Steps for Families to Consider in Aftermath of Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School

MILLIONS OF KIDS ARE SENT TO SCHOOL EVERY DAY with the expectation of a safe return home. Our notion of this guarantee has been shattered, leaving adults feeling as though their children are not safe and children feeling vulnerable to danger. Since it is the job of the adults in a society to keep children safe, this tragedy will lead many to experience a range of emotions. Some of the emotions many adults will move back and forth between include fear, sadness, anger, helplessness, and even denial in the struggle to process the senselessness of how these lives were lost on an elementary school campus last week. Children and adolescents may experience a range of emotions but often do not have the ability to identify or express their feelings. In this case some children may even feel their own lives are in danger, since the main target of these mass murders was children.

Adults can help children and adolescents through this difficult time by:

  • Not becoming over anxious (children pick up on your anxiety and that can add to their stress).
  • Model how to express feelings of sadness and grief and explain how you feel to your children.
  • Reduce the amount of time you and your children watch TV and Internet reports of the tragedy.
  • Find ways to comfort your children and provide strength for your children.
  • Hugs and cuddling are known to reduce stress. Include your pets in group hugs. If your child is feeling very fearful they may benefit from sleeping in close proximity to you for a couple of nights (in your bed or in a sleeping bag nearby).
  • Maintaining normal habits such as dinner time and a bedtime ritual helps provide structure.
  • Play can help reduce stress, especially games you can play with your children (coloring, board games, card games, etc.). Drawing can also be a way for children to express their feelings.
  • Reassure your children that they are safe and that you are safe too. Children may become clingy, not wanting to leave your side for fear that something bad will happen to them or to you.
  • Maintain a connection to the community. Visit the local recreation center where families gather and share comfort. Visit your local religious establishment offering comfort and connection.
  • Offer to volunteer as a playground monitor at your child’s school for a few days, especially if you are a coach of a community youth team or a regular presence at the school, as this will help children feel safer while they are coping with shock and fear reactions resulting from this tragedy.
  • Keep communication open by being present and available for your children. You don’t need to have all of the answers, just be there.

Don’t force children to talk about their feelings. Be ready to listen when they are ready to talk. All feelings are valid. A child may be more “clingy” than usual and this is normal behavior under the circumstances. Adolescents in particular have moments when they are open to engaging in a discussion with parents or guardians. In general, you may have noticed your child or adolescent is best at communicating on the ride home from school, at dinner, or via text message. Often during the long process of their own identity development, children and adolescents can become less talkative and moody, leaving parents and guardians frustrated over difficulties with communication. This is where it is up to the adult in the relationship to discover the best time to share meaningful communication with their child or adolescent. Children and adolescents will experience healthier outcomes when they are not left alone to process powerful feelings and emotions. Find a way into their world where you can help them identify and normalize their experiences. Sometimes it starts with sharing how you feel.

Some children and adolescents may already be dealing with a crisis such as parents divorcing, loss of a pet or significant person in their lives, family member in the military, etc.  This tragedy may amplify difficult feelings they are already struggling with. Some children may experience severe reactions like crying, shaking, and regression (bed wetting, thumb sucking). If your child or adolescent demonstrates impaired functioning in concentration and school performance, aggression, isolation, changes in appetite, and lack of healthy connections and relationships then it is time to visit the pediatrician and ask for a referral to consult with a child and adolescent mental health specialist.

This tragic event takes a toll on everyone. Help the vulnerable in your community who may be less able to cope with this tragedy if you are able. If you feel overwhelmed, stay connected to friends and family, consult with your general medical practitioner, and seek guidance from a mental health professional if needed.

In the days to come we must continue to focus on what can be done to prevent these avoidable tragedies. Clearly, firearm-related mortality among children and adolescents must be recognized as a major health problem in this country. With high levels of suicidal tendencies among adolescents, easy availability of extremely lethal means, and low levels of mental health support, it is incumbent on policy makers and health care professionals to determine how to effectively translate research into life-enhancing outcomes for society’s youth.

Caren Caty, Ph.D.

New Study on Child Maltreatment

American Humane Association’s greatest asset is its excellent thoughtBaby leadership guiding our institution. Since 1877 we have been at the forefront of every major advance in the protection of children and animals from cruelty, abuse and neglect and this all due to our world-renowned subject matter experts sharing their insight.

