CHILDREN FIRST

In the past 5 years two young boys have been killed by parents.  These boys were not invisible they were seen and reported to us by teachers, family members and neighbors.  The system failed them; not one person; one social worker or a family member—-we as a society that says we care about the most vulnerable; we let these boys down.  We were not there for them when they needed us the most.

I reminded of the death of Elisa Izquierdo in New York City in Dec. 1995.   She was beaten to death in the apartment she shared with her mother and her step father.  Both mother and child were beaten while neighbors called for help but when none came they looked away from the screams coming from next door.

After her death,  Jonathan Kozol wrote an essay for Time Magazine where he  asked us all  to Spare the Cheap Grace.  Elisa Izquierdo was tortured to death  while the authorities  ignored the reports and neighbors grew tired and resigned after numerous requests for interventions.  He goes on to report “In the death zones of America’s postmodern ghetto, stripped of jobs and human services and sanitation, plagued by AIDS, Tuberculosis pediatric asthma and endemic clinical depression, largely abandoned by American physicians and devoid of the psychiatric services familiar in most middle-class communities, deaths like these are part of a predictable scenario.”

He could have been talking about the Antelope Valley here in Los Angeles County.  The question remains after almost twenty years;  do these children; minority poor children have value in our society?  For after we mourn their passing, or the headlines the law suits etc, do we go back to our ordinary world, lean back in our chairs and are grateful that it is someone else’s job to intervene and fix.     Perhaps our economy or our investment in either physical or mental health does not warrant an investment in the children and families of the poor or minority; or particularly in this day; the immigrant. These are not our children; they do not look like us or our neighbors—they are expendable!    We can safely blame the social worker; the bureaucracy or the parents—but we do little to take the responsibility to change the investment to keep children safe.  It is easier to look away and hope that someone will step up; but not us.

As Elie Weisel said in describing “Moral Indifference!”   It is in the knowing that something is wrong, terrible and unjust and doing nothing that true evil exists!   The idea that we have to embrace whatever power we have to advocate for children; poor, minority, undocumented or ignored—-is critical to bringing change to our society.  This is the moment when words take on the power of action; and action is required by those with the power to bring change.  If we ignore the moment we become part of the problem that results in the tortured deaths of small children.

These deaths of children in our County can galvanize the attention of the media— and for a small moment that of society; “That is so sad; how did that happen?”  all this before we move on…perhaps we have already moved on?

I am asking for us to focus on putting Children First….that inconvenience or money should not deter us….the lives of all children—yours, mine and theirs are all equally important and should be cherished and protected.   Unless they are a priority we will continue to let them die, be abused and neglected, grow up to live on the streets or in the penitentiary—we will look away  and practice moral indifference—hoping that no one will notice that we have looked away and practice surprise and chagrin when the plight of children is pointed out to us. “Of course we care.”  Is there a price to be placed on the life of a small Hispanic boy in the High Desert?

Being poor is lonely!”  Poverty is something most of us would love to see cured.  B ut most of us also realize that is impossible in the world we live in today.  Perhaps then we should find someone to blame say perhaps the social worker, the parent.  Poverty is absolutely  part of the equation, but being poor by itself does not lead to the deaths of children; isolation certainly does.  What we can do is prevent loneliness and isolation of the poor single mom or family; we can make certain that our services are always available to social and legal services; to medical providers, mental health professionals and first and foremost to families. Our mandate must be that….        Each child deserves a safe childhood and a chance to succeed!

Why is VIP different than other programs?

  • 15 years ago I was galvanized to seek change: I walked out of death review when Lance Helms’ murder was reviewed.  The statement that the system did not have a place to go to get a real answer to the question—“ Is Lance being abused by his father and is he in danger of being killed” forced us  to identify support to build a system that was always available to answer that question all the while seeking support for families so they did not need to lose their children.  The original funds came from First5LA and led to the creation of the County-wide “HUB” system that has provided a 24 hour expert answer to the question of whether a child is being abused or not and to promote an appropriate response.  These centers have transformed Los Angeles County.
    • Over the past 20 years the death by caretaker numbers have dropped from over 60 to 7 in 2017.
    • Foster care numbers have been cut by 50%.
  • Now it is clear that this system works when it is applied appropriately across the County available to all children through social workers, police and others including parents, grandparents and medical providers.
    • It is not effective when it is closed because it does not meet the expectations of a business plan.
    • It is not effective when the price to save the life of a small brown boy is too high for the system to pay.
    • This is the moment when we need to ask ourselves —what would we want for our children? The best possible service by the best professionals!!!

The director of the OCP stated:  “ Gabriel F would have survived if he had been living in East Los Angeles ( rather than Antelope Valley) or even in South Central where access to immediate assessments and care is available.”

