An Irish problem closer to home

Kevin Clarke| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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The revelations coming out of the inquiry into abuse in Ireland are gut- and soul-wrenching. It's easy to be appalled, not only at the behavior of the church (horrendous), but the abdication of the state of one of its most basic responsibilities to its citizens.

Part of what allowed this problem to metastasize in Ireland it seems to me is the nature of these children and the way society devalues them. No one spoke for them; no one represented their interests. They were throwaways, a revelation I had about the often deeply disturbed (because of abuse or neglect) children I worked with many years ago at a U.S. child care center (basically an orphanage and emergency placement facility).

While I am in no ways suggesting that anything like what happened in Ireland is happening to the 510,000 or so children in the U.S. foster/adoption system, abuse of these kids is not unknown either. We have seen the headlines of spectacular child abuse by individual foster parents or rogue child care agencies, and some studies have indicated that such problems can be much deeper in specific state or municipal systems.

But what really typifies the institutionalized kids here and in Ireland is the low priority placed on their long-term welfare. We have kids hidden away in institutions all across this country. We pay extremely low wages to the people who take care of these kids. We offer their caretakers sometimes slapdash training, then cross our fingers. But many of the children they are dealing with have severe psychological and emotional problems and are just not receiving anything close to the care adequate to their profound needs. 

At the agency I worked for, I did not see anything like the abuses referenced in the Irish inquiry. Most of the people who worked with these sometimes terribly difficult children were decent men and women (some had no business being near a child), but many weren't trained well, and we were all pretty overwhelmed by our responsibilities. Little real therapy was going on to salvage these kids. We prevented the kids from hurting each other, kept them clean and nourished. We kept the lid on--barely. That is all. And I suspect it's not much different today after many years of tightened social service spending.

What happened in Ireland decades ago is almost beyond comprehension, but don't kid yourselves into thinking that the kids are alright, right here in America, right now.