The Power of Stories

(Originally published April 2018)

Stories have an extraordinary capacity to both reflect and shape social attitudes. Stories can be emotionally compelling in a way that data or research studies rarely are. Stories do not have to contain balanced information, perspective or rational argument, and often contain accurate factual information combined with fictional elements which are difficult to disentangle (see The Darkest Hour, a dramatization of Winston Churchill's actions in 1940). Stories are an effective way of conveying biases through language, characterization and a storyteller's selective attention while maintaining a pretense of objectivity.  Stories can be used for good or bad ends, for example compare the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe that intensified anti-slavery sentiment in the decade preceding the civil war, with D.W. Griffith's racist movie, Birth of a Nation (1915), which glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

 

Consider the following stories which have appeared in popular TV series in recent years:

 

  • In an early season 1 episode of Longmire (2012-17), an A&E series about a Wyoming sheriff, his department and the proximate Native American reservation, the sheriff investigates the disappearance and kidnapping of Native American children placed in a local group home and the murder of the group home's director. The culprit turns out to be the director of county's child welfare agency which has been removing Native American children from their parents based on exaggerated, flimsy allegations of child abuse and neglect, while pocketing thousands of dollars paid by the state and federal government for the care of these children. The story line includes the claim that the county child welfare agency is paid an additional $700 per month per child for the care of Native American children. The evil child welfare director gives herself up despite the lack of evidence that would hold up in a criminal trial after the sheriff implicitly threatens her with the wrath of Native American vigilantes!    

  • In the 6th season of Homeland (2017), a drama about a bi-polar former CIA agent, a caseworker in New York City's CPS system cooperates with a rogue faction of the CIA  to remove the main character's pre-school child after she leaves the child for a few hours in the care of a brain damaged, ex-CIA agent and assassin, who is then falsely charged with holding the child hostage. The bi-polar mother (and spy) is forced to defend herself in court while the CPS caseworker discusses her case with a leader of the rogue CIA faction, which is seeking to overturn the Presidential election by all means fair or foul.

 

 

In these TV series, child welfare professionals are stigmatized as a plot device to provide villains and suggest conspiracies among powerful organizations.  However, what is most striking is not the script writers' willingness to make up far fetched stories about child welfare villains, but their refusal to imagine fleshed out child welfare characters. In both Longmire and Homeland, child welfare staff appear briefly, say only a few words, and are mainly foils for the outrage of the sheriff or the desperation of the obsessed and driven ex-CIA agent.  These two shows have zero interest in child welfare, but they suggest a distressing cultural development: it's become acceptable for storytellers to stigmatize child welfare caseworkers and administrators without apology or a second thought, and without having to create interesting  antagonists. The child welfare characters in these two shows are stick figures who embody or represent malign forces. The script writers have wasted no energy in imagining their perspectives or portraying the organizations in which they work.  

 

The inability or refusal to imagine the lives of child welfare staff compared to the seemingly unlimited fascination of script writers with law enforcement officers is striking.  In TV shows, movies and novels, there are good cops, bad cops, racist cops, vigilante cops,  bureaucratic functionaries and corrupt administrators, heroes and detectives with formidable investigative skills, e.g., Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, an LAPD homicide detective and then ex-detective in later books in the series. The world of law enforcement is a fully imagined world in popular stories, which is not to say that these portrayals of police and other investigators are necessarily accurate. Furthermore, where would screen writers and movie directors in the U.S. be without gangsters? Tony Soprano's panic attacks, his family loyalties that extend even to an uncle who attempts to have him assassinated, his lust, cruelty, and will to dominate are elements of a fully imagined person and social milieu in The Soprano's. I have heard the claim that mobsters loved The Godfather for obvious reasons: the movie humanized them, e.g,  making spaghetti for the top echelon of a mob family while plotting the death of enemies! 

 

The unwillingness to present child welfare professionals as persons extends to non-fiction stories. In August 2017, Larissa MacFarquhar, a staff writer for the New Yorker, published an article titled “When Should A Child Be Taken From His Parents,” a detailed account of the removal of children from a low income mother in New York City following an accidental injury with a curling iron of the mother's 11 month old child. Several years of court involvement, foster care, service plans, reunification and re-entry into care follow. MacFarquhar's story is written from the mother's perspective of her struggles with the arbitrary power of a punitive agency eager to place her children in a foster care system that serves them poorly, to put it mildly. MacFarquhar explores this troubled young mother's life and circumstances at length, and her article includes appealing descriptions of a family court judge and public defenders. In contrast, caseworkers and other public agency staff are referred to as “the agency” or A.C.S.. They are viewed as the agents of an agency that polices the parenting of poor families with a heavy hand; they are not presented as characters in this story.

 

At one point, the author briefly mentions that the number of children in foster care in New York City has declined to 9,000 on any one day from 50,000 a couple of decades ago, one of the most remarkable stories in recent child welfare history.  MacFarquhar has nothing to say regarding how the City's child welfare system reduced its foster care population by more than 80% over two decades, nor does this large decline in out-of-home care mitigate the injustice meted out by A.C.S. on low income families, in her view. Stories do not have to be fair or balanced to pack an emotional punch. In fact, a broader consideration of child welfare trends in New York City might cause readers to wonder whether there is some part of New York City's child welfare picture that has been cut out of the frame in this New Yorker story.

 

Can better PR influence social attitudes toward child welfare? 