  • It is clear that the up front service  (the HUB) protects children at the moment that a concern or report is raised or made….
    • It also guarantees that the health of the child is most important and that we will move heaven and earth to guarantee safety for every child.
  • But it does not guarantee that those children who are removed and placed in foster care have the chance to thrive or gain a positive foothold on their future. So only identifying the problem does not change outcomes and thereby  this calls for all of us to make a commitment to putting “Children First.”
  • We are calling for a commitment from those who have the power to make Children First to never abdicate their responsibility for the safety and well-being of children; to never look away from this mandate.

What do we need to do in order to make a difference?

Improve safety by guaranteeing that when we as a system of care; the County, the various departments and the community commit the support needed to always be available to be partners in keeping children safe and promoting the stability of the family.

Improve the outcomes for detained children, children who have failed placements, have been in out-of-home placements or group homes, for extended periods of time.

  • Improved and complete assessments at time of detention as well as when placements fail.  Reevaluate children who have been in foster care or group homes for extended periods of time
  • Find extended family members anywhere for stable placements.
  • Rely on HUB or Family Resource Centers at the time of evaluations.
  • Provide Complete and correct diagnosis that will lead to appropriate placements and services.
  • At initial assessments and screening create care coordination with referrals to mental health and other support services;
    • Include mental health assessments for all children at the time they are identified as being at risk.
    • Create medical/mental health homes for all detained children.
  • Create a medical home for the medically fragile or vulnerable child.
  • Establish teen clinics; specialized clinics for CSEC youth and for LGBTQ foster children.
    • Improved access to needed resources (navigating the system for teens
  • Support families through: Call-in lines for parents, foster parents and group homes for information important to the stability of the child post assessment.
  • Mentoring and tutoring.
    • Create mentorship program for both families as well as the children.
    • Education assessments/passports.
  • Transition services for children leaving Foster care: (health, mental health, education, housing, jobs etc).
  • Legal advocacy
  • Work with family resources to communicate problems and potential solutions
  • Anticipate problems and work to resolve.

 

Advocacy, attitudes and image:

“What can I do to help you?”  Change the attitudes of the bureaucracy to focus on the needs of the children first, rather than power, control and legal barriers to service.   Bring a sense of cooperation and collaboration to everyone charged with the responsibility of improved safety and outcomes.   We need to own our failures and learn from them!

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The Other Holocaust Survivors

 

The Other Holocaust Survivors – Children left in Orphanages

Background:   I was blessed over and over again by the largess and kindness of  Severin Wunderman.  I never met this amazing man, but have heard bits and pieces of his story from his friends.  His legend has it that he survived the Holocaust because his parents left him in an orphanage for the hearing impaired.  AT age 10 he came alone to the US to live with his sister and from these beginnings built an empire of jewelry and watches.  But he came to bless me and the VIP through a foundation called “Change a Life.”  Through this foundation he gave anonymously to agencies like ours who provide care to those impacted by violence and abuse.   He paid for everything from plastic surgery to education for the children we take care of.   It was definitely “manna” from heaven all these past years when we were struggling to find ways to change lives….he certainly did.   When he died 10 years ago, he left some of those who benefited from his generosity a Corum watch.  I wear mine everyday to remind myself of generous giving; giving that does not require acknowledgement or fame.   He continues to inspire me.    But  this story of the orphanage and the children left there to survive by their parents on their way to death camps grabbed me around my heart.

At the onset of WWII thousands of small Jewish children were left in religious orphanages all over Europe by parents who knew that the Holocaust awaited them.   The story of what happened to these children in these Orphanages is a story that has never been told and now all these years later grips me.

The Story as told to me:

When the WWII conflict ended and during the chaotic embryonic time of the founding of Israel, a committee was formed in Israel for the sole purpose of finding these missing children and bringing them home to Israel.

As they began to visit the various charitable orphanages across the continent of Europe there was a consistent response from those in charge, “We have no Jewish Children here.”   But the determined team from Israel knew better, and then asked to see all the children in the orphanage anyway. And when they were all gathered together the envoys from Israel began to sing in Hebrew the songs that had been so carefully woven into the tapestry of their memory of better times with their moms and dads.  And they ran to them and were embraced.

As the story in the telling concluded —“ But Astrid, the saddest part of the story is that these children were so traumatized by being left in these orphanages, essentially abandoned by their parents, that they never recovered and remain some of the most “damaged” of immigrants to Israel.”

But I answered, “Do you believe—knowing what we know now about Catholic schools and orphanages— that these Jewish children were spared the systematic abuse and assault that was consistent across these institutions for many decades?”

I believe that this is one of the most profoundly disturbing and unsettling stories of the children of the Holocaust—-I think it is time to talk to some of these children before their time runs out.  Another asked me “To what end?”   To the purpose that to most of these children the telling will finally give them the opportunity to put this on someone else…to be heard and believed.  The pain and sense of loss never goes away.

