Childhaven: Mission Possible!

Amelia Hewson | publishinghaus

Amelia H, Senior

Within the Seattle community, instances of abuse or neglect against children have remained a prominent issue for decades, with little opportunity for outreach. Through the legal system, an organization called Childhaven is called upon to watch and teach children ages zero through five who are in need of a safe space to grow in their most critical years of neurodevelopment. Childhaven is a non-profit organization that provides individualized care for young children who have been affected by the cycle of abuse or neglect in the greater Seattle area. Childhaven’s mission is to end these vicious cycles by supplying therapy and a safe community for trauma-affected children, while also teaching their guardians good parenting skills to practice at home.

In recent years, an opportunity arose for teens to get involved in this remarkable organization, and I found that this was something I couldn’t pass up on. After applying and attending a fundraising event, I myself became involved with Childhaven over the summer, along with Northwest juniors Matt L., Maya G., and Claire B. Our group of about twenty teens from numerous high schools around Seattle are called the Childhaven Youth Board, and our goal is to familiarize people with the mission that Childhaven fosters, as well as to fundraise so the children are given access to materials that would be available in a typical pre-school. Last year’s fundraiser alone raised around $20,000, which was far past our goal of $8,000.

Providing a “normal preschool” experience for the children is an essential part of Childhaven’s mission, so that their schooling is similar to that of their friends in other schools. In support of this goal, all classrooms feature a room accessible from the hallway where therapists and caseworkers can observe the classroom through one-way glass. This way, the behavioral habits of the children can be monitored without them knowing, and problems that may arise during class time can be addressed early on.

My mom, Lisa Hewson, worked as a teacher at Childhaven for five years, working with mainly infants and toddlers, but also interacting with some of the older children (ages 3-5) who were in her van route when she was driving or acting as an assistant. A part of working at Childhaven includes taking on a number of roles inside and outside of the classroom, such as driving a daily van route to pick up and drop off children, or acting as an assistant to other drivers.

I asked both my mom and Bethany Larson, who is the Chief Program Officer at Childhaven, but formerly worked as a Childhaven teacher, about some of their experiences while working at the organization, both unsettling and rewarding. Some of their answers surprised me in that they experienced such alarming and tragic events while remaining a positive and uplifting presence for the children. I thought that the following interviews were crucial to include and to share with the public because of the tremendous impact that their stories had on myself. The dialogue contains graphic and disturbing content, and I advise you to read on at your own risk.

What were some of the scariest experiences that you encountered?

Lisa: “One morning, we were driving the Red Van to go pick up the kids, and one of the boys, I think he was four and a half, got in the van after his dad signed him in. He had a calm smile on his face like he was up to something, so I went back to help him get buckled into his carseat. While I was buckling him, he pulled out a big kitchen knife from nowhere and started waving it around. I was working as the van assistant that day, and had to ask Tammy [the driver] calmly to pull over. I knew him well enough to know that he was excited by any thought of making me scared or frantic, he felt empowered. I had to be unbelievably calm, calculated, happy, and loving. He was trying to hurt the infants behind him in the car seats that were backwards and was waving the knife behind him, and I knew that he was testing us because he wanted to know how far he could go before he got in trouble. At home, his dad used violence as a means of discipline and he expected that from us, he always expected unpredictability, so it was my job to establish predictability. I had to let him know that no matter what he did, I’d still love him, and that I wanted him to make good choices. And that the first good choice that he could make was to give me the knife, and that I’d love him for it. The whole thing lasted about three minutes. I was scared because I knew what he was capable of. I knew that he liked to play with fire, and that he liked to threaten and hurt kids. His mom wasn’t in his life, I think that she was in prison and his dad was a recovering alcoholic and treated him violently. He lived a lifetime of violence and anger and hurt and some horrific abuse. When we got to Childhaven we had to write up a report and give it to the caseworkers, who contacted his dad.” Dangerous incidents like this are not particularly common at Childhaven, but children who idolize their abusive parents will sometimes mimic their behaviors.

Lisa: “There was a family at Childhaven that really disturbed me. The mom was blind. The father was disturbed and the two kids, a son and a daughter, never got pulled from the custody of their parents, even with so much documentation of bad stuff going on. There were Satanic rituals, and sadosexual (masochistic) behaviors exhibited by the kids. The stuff that [the kids] disclosed to the teachers, it was obvious that they were exposed to really terrible stuff. The mother was oblivious, and lied to keep her family together. I found it weird that their dog was removed from their custody because of the horrific acts against the dog, but the children were never permanently removed from their custody. The kids were four and a half and two and a half.”

Beth: “A young girl died while with her parents. Her name was Lauria Grace. We went to pick her up, and the mom had a history of not being mentally stable, and her mom said she wasn’t coming in. The van went by the apartment later, and there were ambulances there. It was February of 1995. We got a call to the branch, saying that something was going on at the apartment. A supervisor and I went to the complex, and we found out that she had been fatally hurt by her mother. She was only three years old. She didn’t die at the apartment, she died at Children’s Hospital later from lack of oxygen to the brain.”

