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.

Overcoming “Fears of Fostering”

This year, I will once again get to experience Halloween through the eyes of a child. Now that we have four foster children, we will be busy picking out costumes, attempting to secretly substitute candy for toothbrushes and floss, and equipping our kids with whistles and the know-how to yell “Stranger Danger!” when they feel threatened. While kids this time of year may fear imaginary ghosts and monsters, foster parents face the real fear of the unknown and uncertain future of the children for whom they provide care. This can discourage couples or singles from becoming foster parents. If looking to adopt, they may not want to foster because they feel there is too great a risk that they may lose the child with whom they’ve fallen in love. Or, they may have heard how “crazy, unstable, and unpredictable” foster children can be.

As I travel the country and educate people about the need to find stability and lifelong connections for the most vulnerable children in society — foster children — I hear a similar list of preconceived notions and reservations. Here are the top fostering fears, myths, and fallacies that I’ve heard:

  • These kids are so aggressive and angry, and they might hurt my biological children or pets.
  • They have rages and might burn my house down or threaten me with a knife.
  • There are no “normal” foster kids — they all have developmental delays, learning disabilities, handicaps, or special needs.
  • What if I adopt and raise this child and then she or he goes back to a biological parent who reappears out of nowhere?
  • I’m single, divorced, or gay, so I can’t be a foster or adoptive parent.
  • What if I get falsely accused of child abuse? I’ll run the risk of losing my own biological children or ruining my marriage and reputation!

Like us parents, foster kids have their own set of fears:

  • If I love this new family, I’ll be giving up on or betraying my biological family.
  • I don’t want to lose my identity or culture.
  • I don’t deserve to be happy or be loved.
  • I may not get to see my brothers or sisters anymore.
  • This new family is all too good to be true, no one really lives happily ever after.
  • They can still just send me back; adults break promises all the time.

The reality is that the kinds of children who are in need of permanent homes are about as diverse as a bag of Halloween candy. We currently have four beautiful little boys in our home, each under the age of five. They all were a bit wary, timid, and upset when they came to us, but we have provided them with a loving and stable environment, meeting their needs. They are now the most vibrant and loving little ones any family could hope for.

In a surprising twist, at least two will be available for adoption. While their case plans stated reunification with their parents as the primary goal, it doesn’t appear that will occur for them. They are not alone, in a child welfare system that privileges strangers with resources, while it struggles to provide the birth families with the supports and help to overcome the issues that brought the children into the foster care system. What will happen to these children? At American Humane Association, we encourage the child welfare agency that has custody to hold a family group conference to bring together these children’s extended family system, friends, community supporters, foster parents, and other system professionals to craft a plan for their children. The possibilities are endless for the plans, and would build on the culture, capacity, and strengths of those assembled. This type of decision making humanizes the child welfare system. Each child comes into care for a different reason, and each case must be taken on an individual basis. There is no cookie-cutter answer for what’s best for each child or family. But a universal truth is that safety, stability, and permanency or lifelong connections are necessary to support children’s growth and development.

The best thing we can do for these children and the system is to be personal ambassadors for the cause. I hope my little family can serve as an example of how inspiring, energizing, and rewarding foster parenting can be. Yes, there are frustrating and sad times, but I use those moments as learning tools so that I can become a better advocate and parent. I have the most amazing little ones living in my home, and I wish I could share them with everyone (but that would obviously be a breach in confidentiality!). As a parent, you always advocate for your own children, and these kids need the same voice and loving arms.

Please consider looking into becoming a foster or adoptive parent. There are many children and youth who need caring adults to play both temporary and long-term roles in raising them into adulthood.

Armed with good intentions and a little information, we can make foster care a little less scary — for adults and kids alike. Let’s keep fears and chills back where they belong…at Halloween time.

A Cultural History Lesson

A Cultural History LessonConfused, saddened and embarrassed. These are words I’d use to describe what I was feeling the day I walked back into my third-grade classroom after watching Alex Haley’s Roots the night prior. My class was supposed to watch the humiliation of my ancestors as a part of our history lesson. What I watched was people that looked like me — brown eyes and brown skin of varying shades — being whipped and beaten, treated as animals or worse, because I’d never seen animals treated that way.