I have asked for help in finding the right people to talk with as well as the right people to do the talking.  If you have any ideas please let me know.

Astrid Heppenstall Heger

Frank

 

In 1993 Frank Fitzgerald, aged 38, while driving to Boston from Conn. suddenly smelled something wafting through the open window of his Ford station wagon.  “It smelled like mince pie!”  This “mince pie” opened up the windows of his mind, and memories flooded in—terrible memories of being raped by the parish priest on the floor of the rectory.

For most of his life since childhood, Frank had spent a large part of his day with depression.  Depression so debilitating that he was beginning to plan his departure from his wife and two children; perhaps a new job would make this better and then he remembered—30 years after the sexual assault by Father Porter.   But perhaps this was just another case of false memory; a memory manufactured from his hippocampus somewhere. Maybe he was just making this up; so he decided to see if anyone else remembered Father Porter.   So he took out an ad in the local newspaper

“Does anyone remember Father Porter?”  Call 1 800 – ….:  Expecting little—he waited…soon he had over 30 replies and he found space in his local high school and gathered those who remembered together to share their memories.   “I remember Father Porter raping you on the floor of the rectory —I was there and heard your screams.” Made that memory all the more real for Frank!  Similar memories were replayed by all of his classmates. But when Father Porter was finally brought to trial he confessed to abusing over 100 children.  Children who at his sentencing took the stand to remember how “We were buddies, you and me, you made me promise never to tell—but you made my life a living hell since then with broken relationships; lost jobs, inability to complete my education and a overwhelming sense of dis-ease and failure.

There will never be enough apologies; never enough legal consequences to restore Frank’s world to normal.   There is only his life-long fear of trusting others; of a sense of loss and of unhappiness.  There have been so many times in my career when I have been challenged about memories; memories so dark that it is required by many to look the other way.  They would prefer to look away and not be required to do anything—So once presented with this challenge it is clear that we are looking for those who can come and take part in our campaign to make it easy or perhaps easier to disclose assault and abuse without the fear of being crushed under the weight of victim blame and the laughter of those asking the questions or for that matter those who sitting in the Court Room chose to laugh when they raped her.

These memories are real; they are easy to validate if one asks the right questions and then listens to the complete answer.    I am hoping that we have the courage to ask, listen and then provide the support needed for the small child, the teenager or the adult to find healing and a sense of safety.   Listen carefully, you can hear the confidence returning to their voices; a strength in their stride and a light in their eyes.

Nancy

“It is lonely to be poor”

HEART:  Over the past two decades there has evolved a group of dedicated, compassionate women called HEART—-or Helping Ease Abuse Related Trauma

—who have made it their mission to make certain that the needs of our patients, these women and children, are met.  They raise funds through a membership in their organization ($1000 per year) that fund clothes, food, transportation….even housing, utilities and they fix cars.  They make it possible for the victims of the most horrendous assaults and neglect to have a chance to recover.   They provide VIP staff with the means to respond after we ask each child, family or woman  “How can we help you? With the essential —non-essentials—so critical in the path to safety and recovery.

The story of Nancy was the beginning of HEART—-I made a vow to myself that I would, if I had a chance,  build a clinic with a shower and always have access to clean comfortable clothes including what now includes hundreds of pairs of underwear, socks, sweats and coats in winter.    Nancy never benefited from this organization, but she did know that she was loved and cared for by us to the best of our ability.

 

HEART now has 200 plus members and holds the line against hunger and homelessness for our patients here in East Los Angeles.


 

Nancy

Watch children around the world! They can make play out of whatever is given them.  Nancy, was given very little.   She was raised in a Central Los Angeles gang zone.  Her father had run with the gang since he was 13 and her mother proclaimed her allegiance to the same gang with her tattooed hand and face. Her face was marred by a crude tear appearing to run from the corner of her left eye  and  the dots and letters identifying more closely her particular gang allegiance nested in the webbing between her thumb and index finger.

At seven Nancy learned to get up with the sun.  Her parents still unconscious in their room, she quietly put on yesterday’s clothes, stepped over whatever leftover bottles or bodies sleeping in the front room and walked to school.  After school she would walk the ten blocks to her grandmother’s house. This grandmother had also run with the gangs and bore the marks on her face and hands and the wear and tear of teenage pregnancies, drug use and poverty made her looked decades older that her 41 years.

But the grandchildren were a good thing.  They distracted her, and were a source of what small measure of affection there was left.   She had mellowed and looked forward to Nancy’s daily visits. She was a funny, bright child and was a welcome break in her day.

