Child advocates and state lawmakers are demanding answers after several recent high profile cases of extreme child abuse in Kansas City. The most recent case, involving a Northland teen who was handcuffed to a pole the family’s basement, brings up questions about Missouri's child welfare system.
According to the Kansas City Star, the teenage boy suffered from bipolar disorder and ADHD. In the past four years, his father and stepmother phoned several domestic violence calls to police in regard to the teen’s behavior. His stepmother told police that when she had gone to feed him, he would verbally abuse her and kick her. His father added that the family were out of solutions when they ran out of the teen’s medication, and that handcuffing was just a temporary fix.
The teen told The Kansas City Star that his father took him out of school in September in order to home-school him, but instead locked him in the basement. The boy was restricted to three scant meals a day, with regimented bathroom breaks. His father first handcuffed him to a bed frame, but after he escaped a couple of times, his father and stepmother handcuffed him to an upright pole in the basement. Currently, the boy is under foster care protection, and three people, including his parents, were charged with child abuse.
But how does a difficult parenting situation come to this?
Joe Beck, vice president of Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, says that it's often difficult for families to navigate the system to access services they need, and parents can get overwhelmed.
On walking the line between judging parents’ behavior, and understanding the difficult circumstances:
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the parents made very poor decisions in that situation, but…I think it’s easy to say, ‘this tragedy could have been avoided,’ but we don’t know what the parents had been through and we don’t know what the child had been through and what challenges he had faced in accessing services. Most mental health services for a child 17 years of age are voluntary and if he didn’t feel like he had a problem, or needed help, that might disqualify him from getting the help that he needed…it’s very difficult to force someone to get assistance when they’re not asking for it, or wanting the help.”
On police training and involvement:
“Law enforcement is doing a much better job of training their law enforcement officers on mental health needs, however it’s still a unique situation that many of the officers on the street don’t understand how to manage it. Frequently, mental health symptoms look like a child who’s just being defiant or obstinate. And I think it’s a challenge to find the balance between where’s the risk and safety factors and should this parent be able to manage this?”
On the reasons why parents restrict a child’s food:
“A lot of times in abuse cases, it’s about power and control. And for parents who are out of equilibrium, they’re lives are out of balance. They’re struggling to find control, and sometimes in order to improve the situation they feel, ‘if I can control this thing that they need, then in some way, I’ll be able to get them to comply with what I’m asking them to do.” Sometimes there are real risk factors, sometimes there are perceived risk factors, but abuse is about power and control. And when parents feel like they’re losing control, they will go to drastic measures to find a way to control a child’s behavior to get them to comply with their requests.”
On the reduction of residential treatment programs:
“Frequently, people feel like, if there was just somewhere that this child could go, they could solve the problem. The reality is residential treatment is extraordinarily expensive and not necessarily the most effective way in managing behaviors. People deserve to live in the least restrictive environment, so in situations like that, you create a perfect storm, where the systemic knowledge that residential treatment isn’t the most effective treatment combined with the reality that there are some very difficult children to manage, it creates a dip in resources that are available, and they create barriers to accessing those resources at times. I don’t think it’s anybody’s intention to make the system worse, however, in an effort to reduce cost and improve quality of care, they’ve eliminated valuable resources of residential care in both Kansas and Missouri.”