As I walked back into that classroom the next day, I wondered what my classmates, all Anglo, were going to say to me, what must they think of me. The perception I held about the people I knew that looked like me — my parents, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — was tilted way off center. Why? Because this was the first visual history lesson I had about the people who looked like me. What a contrast this visual presented as compared to the people I knew and loved.

When my teacher began talking about the movie — as a part of our history lesson — I felt that everyone was looking at me. Whether this was reality or perception, I’ll never know. But what I know now is that this was not the beginning or the end of our story, of the people that looked like me — just a part of it. What I wish I had learned prior to, during and throughout my primary and secondary education was that Dr. Daniel Hale Williams conducted the first open-heart surgery; that Benjamin Banneker was credited for helping design our nation’s capital; that Mary McLeod Buthane started her own school in 1904 to educate black girls and served as an advisor for President Franklin Roosevelt on his “Black Cabinet”; and that Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman to make a bid for the presidency of the United States…and they all looked like me.

Black History “Month” serves as a reminder of what we should be remembering and incorporating in every month of the year — the contributions African Americans have made to make this country what it is today. There have been a number of accomplishments made by people that look like me — accomplishments that make me want to stand tall with clarity and delight in the knowledge that black people were more than just slaves; and pride in belonging to such a strong, inventive, intelligent and determined group of people. Today, I can teach my nieces and nephews that though there is a dark side to our history, there is also a brilliant, beautiful, bountiful side as well. I hope that third-graders like me, as well as all other students of books, life and experience, will remember that Carter G. Woodson founded “Negro History Week” in 1926 (later expanded to Black History Month) to celebrate the gifts of our people and to honor their accomplishments, not only in February, but every day of every year.

Building knowledge and fostering appreciation for cultural history encourages children and youth to be proud of their cultural identity, promotes positive self-esteem and helps them grow into confident, resilient adults. This Black History Month, and every month, celebrate diversity by sharing Stories of Hope on the Child Welfare Disparities Resource Center website.

American Humane Association is working to correct some of the inequities through our Child Welfare Disparities Resource Center, established to develop solutions that respond to the complex causes of inequities in the child welfare system. The center began in Colorado and has been broadened to address disparities in other states and to address this issue across the country.

More Than Just a ‘Good Hair Day’ — Connecting Across Cultures

Connecting Across CulturesIt’s always difficult for children who have been taken from their families and are living in foster care, are adopted by a new family, or live in a residential facility. Even more challenging is when children of color are placed with White foster and adoptive families. This happens often and creates special cultural challenges. Since our culture is predominantly White (consider the lack of characters of color in children’s media), it may be especially difficult for foster and adoptive parents to provide children of color with adequate exposure and interaction with their cultures of origin, and sometimes to assist the children with everyday needs.

I experienced this firsthand the first time I worked in human services. I had just graduated from college and took a job as an educational mental health worker at a local residential treatment care facility. I assisted a special education teacher in a therapeutic classroom of 8- to 12-year-olds. I had never been exposed to children who experienced abuse and neglect, and I was constantly learning new things about child trauma, development, resiliency, and the systems that serve children.

Sarah was 11 years old, and one of few African American girls at our facility. When she arrived, her behavior was so extreme that many of us felt unprepared to meet her emotional and behavioral needs. Sarah had experienced extensive abuse and neglect during her development, and the effects on her behavior were significant. She would often act out in dangerous ways, and children and staff soon became fearful of her. Sarah was violent and would often injure herself and others in an attempt to cope with overwhelming anger and frustration. Because she was in my class, I spent nearly 8 hours a day with her. After awhile, I was at a loss for behavioral interventions.

The girls in my class used to love to style staff’s hair or paint our nails. We would often use this as incentive for completing school work. Sometimes the class would earn “spa” parties for positive behaviors. We would spread nail polish and hair accessories out on the table, and everyone would fix each other up. Despite the spa parties, I noticed that, over time, Sarah’s hair became more and more tangled, brittle and matted to her scalp.