By five o’clock Nancy headed home along the abandoned railroad tracks that ran behind her house.  It was her game, this shortcut across the blocks that separated her house from her grandmother.   She played hopscotch along the railroad ties—balancing with her arms outstretched—on the tracks. Today was the first of many hot smoggy days of the Los Angeles summer and was the first really hot day with temperatures soaring over 100.

Nancy was balancing on the old Southern Pacific tracks singing a song from school.  She did not notice the white Toyota that crossed the tracks ahead of her, and then stopped.

He dragged her behind a stack of long forgotten wooden pallets.  She screamed but the surrounding houses were too used to screams to hear hers.

It was Newton division, LAPD,  that brought Nancy and her Mom to the hospital.

“Why are they always so thin?”  My internal voice asked.  A skinny little girl, half hidden behind her mother.  But under the dirt that turned her face and arms gray, was a beautiful child.  She was not just dirty, the gravel and dust of where she was raped had been ground into her body.  Her only clothing was a too big, faded dress that hung below her knees.  Clean tracks streaked her face where the dust had been washed away by her tears.  Her feet were bare.

My first thought was to get this done quickly and get her a bath. We did not have a shower yet and I thought of my swimming pool at home and wanted to take her there to see if she could wash away the dirt, the blood.  Perhaps to see her smile!        The best I could do was to send our secretary to the store to buy her underwear, perhaps a clean pair of shorts and a tee shirt.  She owned no underwear.

Her mother was furious with —us?  Why, but she stood across the room—arms crossed lips tight over clenched teeth.

“ Here mom,” indicating that I wanted her to stand close to Nancy while I examined her—“Stand here and hold her hand.”—But she only backed herself further away into the corner of the examination room.   I was clearly the enemy.

“She needs to take these antibiotics and to have a bath three times a day.”

“We don’t have a bathtub”,” she answered. So it was agreed Nancy would go to stay with her grandmother until she was healed.

“Can you take her to McDonald’s on your way back to the station?”   I asked the patrol officers, “And bring her back in one week.”

Clean clothes helped, and new flowered underwear made me feel that at least these injuries would be covered.  Her grandmother seemed more attached to her, and Nancy held her hand when they left with LAPD.

One week to the day, the patrol officers brought her back.  I knew she was there when I turned to find her standing close to me at my desk in the clinic.  She was wearing the clothes we gave her, now in desperate need of washing, but her week’s supply of clean underwear was holding up.

“If you wait until clinic is over, I will give you a ride home.” I offered.

Faced with a long ride on multiple buses Mom agreed.

The clinic staff had bought her new clothes for court, a flowered dress, white blouse, clean socks and new shoes.  Someone brought in a navy blue sweater from their daughters closet, and our nurse added paper, crayons and a school bag so she would have something to do while she waited to testify.

I drove them home.  Down Central and right on 31st Street.  In the midday the streets seemed safe.  The hookers and pimps, drug dealers and gang members were just getting up.  As I turned the corner onto 31st street, I could see what this community looked like 70 years ago, when new immigrants to Southern California built their neat homes near to the Red Car train line that would carry them to their jobs in downtown Los Angeles.  Now the neighborhood stores and houses were obscured by graffiti and bars closed off the first floor windows of every house on the block giving them a closed, shuttered appearance as if everyone on this street was on their own.  No neighborhood watch here.

A little six-year-old girl with her blue and white dress, navy sweater and clutching her Pooh book bag took the stand six months later. She sat quietly in the court hallway, sandwiched between the police detective and the victim’s advocate from the district attorney’s office.  She never wavered in her testimony.  A six year old whose testimony ended the trail, unable to break her, the defendant pled guilty.

His statement, “I was careful not to hurt her” belied the evidence

“I am here to say that he destroyed her.” I testified.

Nancy has disappeared into Los Angeles.  My last memory of her is her visit to our clinic in January six months after the assault.  She came and stood as close to me as possible—as if she was trying to find a way to get into my space, stay and be safe

Her mother pulled her away, but not before we hugged.  Our calls to her went  unanswered for ten years. Her mother asked us not to bother them and refused us any updates on her progress.  Her rapist is on parole.

But I think of her often, wonder if she remembers that someone cared about her, at least once in her life.    I hope that she has finished High School.   Maybe she has moved away from the graffiti and bars of South Central.  I would like to think that it is a possibility..

Nancy pushed us to create HEART—she pushed me to realize my dream of a shower and new clean clothes for every child, boy or girl, and everyone who was asking for help.  She focused my attention on creating a center where healing was our primary goal and where children found safety, encouragement and hope. 

 

 

Luck

FORWARD

Our eyes meet across the graduation crowd.  Our relationship has lasted for sixteen years.  During this time she has gone from being my first patient, through adolescence and the struggle to find her inner strength to now a time of achievement and new beginnings.

“How did you two meet?”  Her friends ask.