One such individual is Dr. John Fluke, our Vice President of the Child Protection Research Center. He has worked for more than 30 years analyzing child welfare systems worldwide and providing valuable reflection on ways in which countries can reform their practices in the name of preventing child abuse. Dr. Fluke has been a featured speaker at conferences around the globe and his research has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals.

In this month’s issue of the medical journal The Lancet, Dr. Fluke and a team of researchers published their findings on a study of the child welfare services in six developed countries. Their research indicates that since the inception of modern children services in the 1970s there has not been a marked decrease in the number of reported instances of child maltreatment.

Congratulations to Dr. Fluke on his accomplishments. Most importantly, we thank him for his contribution to protecting our most precious assets — our children.

On My Holiday Reading List: ‘Raising My Furry Children’

This holiday season, I want to take the opportunity to share with you a few books that have been on my reading list lately; books that will make the perfect gift for the animal lover in your life. These books offer tales of hope and will surely bring a smile to that special someone’s face.

If you’re looking for a little light reading in between shopping, fixing the family meal and everything else, why not take a few minutes to flip the pages of Tracy Ahrens’ recent book, Raising My Furry Children? I know things can get hectic this time of year, but picking up this book and reading a couple of her very short tales—only a few pages at most per story—will certainly be a welcome diversion.

Tracy uses this book to introduce us to all five of her kids, but these aren’t the two-legged kind. Each is furry, and each has a tail. Tracy is referring to her pets and the joy and mischief they bring to her virtually every day.

Her Brittany spaniel, Speckles, is like most dogs always looking to get in a bit of trouble. He loves scampering off with wads of paper from the wastebasket, enjoys rooting through the dirty laundry basket, and is, according to Tracy, a bit of a lush. Thankfully, he mostly imbibes water, but the occasional glass of iced tea isn’t safe from the reach of his tongue if no one is around.

Tracy also tells how she became the proud parent of four cats: Desdemona, Chocolate Drop, Joan of Arc and Captain Jack Sparrow. Each has a unique way in which they came into her life, but together the four cats make quite a partnership, and offer great companionship to her. Whenever she or her husband come and go, each of the five animals has a way of greeting them or saying goodbye. If Joan were a child, Tracy writes, she would’ve been taken away by the Department of Child and Family Services for all the mishaps she’s gotten into.

With such a full house, Tracy never feels alone; rather, she feels the love reciprocated by her five “kids.” What she has done with this book is to demonstrate the power of the human-animal bond, something we work to underscore and celebrate every day at American Humane Association. Tracy understands the value of studying the link and its importance in forging humane communities, which is why she has generously agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds from this book back to our institution. For that, we are grateful.

Let Freedom Ring

I have heard many say that my generation is lazy, entitled, or complacent, and admittedly, I think there are many young Americans born in the 1980s who take freedom for granted. However, through partnerships with groups like Do Something and Levi’s Shape What’s To Come, I have met dozens of young people who are shaping the world with their passions, ideas, and determination.

As we celebrate our independence this July, I am reminded of the many reasons I don’t take my freedom for granted. While I technically had all the rights and privileges of any other American child, my circumstances put me in a position where I had no parents, no home, and no voice. The Declaration of Independence concisely states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …”

I know that this is supposed to apply to every American, but it doesn’t always seem to apply to foster children who are shuffled from home to home, whose voices and opinions about their own lives are marginalized, and who often don’t have an advocate who will speak up for them.

Appreciation is one key to freedom, and we must not only care for our nation’s children and teens, but we must appreciate them as well. If we don’t value young people, protection takes a backseat. And if ensuring connections and protection isn’t a priority, powerful people representing special interests can erode the system and put less funding and emphasis toward the very causes that make a difference for youth.

We as a society also value free speech as a cornerstone of freedom. This means that every voice must be heard, even the smallest child’s. When things looked the worst in my case, a volunteer guardian ad litem (or Court Appointed Special Advocate [CASA]) was finally appointed to speak for me in court. This advocate discovered the truth of my situation and did everything in her power to get me legally free to be adopted. This advocate program, which gives a child a powerful voice in court, is a living example of one of our Constitution’s founding principles. After all, the first amendment protects not only free speech but “the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Thankfully, my guardian ad litem did this for me.

Recently, I gave a speech in Nevada for American Humane Association’s annual Family Group Decision Making Conference. (The conference will be held in Orlando, Fla., next year, so please join us!). During my lecture, I emphasized the importance of community action and involvement. We can’t just leave child welfare policies to elected and appointed officials. Every citizen must participate, even young people. Young and seasoned alike can serve our community by protecting the environment and helping those less fortunate. By educating communities and ourselves, we are ensuring that best practices are being given priority and that our children have a chance at becoming successful adults.

