to point out his memoir as another sad example of a family torn by alcoholism).
My point is, life isn't fair. Just because you are able to conceive or bear children, doesn't give you the right to abuse or neglect them.
So often, this seems sacrosanct in our culture. By definition, this is a "sacred cow" - biological parents and families are ALWAYS best. Despite the very real occurrences of abuse and neglect.
Who makes this decision? Who decides which parents should keep their kids (and can potentially clean up their act) and who has lost that privilege?
In the current U.S. system, the department of children and family services (DCFS) makes that call. It's not the best system. It's rife with problems, including corruption. Sometimes, children are moved "Out of the frying pan, into the fire" - from one bad family to a foster family with issues. And systematic abuse and neglect are often not identified until children are in school, long after life-long devastation has been wrought.
On top of all of this, some parents take the threat of their children being removed very seriously - using it to get the help they need to get and stay sober (or to get healthy). And it has been shown repeatedly that children do better in their original family unit if possible.
So where does that leave us?
What one person considers "unfit living conditions" may not constitute those for someone else. This was debated recently with the FLDS situation in Texas. Over 400 children were removed from their parents See MSN story here.
The high court decided in favor of the parents in that case - there wasn't a clear and present danger to the children. I've eaten crow on this one. I honestly thought (from the rumors) that hard evidence was available or potentially available that each of the children might be in danger. Or that children may have been removed from their birth mother and/or taken out of their original country (i.e. Canada). The data wasn't there, justice was served and the majority of the children were returned.
Simply because we disagree with a parent's lifestyle or religious views does not mean that the parent is unfit or that the child is being raised in an unhealthy living situation. The idea that a child would be taken from an otherwise loving home because their parents are atheists or lesbians is laughable to me (chanson mentioned it in comments to this post here. It is something to consider. As a society, we need to make sure that we are removing children to protect them, and for the right reasons. Not because of philisophical, religious or lifestyle disagreements.
In Jeannette Walls' memoir, if what she writes is true, I believe that those children may have been better off in foster care. Hindsight is always 20/20. And I don't, obviously, know the situation like someone living it would, or a case worker would. I won't share all of what she wrote (you'll have to read the book for that) but if you read the book and do NOT think those children experienced textbook physical neglect, we can discuss it. When a three year old is happier in a hospital despite third degree burns) because of the calm, quiet and consistent meals - there may be a problem. When a family eats rotten meat to develop better immunity, there might be a problem.
Yet looking back on it all, I'm not sure that Walls would have wanted to live in another family - to be put into foster care. At twelve, when a case worker stops by to talk with her parents, she lives in fear that she'll be taken from her siblings and that they'll be put in different homes. Even if they would be able to bathe regularly and eat consistent meals.
As I mentioned above, foster care has its own set of issues. I won't go into those either, other than to say that this is not a black and white issue.
Each case is unique and has an individual set of circumstances. What works for one family, doesn't work for another. At times, there are competent extended family members. Sometimes there aren't. I'm not defending DCFS, but I believe that we are better with that system (even a broken system) than nothing at all. I support multiple case workers and a judge making the decision based on evidence.
I do have a tremendous amount of compassion for children and parents in these families. In each memoir I've read (like Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes), the families survived because of the charity of others. They are remarkable stories, and remarkably strong people to have lived through what they did - and lived to tell about it.
This is a link to the video produced by Jeannette Walls' about her book. We watched a little of it at my book club, it was so interesting to see her Mom and her paintings.