We hug, and then lie to everyone. They will never hear her story or know why we are friends.

There as been a lifetime listening to stories.  Everyday there is a new story, some with the same themes, others that stretch belief.  There are stories that make the headlines.  The children killed by caretakers or sexual predators and left to die by the side of the road.   But there are many ways to kill a child.  Breaking the spirit of a child, stealing their childhood, their soul, kills them as surely as if their lives were taken.

East Los Angeles provides the backdrop for most of these stories.  Everyday I drive the streets of East Los Angeles.  My mind looks past the yards overgrown with weeds; the dark, wet alleys filled with abandoned cars; and the houses with barred windows and surrounded by razor wire. I see the children living here.  The photographs in this book are the images of what is familiar to the children who live here.

Too often these children are invisible because they lack color or definition. “We never noticed you! You were colorless—blending into the city.”    Our children are invisible in their washed out clothes, passed through multiple lives on their way to be rescued from the charity bins of churches and thrift shops.

Children have surrounded me all my life.  My own children were loved and cherished, nurtured and protected throughout childhood.  But all children deserve to be cherished.  They arrive in this world like a white linen dress or shirt; carefully, washed and bleached by the sun…starched and pressed and hung perfect on the closet door.   For many, they are loved, cared for, washed carefully, pressed a bit when needed and admired with pride.

Children from all economic strata are vulnerable.  Those born to privilege may have more resources to help them survive their abuse.  They can be more visible to neighbors and teachers.   However for children born to poverty or abuse, childhood is a time of pain and want.  Their families live in garages or cardboard shacks.  For many they are a nuisance and inconvenience; for others a safe place to vent anger and frustration.  It is impossible to keep these children “clean and pressed” in the slow-moving, muddy river of the inner city.

Jonathan Kozol in his Time essay of 1995 writing on the death of a small child in New York stated that “it is possible that the icy equanimity and a self-pacifying form of moral abdication by the powerful will take more lives in the long run than any single drug-addicted and disordered parent.”  I believe that this is true. I also know that without looking at each child that comes for help as an individual with their own story and their own needs, it is impossible to continue to reach into the flood and pull out the children.  It is only when each story is valued and personal that we can return to face another day filled with the tragedies and the triumphs of children.

These stories are either stories shared with me by those trying to find a brave space and sanctuary within themselves or stories told me by my patients and colleagues as we marveled at the resiliency of children.     The voices telling these stories may be silenced because of guilt, shame and fear, but it is important to hear and to acknowledge their pain and courage in surviving the worst that can happen.

 

This first story is from a wonderful young women who I know while working on a campaign to stop abuse in our world.  This is her story.

 

Luck….

I was told this morning during a meeting that I reminded the gentlemen with whom I was talking with about a super hero in a movie, who’s super power was “Luck.” This literally made me laugh out loud. After thinking about it for several hours now, and sitting here writing this piece, I can’t help but both curse and snicker at the concept of my super power of “Luck.” (with a capital L for Lori of course).

I think of this word and I am not quiet sure how to swallow it. Lucky… From a truly optimistic and positive perspective, yes, I am probably one of the luckiest people alive. And… from an exhausted (most days)-warn down-mom of three-executive director to a national effort ending child abuse-trauma survivor-nurturing-fanatic, lucky isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Surviving seems to fit a little better. 😊

I could spend years and volumes writing about each lucky experience I have had in life, however I will spare you to antics and get on with only a few.

My story really kicked into high gear in 1983. I played in my front yard while my dad went inside to get me a popsicle, a stranger drove up with the passenger door ajar and asked if I liked candy. Like any sugar loving 3 year old, I got in the car after following instructions to leave my pants on the curb. My abductor took me to the mountains and sexually assaulted me. He then left me for dead in the bottom of a 15 feet deep outhouse toilet. 3 ½ days later bird watchers passing by heard me crying and found me. I was reunited with my family (who’d experienced their own form of trauma in the ordeal) and we attempted to put life back together as “normally” as one could imagine.

My pain and abuse didn’t end there in the mountains unfortunately. It was then that I began a life becoming invisible. I began living for the benefit of others. My stories were rewritten by others over and over again. I walked a tight rope to ensure that I wasn’t too upset or sad so not to cause upset with my family (I didn’t want them to feel like they’d done something wrong). I couldn’t be too happy either (I didn’t want them to feel like their pain was unjustified). I allowed people to hurt me, I attracted the hurting, the weak, the scared, and the lonely. I became their life buoy. My relationships became about others, I began to slowly lose myself, my identity, my needs, and after years of these kinds of relationships, I’ve come to find this doesn’t meet the needs of my soul. There was only so much of me to go around.