I mentioned Sarah’s matted hair to her one day, and she told me she had a grocery bag of products, tools and accessories for her hair. I was surprised because I thought her hair looked the way it did because the residences were ill-equipped to meet the hygienic needs of African American hair. It seemed that the only difficulty was that nobody was taking responsibility for Sarah’s grooming and hygiene. Maybe staff, who were predominantly white, were unsure of how to care for African American hair, perhaps they thought her hair was OK as it was, or perhaps her extreme behavior provided little opportunity for staff to help her with her grooming. I asked Sarah if she would like me to help her with her hair, and she was ecstatic. We looked at pictures on the internet, and she showed me the style she liked. We spent the next 6 hours washing, conditioning, brushing, combing and styling her hair.

I had never styled African American hair, but with her instruction and guidance, the finished product looked great. She looked like a different child. She was proud, and spent the rest of the day showing her new style off to staff and her peers. I saw this positive response as an opportunity to encourage her to have better behavior, and agreed to style her hair weekly if she could agree to be safe with peers and staff. Reminding her of our weekly “salon” sessions often proved effective.

I continued to work with Sarah until I left the treatment center several months later to start graduate school. We continued to use one-on-one hygiene time with staff as a behavior intervention. The connection between Sarah’s hair and self-esteem was obvious — when she felt that she looked good, she was more motivated to improve and sustain her behavior. Overlooking this seemingly insignificant part of caring for Sarah was likely a contributing factor to her destructive actions. Before leaving, I made sure other staff knew how to care for her hair, and thanked Sarah for all she had taught me — not just about hair care. Sarah reminded me of why I love this work — connecting with people and positively impacting one another is essential when working towards a more just, equitable society.

Black History Month reminds us of the long way we, as a society, have come in the fight for equal rights for all. However, there are still many inequities that must be remedied in order to move forward as one human family. American Humane Association is working to correct some of the inequities in the child welfare system through its Disparities Resource Center.

The overall focus of the Child Welfare Disparities Resource Center is to develop solutions that respond to the complex causes of inequities in the child welfare system. The center works to increase awareness among county department managers of the actual levels of disparities in child protective services by monitoring the development of state and county plans and by obtaining and using data from an automated system that tracks all child protection cases in the state.
The center began in Colorado as a project to provide accurate accounts of the disproportion of families and children of color in Colorado’s system, as well as disparities in the state’s child welfare services. We have since broadened the center’s scope to apply the knowledge gained in Colorado to address disparities in other states and address this issue across the country.

A Level Playing Field: Essential for the Super Bowl and for America’s Families

Why is American Humane Association — the nation’s voice for the protection of children & animals –discussing the Super Bowl, the most anticipated and highly celebrated annual sporting event in the U.S.? Is there really a connection between this great event and child abuse and neglect? Read on…

As our nation nears Super Bowl XLV Sunday, two storybook National Football League (NFL) teams — the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers — will compete to be crowned the best in their sport. Two teams with loyal followers — one group eats kielbasas and twirls terrible towels (made in Wisconsin, by the way) and the other eats brats and wears cheese on their heads. Millions from over 175 countries will tune in to watch the culminating game of America’s favorite pastime, the NFL. Sorry, Major League Baseball, but you have been bumped, whether you admit it or not.

The storylines will be many. The pinnacle and tenacious play of quarterbacks: Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who replaced the beloved and despised Brett Favre (every football fan has an opinion about his retirements and unretirements), and Steeler’s Big Ben Roethlisberger, who this season sprung back from a four-game suspension for off-field conduct detrimental to the NFL. Or perhaps, it will be the impressive defenses — Pittsburgh’s steel curtain and Green Bay’s fastest team in the league. Maybe it will be Pittsburgh’s experience vs. Green Bay’s youth, as the Packers sport the youngest team. It’s the team owned by 120,000 community shareholders (Packers) vs. the team with the most Super Bowl rings (Steelers). Does America resonate with the notion that the smallest NFL market team — Green Bay, a city of a measly 100,000 — is playing another small market team for the championship? In the NFL, a city’s size and team’s spending capital aren’t the tipping point for success. Sorry, New York.

