A couple of months ago, I was sent a poem written by Danielle, an 11-year-old in foster care. In her words, "There was once a tree full of apples which was my family. Then one day I fell off. Some grownups came and put me in a pear tree. Then I fell off "
I was swept away by the power of that simple metaphor, a child's interpretation of uncertainty and loss.
For nine years I've worked for The National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a national organization of trained volunteers who speak up for abused and neglected children. The goal is to give those kids a chance to grow up in safe, permanent homes. I've learned a lot of troubling information about how "the system" operates. I've amassed staggering statistics about children who have been harmed. I've read news reports and watched videos that have literally left me sobbing.
I recall my attempts, as I was growing up and starting to figure out the way the world worked, to make sense of what I could lump into the category of evil. I'd read about slavery and the Holocaust and tried to wrap my mind around these horrors. It seemed as if it should be so easy to correct these wrongs with knowledge, that such perpetrators were ignorant and misguided, that there was a solution.
Now I know more about human behavior, psychosis, inter-generational abuse, and a host of other explanations. Now I know there are no easy solutions, that it's all more complex than most people realize. But what has stayed with me through these years - a sort of touchstone as I argue policies and fight for resources - is the same thing that keeps our volunteers so impassioned and committed: the individual child.
I'm talking about what the child feels and thinks, how she has dealt with abuse, sorrows, and heartbreak at being separated from brothers and sisters. I'm talking about the child's hopes for the future and need to be safe in a loving home.
From my formerly naive perspective, I believed that if anyone - governor, judge, social worker, senator - could look into the eyes of one of these children, they would fight like anything to obtain what was best for that child. The fact that it is not easy - there's not enough time, money, training - doesn't mean despair and frustration are the only possible responses.
At a recent meeting, an Arkansas judge made the point that our work on behalf of these children must be a sustained effort.
The word "sustained" resonated with me. A once-a-year donation of a toy, or an annual contribution because it's April, Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month, are not enough. The effort must move forward day in and day out. It has to be persevering. It has to refuse to be dissuaded. It has to be shared by all of us. So a little bit of extra attention may be paid to abused kids in April, to remind people that more than half a million children live in foster care, most abused or neglected by people who are supposed to love them.
I've found that those kids are pretty much invisible to the general public. Yet I still believe that if ordinary people could listen to these children, hear their stories and look into their faces, they would take that next step and act.
There are dozens of ways you can help move those kids toward safe, loving homes. You don't have to tackle the whole complex problem; you can make a profound difference in the life of one child.
Is Danielle going to find a permanent home before her childhood is over? At the end of her poem, she says, "It's up to you." I can't think of a more eloquent way to state the truth.
* Mercedes Lawry is communications director for The National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association in Seattle. She writes children's stories for the audio magazine "Shoofly."