My career has taken many turns since I left Lexington for the mountains of Floyd County to be a child-protective services worker 35 years ago. Wide-eyed with wonder, I encountered my first children with head lice and those looking like little coal miners from the thick soot of the heat of a coal fire. One house where chickens roamed in and out on a bare wooden floor looked more like a chickedncoop than a home.
My co-workers explained to me that parents struggle to keep their children fed, clothed and safe in an environment with few resources and that I should not judge them too harshly.
Things have changed, but I never forgot the kindness and acceptance I was shown in a culture different from my own by people I hardly knew. I still work with families and children who have been neglected and abused but my attitude that people are basically good has never changed. To be an effective helper, one must strive to understand the context in which good people do bad things.
I work with social workers, detectives, attorneys, judges and other professionals to figure out what kind of risk a parent poses to harm their children. I have become increasingly concerned by what I see across the state.
Too often, parents are being judged harshly without much hard evidence of wrongdoing. Child Protective Services and police often rely on confessions or the court to determine risk instead of conducting a thorough investigation, particularly of sexual abuse. I have seen a judge ignore a sound state investigation and conclude that a parent sexually abused his child based on flimsy testimony from unqualified witnesses.
I feel discouraged surrounded by so many parents who have been treated unfairly by professionals whose duty is to serve and protect. I fear for our society where people who wield power in such a lazy and hard-hearted way have lost their moral authority.
Parents are separated from children who love them. They spend thousands of hard-earned dollars on attorneys and experts who may do little to advance their cause. Often they are unable to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of a judge or social worker who made up his or her mind early on.
People make mistakes. We hurt others out of deluded thinking that justifies the harm, silently vowing we will never do it again only to find ourselves doing it again. No one knows for sure except us and the child, who may be too young to understand what has happened.
Instead of erring on the side of a parent's guilt with nothing to go on except a few words from a child we should be making other, equally plausible assumptions — that the child's memory has been influenced by another parent or caretaker, that someone else did something to the child or that a professional became hooked emotionally and stopped looking for the truth.
Dr. Susan Grey Smith of Lexington is a licensed marriage and family counselor.