February 9, 2013
In middle school, my daughter had a friend who'd spent most of her life in foster care. During the next few years, the girl would pass through almost a dozen foster families, group homes and probation camps.
She had a habit of running away when she felt mistreated or ignored. She'd call us, and I'd drive over to pick her up from some street corner or bus stop. I'd bring her home, mother her for a few days, then talk her into returning to the system that she hated.
"You'll be fine," I remember promising her one night, as we pulled up in front of the North Hills residential center that would be her new home. It wasn't a bad place. I'd visited it. Nice staff, good classes, clean dorms.
She stared out my car window at the fenced-in complex, then asked, a challenge in her voice, "Would you want Danielle to live here?"
Danielle is my daughter. And no, I would not.
I couldn't bring myself to say that, but the silence spoke for me. She shouldered her backpack, brushed off my hug and slammed the car door.
I felt guilty, and wished I'd lied. But she would have seen through it. The truth had already played out in her life: What we are willing to accept for children like her would not be considered good enough for your child, or mine.
I've thought about that a lot these past few weeks, as I waded through a cascade of news about children harmed by exploitative adults and imperfect institutions.
It hurt to read about the foster kids handed over to an abusive woman who they say tortured them, the dozen students deputies say were abused by a teacher with a history of sexual misconduct complaints, and the priest accused of molestation who was protected by the Los Angeles Archdiocese and then employed to work with families by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
And I can't help but wonder if these cases would have turned out differently if someone had asked the grown-ups in charge what my daughter's friend asked me.
The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church just keeps getting uglier. Not only were alleged molester priests propped up by church leaders, but one was hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District to do "community outreach." District officials knew that defrocked priest Joseph Pina had been accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl, but kept him on the payroll for 10 years.
Is the school district really so hard up for employees that it's willing to hire as a community organizer a priest who fell in love with an eighth-grade girl when he saw her in a Snow White costume?
Meanwhile, a Los Angeles elementary school teacher was jailed last month, charged with sexually abusing 12 little girls, most of them in his classroom. The children told their parents, who contacted the LAPD. Investigating detectives believe there are more than 20 victims.
The teacher, Robert Pimentel, had been accused of "inappropriately touching" children multiple times over the past 10 years. But his principal apparently turned a blind eye to complaints. She never reported them to authorities, as required by child abuse laws, and retired — her pension intact — before she could be fired.
Then there's the Palmdale woman charged last month with torturing 7- and 8-year-old siblings she'd cared for as a foster parent. Ingrid Brewer had been encouraged by social workers to adopt the children, though warning signs were clear.
She'd been accused of mistreating eight children, and injuring some, during five years as a foster mother. Social workers noted that the siblings seemed wary and Brewer seemed unable to bond with them or handle their behavior problems.
But the adoption was approved, Brewer kept getting her monthly checks and social workers closed their file. No one, it seems, bothered to ask the children what they thought about it.
Until last month, when the kids ran away and were discovered hiding under a blanket on cold pavement, a few blocks from Brewer's home. The siblings told sheriff's deputies they been locked in their rooms, bound with zip ties, deprived of food, and punished with a hammer and electrical cords.
I know we won't ever rid society of predators and perverts. There will always be abusive parents, warped teachers and callous bureaucrats.
I understand that there aren't enough foster homes, that social workers are grievously overworked and unsupported. I know union rules protect teachers' rights, and snapping a fifth-grader's bra strap might not be considered a firing offense. I get that "innocent until proven guilty" can be taken to mean that it's OK to hire an admitted molester as long as he wasn't charged or convicted.
But none of that is any excuse for putting children in harm's way with irresponsible choices.
The social workers, church leaders, school principal and district officials may have been following rules designed to serve adults and guard institutions, but they should have tuned in to more basic instincts and protected vulnerable children.
We want to clear caseloads, sell school building programs, protect a campus from embarrassment or a church from scandal. So the children's needs get lost in the process; they're an abstract concept.
Now we read the newspaper stories and shake our heads. The incompetence, the carelessness ... What were those people thinking?
When you imagine your child at the center of the choice, the stakes rise and the questions change.
If the social workers had taken those kids to the park and asked what they thought of their new mom, if the principal had asked little girls privately if their teacher had ever touched them, if archdiocese officials had actually talked to young victims and stopped protecting grown-ups...
If they'd embraced those children as their own, their feelings might have led them to a very different outcome.