Like most of you, reading the horrific details of A. J. Freund’s too-short life makes me want to punch some suspect folks squarely in the mouth. But while the visceral reactions to his death are vast and plentiful, the kind of critical thinking I’ve been calling for lately is sorely lacking.
Sure! Visceral reactions can be fun and somewhat self-satisfying, but they solve nothing and they tend make the situation worse. So, as difficult as it may be, let’s examine this tragic scenario with a more jaundiced eye because that’s the only way anything’s ever going to change.
Let’s start with the obvious fact that we – yes, you and me – are the ones who failed A. J., and here’s why:
1. Abusers don’t occur in a vacuum.
We’ve covered this beyond obvious fact numerous times. But let me be clear one more time! Not all abused children become abusers. In fact, young female abuse victims are more likely to become battered adults.
But if you take adult abusers as a whole, there is a direct and positive correlation to being regularly beaten as children. It’s not that hard to understand. Most human behavior is learned, and we all tend to become our parents to varying degrees.
Just look at any photograph of A. J.’s parents and it doesn’t take a psychiatric professional to determine their affect is completely off. His father looks a member of the walking dead and his mother clearly continues to be abused.
That means this generally absurd embraced-by-Republicans Ayn Rand-ian notion that, if left to our own devices, we’re all capable of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is pure unadulterated bovine excrement.
My regular readers know my wife teaches in the East Aurora school district, and through no fault of their own, most of those kids don’t have a bleepin’ shot in hell. In fact, most of them already live in hell. And the fact that some of them actually do succeed is nothing short of miraculous.
But they’re the exception that proves the rule.
So, where were we when these two parental monsters were being created? That biblical caveat covering “the least of our brothers and sisters” is unequivocal. When you finally do meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, I would advise against saying “I was too busy” because it ain’t gonna work. There are no exceptions.
2. DCFS is an impossible proposition
Why do we keep expecting miracles – or even competency – from an agency that’s so incredibly overworked and so utterly underfunded it can’t possibly succeed? Yes! It looks like the lapses were particularly egregious in A. J.’s case, but do we really think disciplining two caseworkers is going to be the answer to anything?
In today’s editorial, the Chicago Tribune declares, “His death, allegedly at the hands of his parents, could’ve been prevented by a well-run child welfare system.” Yes! And if those bleepin’ Publisher’s Clearing House people would only show up on my front porch today, all my problems would be solved, too!
The editorial goes on to refer to the agency as “beleaguered,” but it offers no real solution to DCFS’s revolving door leadership and utterly untenable culture.
Yet, back in 2012, the Trib ran a great investigative piece making an excellent case for no more than 24 cases per caseworker. That reporter noted that most were tackling 40, with some caseworkers handling as many as 60 families, and the those numbers were only getting worse.
Human beings are imbued with certain limitations and defense mechanisms. If you’re constantly exposed to exceedingly difficult situations with no solution in sight, you either invite a breakdown or your start becoming inured to it.
Do you want to know what the average DCFS caseworker makes? $35,906 a year, seven percent below the national average. So, what person with half a brain is going to take a job for peanuts where you have to work absurd hours just to keep up in a chronically underfunded agency and one slip might mean the death of a child?
Without casting any aspersions on any particular caseworker, those magnificent job “perks” mean all you’re going to get is young, inexperienced employees who might not be able to make it in other more advantageous venues.
Put more simply, did those two caseworkers fail A. J.? Yes, they did! But we failed those two caseworkers. Money doesn’t solve everything, but if we want a better Illinois child welfare system then we have to be willing to pay for it.
We’ll continue this conversation on Wednesday.