A friend from Facebook posted a note about his neighbor last week. He came home to find the four year old home alone with no adult in sight. He went on to write that he stayed with her and in four hours, no adult appeared. At some point, he called the police. The result was that the little girl was taken away, he presumed to foster or shelter care. The next morning, she returned home to the custody of her mother. He was upset, obviously, for the safety of the little girl but also that ‘the system’ appeared to have done little by way of intervention. Several Facebook friends chimed in to expressed dismay, anger, and empathy for the child and the friend caught in the middle of ‘bad parenting’.
One the one hand, my immediate thought was that he did want needed to be done…that is, called authorities regarding suspected child abandonment. This is what the child welfare system is supposed to do, evaluate a situation and take action, if necessary, to protect vulnerable children. But I also considered an alternate scenario with a very different ending.
I imagine a program that trains ‘neighborhood ambassadors’, or ‘community stewards’. In that world, neighbors would become the ‘village’ that shares in raising children and supporting parents. In the above situation, the situation would play out as follows. My friend, along with a few dozen other people in his neighborhood would be trained as ambassadors or stewards. This would include information on abuse and neglect and protecting children. It would also include skill building in non-confrontive community resolution. In this scenario my friend would ensure the safety of the child, first and foremost. They would also call another person who has been trained in this process, to arrange a meeting with the parent involved. During this meeting, they would express their concern about the well-being of the child. They would share information on parenting resources, community supports, and invite the parent to call on ambassadors for assistance when needed. The process might include a social worker from a ‘community action agency’ or other NGO in the area. Of course, the community partners/stewards/ambassadors would be trained to recognize potentially dangerous situations that would call for professional intervention by law enforcement.
In my ‘perfect’ world of villages raising children, the neighborhood would problem-solve with the parent to ensure the safety and well-being of the child. There would be the safety net of trained community members available to be the eyes and ears, and protectors, of vulnerable children. It may not always work out ideally but I believe there are some situations in which parents would appreciate empathetic neighbors expressing concern and willingness to be a partner in parenting. It certainly seems friendlier than the ‘whistle-blower’ approach in which law enforcement, child protective services, and/or family courts intervene. And it definitely would be less traumatic than foster care.
I suspect this program or something like it exists somewhere. Or at least I hope so. If not, maybe we, my neighbors and community, can think about starting something. In our child welfare revolution, or evolution, foster care would be a rare event and happy, healthy, well-cared for children would be the norm, along with strong, supportive communities and neighborhoods.