Make this a place where kids flourish

/ 5 March 2012 / jennifer

Kevin Burke, Commentary, Star Tribune, March 5, 2012 –

Our system exposes too many to the damaging stresses of adults’ conflicts.

The letter was to the point: “Dear Judge, I am 16 and self-reliant. I have been employed in some way for nearly a year. I have been emotionally and psychologically damaged from the events surrounding and the aftermath of my parents’ divorce. Although I believe I am healed (not fully of course) there is an excess of emotional trauma I have to cope with. I have night terrors, anxiety, paranoia, depression, and insomnia and have trouble paying attention in school. These symptoms have all built up on each other since I was in sixth grade. Now I deal with pent-up repressed emotions. I am technically ‘homeless’ at the moment. I have been a pawn in this ridiculous legal battle between my parents for years and I am ready to voice my opinion and wishes. I would like to be emancipated, gaining full rights to myself.”

Over the past two decades, a mass of information has been developed about the effects of stress on children. A certain amount is natural, but extreme and persistent stress can affect brain development in lasting ways. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard explained, “This condition literally interferes with developing brain circuits, and poses a serious threat to young children, not only because it undermines their emotional well-being, but also because it can impair a wider range of developmental outcomes including early learning, exploration and curiosity, school readiness, and later school achievement.”

The letter from the 16-year-old is not an isolated example of what we put children through. There is an 8-year-old who experienced the recent deaths of a grandparent, a dog and a younger brother. The child now assumes a caretaking role within the family, reporting that it is his “job” to keep his toddler brother safe. He says that he is “strong enough” to do so. He describes a volatile relationship between his parents, including fighting, yelling and lots of swearing. He is adamant that he does not want them to ever reunite and has a detailed escape plan in the event they do that involves taking his younger brother in the night to go stay with his aunt so that they will both be safe.

We need a goal: Minnesota must be the best place in the nation for a child to live. It won’t be achieved overnight, but failure is unacceptable.

A centerpiece of Kathleen Blatz’s tenure as Minnesota’s chief justice was the Children’s Justice Initiative. It focused on improving how Minnesota dealt with child protection, or CHIPS, cases. It made the legal system quicker and provided that there were guardians ad litem in every case. Neither the child who wrote the letter nor the boy with the escape plan is in the child-protection system. More often than not, children’s fates are determined not in CHIPS cases but in a private custody battle or perhaps never in a court proceeding. A recent Legislative Auditor’s report illustrates we can do better in CHIPS cases. Common sense says we must do better with a lot of children who will never be in the CHIPS arena.

Things have actually gotten worse for many kids. The Legislature, for example, repealed the requirement that counties provide neutral custody evaluations. Every county but Hennepin eliminated the service. The legal process is too slow and can be too acrimonious. Mediation of custody conflicts is good, but few counties outside of Hennepin have the service. Children in homes plagued by domestic violence or high levels of conflict need a champion. There are guardians ad litem in virtually every CHIPS case and only 9 percent in the custody battles.

Parental conflict can hurt children’s performance in school, increase anxiety and short-circuit social skills. The solutions, however, are decidedly not found in jingoistic calls to “save the family.” Lots of parents never did get married, and their children are entitled to effective parents, not necessarily married parents. Not all parents learn how to cope in a way that keeps them from being a burden on their children.

For this to be the best state in which to be child, several things must occur. The Children’s Justice Initiative should be promptly expanded; judicial, human-services and educational leaders can make that happen. Custody disputes take too long and too often never really end; political, legal and judicial leaders can make that improve. There can be access to mediation and counseling for family units in trouble. The Legislative Auditor’s report on the flaws in child protection cannot succumb to “this is the new normal” due to budget constraints.

We need no more letters from 16-year-olds asking to be freed from their parents, nor from 8-year-olds with an escape plan.


Kevin Burke is a Hennepin County district judge.