 

Periodically, heads of human services umbrella agencies and top child welfare administrators decide that the way to change public attitudes regarding child welfare is by disseminating a steady stream of positive stories regarding child welfare actions and programs.  After all, decades of mainly negative stories following child deaths regarding the failure to protect seriously abused children, or the unnecessary disruption of troubled families, have created a cultural milieu in which child welfare staff can be casually stigmatized and treated as non-persons. Perhaps these administrators believe that a full court press of positive stories will counterbalance negative child welfare stories that undermine political support for child welfare. I read daily child welfare news bulletins issued by the Child Welfare Gateway. These news bulletins often include stories regarding innovative programs for youth aging out-of-care, or about “baby courts”, or mentoring programs for birth mothers seeking reunification with their children,  as well as other praiseworthy and promising programs.  Soporific stories regarding the improvement of a state's child welfare system on standard performance indicators appear periodically.  From 2000-2012,  the story preferred by child welfare directors was of a steady reduction in foster care and of the redirection of resources to family support services and family centered practice models. Many recent stories in these daily bulletins concern the nation's opioid epidemic and it's effect on child welfare systems.

 

During recent years, I cannot remember reading a single positive story about a child welfare caseworker or supervisor employed at the time by a public child welfare agency. Stories regarding the perspectives of child welfare staff who have retired or left child welfare due to frustration with unreasonable demands of child welfare agencies are occasionally published; it seems that ex-child welfare staff are credible in a way that current staff are not.  Apparently, public relation departments of public agencies do not believe there is much interest in stories about child welfare practitioners, but these are the stories most needed to recruit and retain a qualified work force, and to undo the stigmatization of child welfare staff in public opinion.  Stories that humanize child welfare staff and depict them helping children and parents in difficult circumstances are urgently needed to communicate the positive potential of child welfare employment.  The almost complete absence of these stories suggests that top child welfare managers have little or no interest in the challenges and achievements of practitioners who deliver agency services. Their interest is usually in stories about the success of reform initiatives and innovative programs, stories that will enhance their reputation and political influence.  However, these are not the stories that have the greatest potential to change social attitudes regarding child welfare.  Public opinion is affected by stories of sacrifice, courage, caring and commitment, for example, teachers buying school supplies for their students, police moving toward danger in a shooting rather than protecting themselves, doctors and nurses who work in hospitals in war zones. There are many such stories in child welfare, but someone has to care enough to tell them.       

 

Tell a Better Story 

 

Every major type of human activity has an imaginative dimension: food intake, education,

romance, sex, marriage, parenting, recovery from serious illness or injury, artistic creation, spirituality, death and dying and, of course, work.  Readers who have had near death experiences due to illness, accident, assault or war may recall that the mind's narrative capacity continues up to (and possibly through) one's last dying breath. Recovery from any debilitating condition almost always includes the giving up of an understandable but dysfunctional story for a helpful story that opens up new and better possibilities.

 

The conditions that afflict child welfare practitioners mirror to a remarkable degree the conditions that afflict the children and families served by child welfare agencies:

 

  • inadequate resources

  • impossible demands

  • social stigma

  • disempowerment and demoralization, i.e., hopeless/ helpless attitudes

 

Child welfare case histories of troubled families are replete with stories of victimization, villainy, trauma and helplessness.  These stories often have a strong factual basis, but they disable those who base their identity on them.  What is needed are stories than can animate a healing process while acknowledging the truth of the past: 

 

  1. Victims become agents, for example through treatment, community mobilization, protest, truth telling, legal action or other means.

  2. Villains become humans through the in-depth understanding and compassion of helpers.

  3. Demoralization becomes empowerment, i.e., hopeless/ helpless is replaced by a fighting spirit.  (see Crucial Conversations, Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Patterson, et al, 2012)

 

Unfortunately, I have yet to find a great published memoir by a child welfare practitioner, certainly nothing that approaches the quality of Elizabeth Ford's, Sometimes Amazing Things Happen, regarding her work as a psychiatrist with mentally ill felons in New York City's Bellevue Hospital.  Ford's astonishing story is about compassion lost, compassion regained, about fortitude, perseverance and the determination to provide humane treatment to frequently violent, mentally ill men convicted of crimes (often major crimes), especially patients viewed as despicable by many of the security staff, nurses and psych residents.  In the absence of a great book or two, experienced child welfare professionals need to step forward to offer the stories that animated and inspired their child welfare careers.

 

The story that resonates most deeply with me is of joining with like minded peers in a unit focused on finding ways around an inept bureaucracy, and developing partnerships with community professionals in other agencies to increase expertise and gain access to resources and services urgently needed by children and families, while learning from every painful experience and bad outcome.  This is a story that has played out in Washington State's child welfare system on numerous occasions in past years.  It can be enacted again, but not by playing it safe and not “by looking good at the expense of being good,” to quote Jonathan Shay's critique of the misuse of metrics within the military. Furthermore, if our society's professional storytellers lack an interest in child welfare stories that contain fleshed out (albeit morally flawed) persons, then practitioners and retired veterans must tell their own stories in whatever formats are available.

 

References 

 

Ford, E., Sometimes Amazing Things Happen: Heartbreak and Hope on the Bellevue Psychiatric Prison Ward, Regan Arts, 2017.  

 

MacFarquhar, L., “When Should A Child Be Taken From His Parents?,” The New Yorker, August 17, 2017.

 

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R. & Switzler, R., Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High,  McGraw Hill, 2012.

 

Shay, J., Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, Scribner, 2002.

 

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