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March 14, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Here’s a fine op-ed by the actress, Patty Duke (Seattle Times, 3/5/14). Duke became a child actress at an early age, starring in the role of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, first on Broadway and then in the motion picture of the same name. She won an academy award for her portrayal of the blind and deaf Keller, becoming at the time the youngest person ever to win an Oscar.

But, as she describes in her op-ed, her success on the stage and screen obscured a life that was coming apart at the seams. Duke suffered from what is now known as bipolar disorder, but her case in the 60s, went undiagnosed and untreated.

I was unknowingly living with undiagnosed manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder.

The fact that I’d been physically and emotionally abused as a child myself didn’t help. My father was an alcoholic. My mother suffered from chronic depression — so severe that she literally gave me away to live with my theatrical managers when I was only 8 years old. I remember wondering, “What did I do wrong?”

And my managers abused me, too. I never had a childhood. I just had acting jobs. And I was never allowed to go to friends’ houses where I might have seen what positive parenting looked like.

The chemical imbalance in my brain made it difficult to ask for help. I didn’t think I was acting crazy. I thought everyone else was. But finally, when I was in my 30s, a psychiatrist witnessed me in a manic episode and made the diagnosis that saved my life.

That terrible mental disorder made her a terrible mother, despite her desire to be loving, caring and nurturing.

The physical abuse I inflicted on my two sons, Sean and Mac, was bad enough. Rage-filled spankings. An angry backhand across the face. Smacks with a wooden spoon wherever I could land them.

But the emotional abuse was even worse. A sweet and loving mommy one minute, a snide and belittling banshee the next. My poor boys never knew if I was going to kiss them or kick them.

After each incident, I was filled with self-loathing. I swore I’d never do it again. But I did, even though I loved my children with all my heart.

Should Patty Duke have had her children taken from her, her parental rights terminated and her son’s placed in foster care? Today, many people would reflexively say “yes.” We live in a time in which judgment and condemnation are the preferred ways with which to analyze human behavior. That of course pleases the state no end. Judgment and condemnation are the stock in trade of the police power of the state and any era that offers them as the preferred way of dealing with human failing inevitably increases state power over its citizens.

Possess pot? Go to prison. Yell at your wife? Go to jail, have a restraining order issued against you and be taken from your children’s lives. Do what Patty Duke admits to doing? Have your kids sucked into the jaws of the foster care system.

The police power of the state is a blunt instrument often wielded by state agencies and agents concerned more with keeping their funding and jobs than doing the right thing, the constructive thing. So we see children whisked into foster care on the slimmest of pretexts. We see the New Mexico Legislature narrowly miss passing a law that would have required temporary foster care for every child in the state who has an injury, no matter how slight, that some caseworker thinks might have been caused by abuse.

The tendency of governments to enhance their own power at the expense of the governed (i.e. us), a process well known to our founding fathers, is seldom more apparent than in the current assault on families and family life. To her great credit, Patty Duke argues for another way, a better way, a more humane way, a way that would keep families together and maybe, just maybe, make them better.

That diagnosis [of bipolar disorder], and the medication and therapy that followed, also saved my relationship with my children. They forgave me. It took a lot longer for me to forgive myself. Eventually, I came to accept that while my mental illness was no excuse for my behavior, it was an explanation.

Because of what I put my kids through, I have compassion for other parents who do the same.

I’m not a Pollyanna. I know that there are real monsters who do unforgivable things to children. But I believe the majority of parents truly want to love and care for their kids. Mental illness, addiction or poor parenting role models stand in the way.

The foster-care system steps in to protect children. But states and communities should also step in with resources to help parents get the mental-health services or addiction treatment they need and to teach them how to be good parents.

When loving but flawed parents can safely be reunited with their children, families and society benefit. And when we go the extra mile to help parents, we break the cycle of abuse and neglect that can carry on for generations — just like it did for me.

We can all help by not only reporting abuse to authorities when we see it, but also by reaching out to struggling parents instead of judging them…

I will never forget the bad things I’ve done, but I live in the now and am grateful that modern science can give me a normal, fulfilling life. I want other parents to know that there is hope for them, too, if they are willing to face their demons and seek out the help that’s available to them.

What Duke is arguing for is what I’ve argued for time and again: a better way to treat parents who abuse or neglect their kids is to teach better parenting. That often means teaching them about the resources that are available to them. Many caseworkers admit that what many parents need is often just basic information. If they have a special-needs child, what services are available to help meet those needs? Other parents might need very simple information about constructive parenting techniques. Still others, like Duke, might need medication and psychotherapy. Children may need the same.

Our current system prefers taking children out of homes and placing them in foster care. The federal government pays hefty bonuses to states for every child adopted out of foster care or by their foster parents. That creates an incentive to take children from parents with the unsurprising result that states increase their efforts to remove children from their parents. The former head of North Dakota’s department overseeing its foster program admitted as much saying the federal program dramatically altered the way parents and children were assessed. As but one example, every single native-American child in the state is automatically labeled a “special needs” child. Why? Because the federal government pays over twice for the adoption of a special needs child as it does one without that label.

Now, it’s true that many states have adopted the policy of trying to keep children with their biological parents, and that’s step in the right direction. But if those parents need education, or other services about caring for their child, if they need medication or psychotherapy themselves like Patty Duke did, unfortunately, those services are in short supply. And anyway, undertrained, underpaid and overworked caseworkers aren’t the best people to decide who needs what.

In short, we need to do more than just intone the mantra that keeping kids with their parents is better than placing them in foster care. Usually it is, but that fact alone doesn’t make any particular home environment healthy for the children who live there.

Duke is right; most parents want to give their kids what they need to grow up healthy, happy and productive. Sadly, many of them aren’t able to give their children what they need. Yes, there are people who shouldn’t keep their kids. Foster care is the better alternative for those children. But in the great majority of cases, parents just need a little help. In the long run and the short, getting them that help will be better than opting for foster care.

It’ll be cheaper too. Foster care is expensive, requiring the state to not only pay the foster parents, but to provide oversight of them. It requires the termination of parental rights, so there’s the cost of lawyers and judges the state has to pay. And children in foster care are notoriously likely to cause the state problems in other areas long after they’ve “aged out” of the system. Problems like increased crime and illegal drug use are yet other costs to the state of taking children from parents.

Of course there’s no easy fix for the problem of abused and neglected children. We’re never going to get this so right that no child is abused. But we can do better than we are – far better.

Thanks to Patty Duke for sharing her own personal trauma, and for showing a better way.

Thanks to Tim for the heads-up.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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