Shame is the leading emotion that I’ve lived with. We have placed so much shame around child abuse and neglect that we have forgotten what it does to all of us. The victims feel shame in speaking out, asking for help, being judged, coddled, discriminated against, speaking up against it, ashamed they may grow up to reoffend, the perpetrator feels so much shame for having been a victim (96% of perpetrators were once victims), that they cause harm and do what they learned, which continues the cycle, the bystanders feel so much shame for not having said anything when they were suspicious, not having intervened when they thought it was a problem, not having stopped, helped, supported, believed, or addressed it. Shame…everywhere.

So Luck… how does one come back to luck when they feel all of that? Well, I look at the little things. 1. I was lucky I was taken in the middle of the day so people saw me leave, saw the car, identified my abductor, etc. 2. I was lucky he placed me in the outhouse pit; had I been above ground, I would have died from hypothermia. 3. I was lucky the toilet I was in was old and abandoned, there was only a few inches of toxic chemicals that only my feet were in as I sat on a pile of sticks. 4. I was lucky I was found on day 3.5, had it been 12 more hours, I would have died from the poisoning that had gone into my feet, then legs. 5. I was lucky I was reunited with my parents. 6. I was lucky to have found the organization who had a physiatrist and director (Dick Krugman) who treated and helped me. 7. I was lucky that my life for many years as a little girl felt pretty normal (4-9 years old). 8. I was lucky my instincts led me to allow others needs and feeling supersede mine, this allowed me to get loved because I gave to others. 8. I was lucky I experienced people who showed me to be kind in the world even when the world isn’t so kind to you. 9. I was lucky my intuition became louder as I grew up and led me to meet myself and want to have a happy and healthy life helping the world. 10. I was lucky I met Meg at 25 who was the first friend I’d met who I felt like loved me for exactly who I was. I spent the next 12 years creating new guidelines for my relationships and surrounded myself with people who loved me for me, not so much for what I could do for them. 11. I am lucky to have become a mom to three beautiful children who teach me everyday how to be more humble and kind and that there is really so much beauty in this world. 12. I am lucky to have met Dick Krugman again as an adult and then have him become my professional mentor. 13. I was lucky he saw my gifts, my abilities and took a chance on me by asking me to co-found an organization that can and will change the world. 14. I am lucky to be the Executive Director of the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect. 15. I am lucky because I’m fairly good at it, and really love it. 16. I am lucky that I know I am lucky.

So luck is my superpower, strength is its sister, and love is it’s mother. Together we hold tight and move forward, one day at a time.

 

We want to hear your voice and to share; please contact us at: contact@vip-cmhc.org.

Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam is hard to watch!

Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam is hard to watch!  It reminds me of a time when the daily news was hard to watch—it was a time when in Medical School, it was difficult to embrace the value of life, when so much was destroyed each day and played out on the TV screens on the 6 o’clock news.  We would have to look away—because the truth of it was overwhelming—it was mired in bureaucratic maneuverings and lies. Perhaps it was then, or maybe a few years earlier when my father retired in protest over the lack of courage and commitment by those in charge of the University where he was chairman of his department., that I hung the meaning of life on my wall.

“Go now into the world in peace and know how much an old world needs your youth and gladness. Recognize that there are words of truth and healing that will never be spoken unless you speak them, and deeds of compassion and courage that we never be done unless you do them. —Never mistake success for victory or failure for defeat”…and it goes on…

I can no longer offer up my youth as a means to truth and healing, but I can offer up gladness and determination. Gladness that we have been able to create a system of care for children, youth and families in this County that protects them, encourages them to succeed and advocates that they too find gladness. My determination is that regardless of changes within the bureaucracy, that this focus, this goal will be a core element of what drives us and that we will not participate or support any person in power who vetoes attempts to normalize and legitimize care for all people regardless of social-economic status, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age or immigration status. There will be no walls here to keep people out. We want our doors to be wider and more inviting in order to accept everyone in need.

So I spent some time weeping today as I watched another episode of “Vietnam” and realized that so many of those who spoke out against the injustice and the cowardice of leadership at that time were vilified and dismissed as criminals. As everyone of you know, I have never run and hid from the hard stuff…and listening to a grown man recollect about his leadership role on the ground in Vietnam—determined that his path had allowed him to hide from going to Vietnam—he cancelled his Rhodes Scholarship to volunteer for duty. He was unwilling to run and hide when he might be able to lead in such a way that not only could he preserve the lives of his fellow soldiers but he would work to protect their morality and goodness. This is courage—-doing what is right in the face of fear or danger.

There is an apprehension across Los Angeles today as we face the fact that leadership of health in Los Angeles is going to change. That the person who came to my office his second day in Los Angeles and promised to help me achieve more and better for the highest risk families, youth and children is going to New York City.  Is it possible that the children, youth and families that we serve will yet again slip to the bottom of the priority list—or do we have enough courage to “say the words and do the deeds.” I hope that our County leadership will listen and that they have the courage to insist on excellence and commitment to the children, families and youth of this County.….and equally so to those who charged with protecting and healing.