Given that Americans are obsessed with sports that are deeply knitted into the everyday fabric of daily life, from youth sports leagues to hundreds of radio and television channels airing sporting events from around the world, perhaps the Super Bowl also represents an opportunity for our society to take pause to reflect upon one of the social issues plaguing this great nation and affecting many players, coaches and others associated with this sport — child maltreatment and foster care. As our society becomes more mobile, there is a tendency for geography to create distance and to minimize connectedness within families. The location of kin (which is defined to include paternal, maternal, extended family or others who are defined by the family as having a close supportive personal relationship) becomes essential to the physical and emotional well-being of children. That being said, however, the engagement of families who have children in the foster care system is often lacking, especially the engagement and involvement of non-resident fathers and paternal kin.

The 2010 Academy Award-winning movie The Blindside, which portrayed the life of Baltimore Raven’s player Michael Oher, riveted the nation, showcasing his real-life experiences of growing up neglected. While there are other retired and current NFL players who have suffered maltreatment and lived in foster care, including Dante Culpepper (retired, Minnesota Vikings); Keith Bulluck (Tennessee Titans); Michael Lehan (retired Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns), Ricky Watters (retired San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Seattle Seahawks); Anthony Hargrove (New Orleans Saints); and Justin Tuck (NY Giants), they represent a miniscule fraction of those who have experienced foster care. Annually, in America, there are more than 420,000 children and youths who live in foster care, and hundreds of thousands who are maltreated. We can learn from these players’ experiences, as collectively, their stories demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit; the importance of families and caring adults in supporting the growth and development of children; the pain of separation, attachment and loss that many children experience; and the need of every human being to have forever connections and support.

So, on Feb. 6, 2011, the two teams will gather in Dallas to play the Super Bowl. They will compete on a neutral field, one that gives no advantage to either team. There is no home team. Why is this important? Because research shows that across all major sports, the home team wins 75% of the time, giving it a distinct advantage to win its matches, games or competitions. The visitors must overcome crowd noise, energy and momentum, climate changes, jet lag, and an array of other factors to win. Since 1967 — the first year of the Super Bowl, where the Green Bay Packers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy — the playing field has been considered fair to both teams. While in 2011, there will be frenzied fans, dressed in their team’s colors and cheering loudly, each team will have nearly the same conditions to overcome to secure the victory. And, in America, we wouldn’t want it any other way — the most critical game of the year — should not favor one team, or controversy would embroil the outcome.

So, given our desire for a fair match in the Super Bowl, shouldn’t America’s families have the same opportunity for a fair playing field when it comes to our nation’s child welfare policies? Currently, child welfare agencies are advantaged when children come to their attention. The professionals know the game because the agencies have constructed the rules, agendas and processes, and they are paid to play it. But for parents and for extended family members (if the child welfare agency invests the energy to find them), it is likely a very confusing and intimidating experience. Often these parents, extended family and community members are relegated to the sidelines. And, while on the sidelines, they aren’t reviewing the secret playbook or still pictures of the previous plays, or wearing technologically advanced headsets to listen to advice from their coaches. They sit on the sidelines looking dejected, confused and isolated, just like controversial Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler during the NFC Championship game this year.

But there is a demonstrated, effective and innovative way to level the playing field in child welfare. It’s called family group decision making (FGDM). In more than 20 nations, champions and leaders are recognizing the power, wisdom and expertise of family groups and inviting them to partner in decision making about their children. A home team of supporters is assembled for each child, with moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, cousins, community members, neighbors, friends and others with connections to the family, gathering together to create plans to keep the children safe and stable. Leveling the playing field — and giving families a voice in what happens to their children through FGDM — is making a positive difference for children. The results are impressive.

As the nation celebrates this Super Bowl and many more to come, American Humane Association will continue to advocate for reform that creates a fair, understandable playing field for children and families who come to the attention of child welfare agencies. We figure that if a level playing field is essential for a football game, then it should be an absolute requirement for our social policies — that is, if we value families as much as or more than we honor sports competitions.

Prevent Bullying and Celebrate ‘No Name-Calling Week’

Prevent Bullying and Celebrate 'No Name-Calling Week'Did you know that suicide is the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 14 and 24?

