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Blistein: Guarding Our Children

You may have heard that the number of children in custody in Vermont is increasing year after year. Most of us see that as a problem. And we can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, some magic combination of new laws, regulations, trainings, and rehab programs would go a long way to solve it - as if this “problem” were some kind of megalithic nut we could crack if only we had a big enough hammer. But for the last eight years, I’ve had the opportunity to see the situation from the inside, in all its frustrating complexity.

As a Guardian ad Litem in Windham County, I represent the best interests of children involved in the Family Court system - either because they’re in the custody of the Department of Children and Families - DCF - or trapped between divorced parents engaged in power struggles so complex they’d make Solomon’s head spin.

We work with infants born to addicted parents, parents struggling with addicted teenagers, and kids who’ve been in some nasty fights, done serious property damage, or stopped going to school - and some who are in treatment for sexualized behaviors that redefine the word, “inappropriate.”

Often these children are at risk for suicide. Or have significant learning differences. And many, too many, have been abused or neglected.

We spend time with way-overworked DCF investigators and case managers as well as lawyers, therapists, teachers, psychologists, and social workers. We go to team meetings, school meetings and court hearings. We visit jails, residential treatment facilities, and the homes of foster parents whose willingness to open their doors to some very troubled children amazes me.

So when I hear people talk about what DCF, the courts, police, mental-health system, schools, and legislature should be doing, I wish they could spend some time with someone in the so-called system. They’d see pretty quickly that solutions to the challenges these families face — and by extension all of us - are not that simple. That at least if you’re over 30, things have really changed since we were kids.

Usually, we just have to shake our heads and hope for the best. Often, we get insights that shift the sand beneath long-held opinions, perspectives, and prejudices.

And once in a while, we get to see a child's life transformed in remarkable ways.

It goes without saying - but bears repeating - that these kids need us. The really surprising thing is that, in many ways, we need them just as much.

David Blistein is a writer from Brattleboro who is currently working on a book about adolescent mental health and drug issues.
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