– Astrid Heppenstall Heger.

Violence: A political or a personal issue?

There were no smart phones, not even a television allowed in our dining room as a child growing up. Dinner was a time to discuss history, literature, ideas, news, and listen carefully to the wisdom of our parents. Politics were rarely the topic since my parents stood at opposite poles on this debate. One evening my father brought a news article to the table and asked us to discuss both the story and it’s morality. It was a story that later became a rallying cry around the value of women and interpersonal violence. It wasn’t until years later that understood the immense gravity of the violent death of Kitty Genovese on the crowded streets of New York city; surrounded by the hundreds of households who heard her screams, but closed their windows.

Although the idea of violence frightened me as we listened to this story, I knew it was far away in an urban environment that seemed foreign and like a parallel universe compared to the neighborhood my family lived in. I told myself that it would never happen here because we would have been the people who would have called. Would have helped. This of course, was the same excuse given by most who witnessed the violence; the situation didn’t seem to involve them and they did not want to get involved in a domestic situation.

This weekend placed a new meaning on observed, fatal violence, that can occur openly in the streets of our cities without serious comment or action by those charged with our protection and the application of morality and fairness in the lives of every single human being; regardless of gender, race, religion or orientation.

Perhaps it was “cheap grace” or moral indifference that led to the loss of Kitty’s life. These being the notion that it takes too much to make this violence a personal matter. The notion that yes something unjust is occurring, but it isn’t my responsibility, someone will do it, I do not need to get involved. Silence is compliance.

Although we too may be tempted to look away and trust that others will take care of things, we must learn from our mistakes. Whether it is in Chicago, New York or Charlottesville, we need to step up. This violence is not going away because we wish it away; it is not going away because we believe that some moral bureaucratic process is going to step up. It is up to each and every one of us to take action.

What I write is not political— it is personal. We are responsible for stopping this violence—violence against any group. It is our responsibility to stop this. We are all created equal. If we yet again look away and say nothing we are responsible for what is to come. It is in the doing nothing that true evil resides.

What Elie Wiesel Taught Me About Moral Indifference

This past Saturday, we lost one of our better angels. 

For years I have pulled from the wisdom of Elie Wiesel when speaking about the children and families who are brought into my clinic every day. While an accurate witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust, his life’s message transcended this horrific event and was put forth to teach and challenge everyone with courage and conscience to avoid moral indifference.

Wiesel knew all to well the dangers of moral indifference; this concept that we can know that something is terribly wrong yet we say or do nothing—or the idea of cheap grace, in which we count on someone else to take care of these problems. He makes a great case that the suffering of others is always our business as well as our problem to solve, and challenges us to prevent the unjust treatment or the abandonment of those who are without power or position. 

“Indifference is not the beginning; it is the end. Therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the oppressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten.” -Elie Wiesel

From where I sit there are thousands of victims of abuse and neglect who are abandoned each year by those charged with their safety and welfare. I am particularly concerned about the children, broken by parents or guardians, who have turned to us to find hope and a sense of the future. When we become indifferent to their plight and turn our backs on our collective responsibility, we all but assure that these children grow into adolescence and adulthood knowing absolutely that we do not care about them. This is why my staff and I make it our mission to never allow any child within our reach to ever fall through the cracks of society; to always ensure that those suffering never become invisible.

Four years ago, VIP made history when we opened up a center so that DCFS could provide the basic care and support that every newly detained child should expect, including medical and mental health services, fresh clean clothes, warm meals, a real bed to sleep in, and loving caretakers to make sure they felt safe. This unique program was created to provide children with a place where they knew for certain that they were not invisible or forgotten. Sadly, the space for the older children became a dumping ground for the most difficult cases that DCFS have all but given up hope on, many of whom have been cycling in and out of foster care for years and are now invisible to the system. When DCFS lost control and the LA Times wrote a story, the state came in and now everything is closed.

Now these children are becoming invisible once again. Is someone paying attention to their health, their future, their sadness?  Are they getting the care that they so desperately need? Are we preventing the creation of more and more youth who clearly are becoming this city’s future homeless?

In Los Angeles, VIP is in a unique position to stand up and be heard, changing the direction for these children. And yet there is a sense that we should not stand up because it is unpopular and might create problems for those who are charged with the responsibility of keeping these children safe. This is my dilemma; I can be morally indifferent and trust that those in power will provide the necessary change to protect these children, or I can step up and do the hard thing and speak words that cannot be spoken by those who are without power or advocates.