Sadly, in the past year alone, many young people have ended their lives as a result of being bullied or cyber bullied by their peers. Because of these tragedies, bullying is attracting more and more national attention.

The week of Jan. 24-28 marks the eighth annual No Name-Calling Week, described on the project’s website as seeking to “focus national attention on the problem of name-calling in schools, and to provide students and educators with the tools and inspiration to launch an ongoing dialogue about ways to eliminate name-calling in their communities.”

In late 2010, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and President Barack Obama made public statements expressing sorrow over the recent suicides of four young men who chose to take their own lives as a result of anti-gay bullying: Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas and Seth Walsh. Both Secretary Sebelius and President Obama voiced their support of the It Gets Better Project and for all people who are targeted every day for simply being themselves.

Any child can be a target of bullying, but those most commonly bullied are children and youths who are deemed “different” in some way. Many youths and children are bullied based on their appearance — body size, disability, or race/ethnicity — but two-thirds of young people report being verbally or physically harassed based on their sexual orientation and gender expression or identity. According to the It Gets Better Project , youths who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) or who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity are 2 to 3 times more likely to be bullied than are heterosexual youths, and they are nearly 4 times as likely to attempt suicide[1]. These youths are forced to accept (or see others accept) the use of derogatory anti-gay slurs approximately once every 14 minutes, and they often do not feel safe in confiding their own experiences, for fear of having to disclose their sexual orientation and/or gender identity to others[2].

[1] It Gets Better Project. Retrieved January 6, 2011 from http://www.itgetsbetter.org/pages/about-it-gets-better-project/
[2] Bart, M. Creating a safer school for gay students. Counseling Today, September, 1998.

Even more disheartening is that, with advancements in technology, every type of bullying has become easier and faster. Cyber bullying (using technology to intimidate someone, make fun of them, or spread private information about them) can be done anonymously and can be sent to many other children very quickly. Any teen can be affected by this new phenomenon, and the ramifications to a young person’s psyche when this type of bullying occurs can be even more damaging than in-person bullying, due to its wide scope and anonymity.

The effects of bullying and cyber bullying can be very painful and dramatic for youths, and the effects are concerning. When students don’t feel safe at school, they skip classes or drop out altogether, which causes their education to suffer. Children who are taunted by their peers grow up with low self-esteem and don’t have the confidence to reach their full potential later in life. The worst possible consequence — teen suicide — has been far too prevalent recently.

As a society, we must continue to think about what can be done to prevent bullying and cruelty to all living things, including people, animals and the natural environment. Some might say it’s the responsibility of schools to take charge and handle the problem of bullying. While it’s very important that schools do not tolerate bullying or discrimination of any kind, schools can only have so much influence over children, especially with cyber bullying available outside of school at all hours of every day. In addition, while we need to focus on how to help those who are bullied, it’s also important to keep in mind that the offending youth/bully may also be in need of support, as the bullying behavior may stem from his or her own traumatic experiences.

So, what can be done to solve this problem?

The best resource available for bullying prevention is you.

You, as a parent, friend, ally, teacher, coach, community member, aunt or uncle, sibling or cousin can have a dramatic effect on those closest to you by demonstrating kindness and acceptance of others’ differences. Also, by standing up and advocating for those who are treated poorly or differently because of who they are, you are sending the message to all those around you — including those harmed — that everyone deserves respect and that diversity should be celebrated, not targeted.

We at American Humane Association would love to see a world where every week is No Name-Calling Week; where every child feels safe, special and accepted for exactly who he or she is; where caregivers and teachers consistently advocate on behalf of the children they live and work with; where children are raised to respect people, animals and nature; and where prejudice, discrimination and violence are never tolerated.

Children and youths learn from those around them. The best way to teach young people to be kind and accepting is to demonstrate it — day in and day out — by living it yourself.

American Humane Association is currently in the process of developing resources on bullying prevention and intervention. For more specific tips on how you can get involved to help bring bullying to an end, please check back with us in the early spring, or contact us at info@americanhumane.org.

Learn more about No Name-Calling Week.

Learn how American Humane Association’s Humane Education Program can help teach kindness toward people, animals and the environment.

Resources on Bullying Prevention