Connect To Protect

We Must Be Watchful Over Our Young Neighbors, Even At The Risk Of Being Intrusive

April 27, 2009|By Dana Burdnell Wilson

What does it take to build public will to protect children? A successful campaign to address a human need or a societal problem often begins with a person, a group or a neighborhood deciding to get involved.

The starvation death of 2-year-old Andrew Patrick Griffin in Rodgers Forge and this month's sentencing of his parents have slipped out of the headlines in the wake of two tragic family annihilations in Maryland. These incidents could be symptoms of a level of social disconnectedness that has pervaded our society over the past few decades and continues to grow. An aspect of little Andrew's story that is particularly distressing is the reaction of the neighbors - one lamented that she had looked past signs of "children screaming for help."

Would being more watchful over the children in our neighborhoods protect them? This "watchfulness" may mean being more intrusive than we are comfortable with in a society that deeply values privacy. Would a shift in this aspect of our culture be worthwhile?

We have seen signs of success: For a dozen years, the Amber Alert program has used multiple media to ask all of us to focus our watchful eyes in the search for missing children. Community policing initiatives across the country have been initiated to prevent crime and enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods. Hot weather warnings bring public service announcements asking us to look in on our elderly neighbors. These acts not only increase safety and potentially save lives, but they also bind us as community members and enhance us as human beings.

Establishing a connection with our neighbors during the good times could help ease the discomfort of not "minding our own business" during questionable or bad times. We could get involved with other parents in the neighborhood, volunteer in activities in which our children participate and otherwise be part of the "village" that it takes to raise a child.

Minus that connection, it can be difficult to get involved. When people without a connection reach out, they can be met with defensiveness and even hostility. My colleague who called out to a little boy about to dart from between two cars into a busy street was criticized by an irate father for disciplining his child. While waiting for a MARC train, I saw a child playing on the tracks and informed his father that all of the trains did not stop at that station. He glared at me but picked up his son. A moment later, a high-speed train barreled through.

Although we are busy, often with both parents working and few of us living in multigenerational households, we can keep a closer eye on the children in our blocks. When suspicions arise, the next step is to become involved, either by approaching the parents or making the appropriate calls to child protective services. Watchfulness is not enough; taking action is required when it's warranted.

Our social disconnectedness leads to the greater tragedy of misconnections and missed connections. Help is out there for people who can connect with it. Child abuse and neglect, financial crises and substance abuse are not new problems, but how we address them as individuals and as a society needs to change.

Nationally recognized programs and services exist here in Baltimore. They focus on identifying effective and promising strategies for preventing child abuse and neglect, increasing protective factors and decreasing risk factors. The Family Connections program, for example, works with families to build on their strengths to address unmet needs that could lead to child abuse and neglect. Sometimes, families - even apparently successful, prosperous ones - need extra help, and being watchful and action-oriented allows us to "connect the dots" when children are at risk.

We can build a public committed to the safety and well-being of the children and families in our communities by having the courage to transform our watchfulness into action - by reaching out to make that connection with each other. We can make a difference.

Dana Burdnell Wilson is deputy director of the Ruth Young Center for Families and Children at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Her e-mail is

dwilson@ssw.umaryland.edu.

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