The neighbor heard him screaming for hours. When police arrived at his filthy apartment to investigate, they found scrawny little four-month-old Aiden* in a soiled days-old diaper and his mother unconscious after a drug overdose. Empty beer cans littered the floor and dirty dishes were piled in the sink along with dried, crusty vomit.
Believe it or not, Aiden was lucky. He screamed. Someone heard him. Someone else (the police) came for him. The child welfare system intervened and he was placed in a foster home while his mother completed drug treatment.
Some babies don't scream so loud for so long. Some give up and stare blankly in space while learning that the world is not safe, no one will come for them, and they are on their own. These are the babies whose heads are completely flat in back. These are the babies who are ‘floppy' like spaghetti at age 12 months because they've never learned how to use their arms or legs. They require intense physical and speech therapy coupled with tons of nurturing care.
Other babies scream so loud and for so long that they end up being thrown against walls, stomped on, broken to pieces…literally. Ribs. Arms. Legs. Skulls.
One in four children coming into foster care is under age 1. Few people know this startling fact. They assume foster kids are older, troubled, throw-away kids with too many problems to count. In reality, babies are being abused and neglected and coming into foster care at alarming rates. In Maine, the number of babies born to mothers using illicit drugs while pregnant quadrupled in six years, leading to a critical shortage of foster homes and the money to pay for them.
The babies lucky enough to be found and make it to foster care have another set of problems to deal with. Multiple moves in foster care jeopardize their ability to form loving relationships which are critical to their healing. Judicial craziness often ties up cases far too long in court. Permanent decisions are delayed until these babies are on average three years old, the exact time when their little brains are nearly fully formed.
We don't know about these babies until something goes terribly wrong and they make the headlines of our local news. The reality is that too much has already gone terribly wrong for these defenseless little souls. We just don't hear about them.
These are the ones who bite, hit, and kick other children on the playground. These are the ones who throw chairs in kindergarten and later set fires, use drugs, are in and out of ‘juvie' starting at age 11. Why should they care about anyone else? At a critical time in their development, no one cared about them. They learned how to be alone and plan to stay that way, at least until they end up pregnant and the cycle starts over again.
The other ones were less lucky. Recently LA County released a report following a rash of child deaths under their jurisdiction. These were children known to caseworkers and courts. Of the sixteen children who died, nine were under age 3.
Michael N., Age 1 year (and his brother, Christian D., 5): Shot to death by their mom.
Viola V., Age 2 years: Severe physical abuse by her soon-to-be-adoptive mom. There was a hammer involved.
Deandre G., Age 2 years: Blunt force trauma
Cynthia F., Age 2 months: Left face down in crib by drunken parents
Erica J., Age 2 years: Massive trauma inflicted by mom's boyfriend
Hakeem F., Age 8 weeks: Thrown against a wall
Valery D., Age 9 months: Blunt force trauma inflicted by dad. 2 year old sibling suffered spiral fracture to femur.
Vyctorya S., Age 26 months: Malnutrition, severe physical abuse, and clumps of hair missing
Abigail M., Age 30 months: Covered in bruises. Parents covered her in blue paint in attempts to conceal.
The LA County report detailing system failures is 82 pages long. My eyes glazed over by the time I was on page 7. I was nodding off by page 12. I think I was drooling by page 20- and I eat, sleep, and breathe child welfare issues. What average person is going to read this?
That is an important question because it will be average people who resolve these issues for foster kids. It won't be the government. The government never intended to raise children but it must step in when parents default. Average people won't read this report and be compelled to do something. They need names, faces, and stories of kids like Aiden to grab their hearts and their commitment to helping. The only problem is these kids remain nameless and faceless for reasons of confidentiality.
So I'm going to give them to you. You need to know these kids because they belong to the government and your taxpayer dollars fund their care. They are yours. Besides, April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Time to roll up our sleeves and get started because all of this, all of it, is completely preventable.
We will start with Aiden. He was placed in foster care at age four months. His mother entered in-patient drug treatment. She is addicted to pain medication and alcohol. His biological father is incarcerated on theft charges.
Next Time: Aiden's foster home and the people who will determine his fate.
In the meantime, want to know specific ways you can help? See my book Invisible Kids at http://www.invisiblekidsthebook.com/.
*name has been changed to protect identity