Lisa: “I was told, ‘There’s a child in your room that may have AIDS and/or hepatitis. I can’t tell you who it is, but just be careful with your bodily fluids and monitor the children closely!’ This is when I was the head teacher in the infant and toddler room. I had a good idea of which child it was that may have been exposed to AIDS or Hep A, and he was probably exposed to it through his parents, and sometimes children can be born with it. All of the teachers that had interacted with my class had to get Hepatitis shots, and hope that they didn’t contract AIDS, since there is no cure. One of the people I know in a different room that was exposed, but was not required to get a shot got Hepatitis from the boy and was sick for a really long time, her liver was going to shut down.”

These experiences, though horrific, are examples of the trauma that very young children suffer, sometimes at the expense of their own parents. Childhaven works to intervene before children face these horrific experiences.

What are some of your favorite experiences with a child at Childhaven?

Beth: “We had a little girl at Childhaven who looked just like I did when I was her age, and it almost felt like she was my child. She would always seek me out, because she knew I would be able to help her. If she was upset, she would first be angry, but she realized I’d always be there, so she started coming to me for help.”

Lisa: “I felt really happy and sad at the same time with a couple little girls. I really helped them form strong attachments, they didn’t have any attachments to their moms. It is essential for young children to feel an attachment to a caregiver in order to have a successful life; children must have a healthy attachment before the age of three. They called me mama. It really made me feel like I had broken through. I had to help their mothers to become mother figures to form healthy attachments between them and their children. Overall, it was rewarding, gratifying, and horribly sad.”

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Child Protective Services, or CPS, are involved with every family at Childhaven, acting as advocates for children affected by domestic violence or neglect. Often, CPS will investigate different cases for these families that have been entered into the system. Based on their findings, they make referrals for parental treatment, services for the children, and, in some cases, removal of the child from parental custody. However, many times the CPS workers do not do enough for the children under their caseload, and these families are temporarily ignored. Without frequent visits from these CPS workers, instances such as the Lauria Grace case can occur, where the child can be severely injured or killed. In situations such as this, the CPS worker is just as much to blame for Lauria’s death as her mother is.

My mom has seen the benefits and the downfalls of the CPS system throughout her time working at Childhaven. While some children’s CPS workers prove to be helpful to their situations and act as supporters, many seem to be not only unhelpful, but lazy and corrupt. My mom experienced children missing class for long periods of time because parents “didn’t feel like” sending their children to school out of apathy. This had nothing to do with it being an inconvenience, since Childhaven vans come to pick them up at their homes everyday. The other side of this was children being sent to school with bruises and scratches on their faces or bodies, all while their CPS workers looked the other way. The neglect of some CPS workers strip children of their health and security, while also denying them a “normal” childhood that Childhaven strives to administer.

One of the main problems within Child Protective Services is that the number of capable social workers are diminishing while, sadly, the number of abused and neglected children continues to rise. Thus, the caseload per case worker is largely unequal, reported to be a ratio of 18:1 in 2017 according to the Department of Social and Health Services. Additionally, in 2017, there were 8,484 reported cases of child abuse within the state of Washington per month, which the case workers are required by law to investigate. The number of reported cases that were actually “screened-in” was only 4,017 per month, allowing over half of the cases to “fall through the cracks.” Perhaps to alleviate this discrepancy, there should be greater funding and support for programs such as Childhaven, Guardian ad litems, and the Center for Children and Youth Justice. These programs and others are all child advocacy programs, focused primarily on meeting the basic needs of at-risk children.

As Childhaven offers counseling opportunities for parents or guardians of children attending the program, the skills taught in those sessions are aimed to help cultivate a healthy relationship between them. The National Academies Press, an organization who has done extensive research on the connections between healthy parent-child relationships and child behaviors, determined that “how parents interact with their children and, in particular, their disciplinary styles, can increase or decrease the likelihood of later antisocial and delinquent behavior by their offspring.” By introducing and helping parents with effective ways of parenting early on, the likelihood of their children to continue the cycle of abuse is greatly decreased.

Many are curious to know what happens to children after graduating from Childhaven at five years old, and how they are supported by public assistance. Because each child who has attended Childhaven has confidential records, many times their outcomes can be difficult to track, until they turn 18. We do know that those kids who attended a program like Childhaven, and benefitted from healthy adult relationships were very likely to develop future healthy attachments with others, have greater successes in academic endeavors, and have a greater chance of normal physical and mental development. Childhaven’s Chief Program Officer Bethany Larson offered the statistics that children who attended Childhaven “are reported to be 12 times less likely to be nonviolent than those that did not receive our services and 10 times more likely to stay in school.”

Organizations like Childhaven are essential parts of the community, working to create positive change in the lives of young children. Childhaven works to prevent horrific experiences such as those previously disclosed, but also to form strong and healthy relationships between the children and adults. It is important to support these organizations and to publicize their mission, so that change can continue to be encouraged and can be more effective. To get involved with Childhaven, visit www.childhaven.org or find me in the hallway for more information!

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