As I left the conference and was writing this blog, I reflected on how family group decision making is connected to the democratic ideals of this country. This practice is all about giving families a voice in matters that concern them. I am a firm believer that nothing is more important to families than their children, and sometimes these families just need the platform and opportunity to share their ideas and support.

Nobody is too young or too old or too sick to be heard.

Freedom is a living and breathing part of every person, and the weak must be equal to the strong, the child equal to the adult, the man equal to the woman, each race equal to the other, each belief equal as well. No matter where we come from, or what our histories hold, we must unify to protect every right and freedom. After all, a chorus needs sopranos and basses, tenors and altos. But it is when we sing in harmony that the whole world hears what our freedom really means.

134 Years and Counting: Our Continuing Leadership in Child Welfare

As you know, American Humane Association has been at the forefront of almost every single advance in the protection of children and animals since 1877.   For over a hundred years, we have been devoted to innovation in child welfare and protection, including stellar research, advocacy and vital work on the ground in communities around this country.  The Child Welfare unit is in the midst of creating a bold and transformative agenda for the protection and well-being of America’s children.   As we further extend the reach of our programs across our communities, we are developing a new vision not only to protect more children against old and emerging threats, but to form collaborations and strategic alliances with our colleagues, advisors, sector leadership and philanthropists in order to create a blueprint for humane communities that better nurture the most vulnerable among us.  American Humane Association is dedicated to serving as a leader in the nation in ensuring the safety and well-being of all of America’s children.

To meet these goals, an emerging new leadership team was formed to ensure the delivery of all existing child welfare project work, and includes Alyson Plummer, John Fluke, Leslie Wilmot, and Lisa Merkel-Holguin reporting to Chief Operating Officer, Dale Austin.  Our experienced staff is strongly committed to delivering high-quality programs and services  during this evolution in leadership, as we have delivered stellar results in the past.  Tracy Mack, Special Advisor to the President and CEO, and Child Welfare Academic Director Suzanne Lohrbach are leading the strategic planning process to create an innovative, sustainable programmatic platform to propel our children’s mission into the future.

As we work to transform our agenda and provide for sustainable funding streams to support our programs, we remain passionately committed to protecting our country’s children – which we believe is fundamental to building humane communities nationwide.

Thank you for your commitment to our most vulnerable.

Why I Celebrate Father’s Day

Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Growing up, I never thought Father’s Day would mean anything to me. I still don’t know who my biological father is, and during my 10 years in foster care, I never had a memorable father figure. But today, I relish celebrating Father’s Day every June because I have one of the best fathers anyone could ask for. After I was adopted, I learned what it means to be “daddy’s little girl”! My adoptive father, Phil Courter, ensured that every moment of my days was filled with laughter, joy, and love. We worked on projects together in his workshop, bounced on the trampoline, swam until our fingers wrinkled, and tossed balls from every sport. He nurtured me, believed in me, and helped form me into who I am today.

Fathers play a critical role in the development and well-being of their children. Nationally, there is a strong movement to highlight the importance of fathers, and child welfare agencies are no longer simply looking to the biological mothers for resources and family ties. Stay-at-home dads are more common than ever, with more serving as primary caretakers of their children. American Humane Association has taken a special interest in this issue with their fatherhood initiative. By visiting the fatherhood initiative website, dads can learn more about how to interact with their kids at various ages and stages, and readers can see statistics that support the evidence that fathers are essential in the development of their children.

Children are very observant and are constantly absorbing the world around them. To this day, my dad brings my mother tea in bed every morning and he is always kind, respectful, and honest with others. Until this couple came into my life, I had never witnessed a healthy marriage and relationship. By watching my adoptive parents interact with one another and their communities, they modeled positive friendships and partnerships that I can emulate for the children in my life. Phil didn’t yell, or cheat, and was never violent; the absence of those unacceptable or unproductive behaviors is not lost on me. Many of my former foster brothers and sisters grew up and either became abusers or entered into abusive relationships because that was their childhood experience. Dads have an opportunity to change these perspectives with their children by giving examples of what caring, dedicated men look like.

No child can ever have too many people in their lives who care about them. Having a positive father figure changed my life for the better and I can’t wait to celebrate his contributions this Father’s Day!

Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a National Ambassador for American Humane Association and author of the New York Times best-selling memoir, “Three Little Words,” which describes her life in the foster care system.