Elie Wiesel was always charging us to never ignore our better angels and to always speak up and take action when we witness the suffering of others. This compassion, he taught us, starts with a single human being caring for another. With so many foster teens in crisis in Los Angeles, what better time than now for us to step up and change their present course, giving hope to those who need it most?  

I will always try to answer his call to avoid moral indifference. Together we can honor his memory and continue his legacy so that future generations can build upon a foundation of compassion and common humanity.

Orlando

“Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.”
~Elie Wiesel

I have been in a fog since Sunday when I heard about the mass shooting in Orlando. For all the evil I have seen in my career, I continue to be shocked at the depths people will go to inflict pain on others. Each time I hear of another shooting, I make a conscious effort not to become desensitized or assume this is the “new normal”. Each victim deserves our utmost and sincere feeling of loss and grief. But what do we do after we mourn?

Forget that the victims were targeted because of their sexuality. Forget that the shooter had been investigated by the FBI for ties to terrorism overseas. Forget even that this was the largest mass shooting in our country’s history, a history that seems to be racking up exponentially more and more gun deaths as time passes.  What I choose to focus on is my response as a spectator to these senseless killings. I’m not a legislator, though I can influence them with my vote and voice. I am not a gun owner, though I can advocate for responsible and sensible gun safety laws. Our greatest force for change is our ability to show compassion for those individuals we see in crisis BEFORE tragedy strikes. Every day I see children brought into the clinic that have experienced abuse, neglect, or exposure to violence both physical and toxic language or beliefs. I have seen what happens to these children if left alone; they will end up in prison, on the streets or become abusers themselves. That is why I started the Violence Intervention Program over three decades ago. I didn’t want one child in crisis to ever slip through the cracks and have their trauma evolve them into perpetrators of abuse and violence. This is the foundational principle to which I have dedicated my life and career and what I ask from my staff, supporters, and friends. The gunman in Orlando, like the shooters in countless other mass killings, wasn’t born with hate. It manifested over time and was left to fester by spectators too afraid to step in and give it the attention it needed to heal.

I believe we need more sensible gun laws, but there will be time for those discussions. Right now, we should mourn both the victims we lost and the part of our humanity that is lost with each shooting that could have been prevented, either though policy changes or individual acts of intervening compassion.  We should remind ourselves that compassion is our greatest weapon of prevention against these kinds of atrocities. When we teach our children to love and accept others and when we take the time to recognize others who need help and ensure they receive it, we are protecting the collective by strengthening and uplifting the individual.

Take a moment to start a discussion with friends and family about compassion, becoming the change you wish to see in the world so that others will follow. I will continue to provide love and hope to the children and adults I see in crisis; join me in providing that same active and intervening compassion to those you see in dire need of help. Together, we can begin to pull back this encroaching tide of violence and set a new path and example for a younger generation.

Love always,

Astrid

Our What vs. Our Why

This past week has been especially tough. As I write this, we currently have two patients in the Pediatric ICU who may never completely recover from their abuse.  It has brought me cause to consider both the “what” and the “why” in my life. Both children have received the best of care (i.e. the “what” in my life), and now because of the “why” in my life, we are helping these children and their families to have the best future possible, despite the trauma they have suffered.  My “what” has always been centered around medicine and the ability to recognize trauma, illness, neglect.  The “why,” or the force behind coming to work every day is never accepting mediocrity or, for that matter, never taking “no” for the final answer when it comes to building a safety-net of caring for the children and families that we see every day.

While in the ICU, I noticed a family gathered at the bedside of an 18-year-old boy; family members coming and going, tears being shed and many questions being asked about this boy’s future. A product of the foster care system and abandoned by his family at an early age, this young pre-med student is now a quadriplegic after a tragic automobile accident. His family resources are minimal, but his sister has reunited with him and is by his side daily; his foster mom comes to visit frequently, and his biological father is driving from Modesto every weekend to reconnect with this is only son. Despite the fact that he is not my patient, he is one of the many children who have passed through our clinic’s doors over the past 30 years.  For this 18-year-old, the “why” of VIP is me asking him “How can I help you?” and ensuring that his family has the support they need as they begin to move forward. We now have an expert clinician going to see this young man every day and we are providing Dad with transportation assistance and food support so that he can continue to see his son in the hospital.

The emotional weight our clinicians endure caring for the children, women, and families impacted by violence, can be overwhelming. The “why” has continued to push me forward. The “why” in my life is based on making every interaction and intervention personal; it is asking families how we can help you, and then finding a way to answer and provide a solution. The “why” is the passion for change; change here at VIP and our Children’s Medical Village at the LAC+USC Medical Center, and change in the lives of families who have so little but need so much.

For VIP, the “what” of our work remains possible because of your commitment to why VIP exists, why it grows, and ultimately to the goal of creating a stronger system of care where children, women and families are able to achieve health, safety and security.