When my dad called me from rehab, I remember feeling more embarrassed than sad. He told me he was addicted to crack cocaine. I was only five. Growing up in a wealthy, white Pittsburgh suburb, the innocent child I was couldn’t understand it, and I was smart enough to know that none of my friends would either.
The fallout from my parents’ divorce was harsh and violent, and my brother and I were the unintended victims. But the divorce wasn’t the most difficult part–it was the choices my father made afterward. Clean from crack but still an alcoholic, my father met an emotionally abusive, mentally ill woman who would change me forever. That woman changed the course of my life by opening my eyes to one of the worst evils in this world: abusive parents and an apathetic society.
On weekends, I’d leave my loving mother’s stable home to follow the court-ordered custody agreement, visiting with my father and his new family. The household smelled of filth. Parents, unable to function on their own, were raising four innocent, beautiful children. They would drink until drunk, fight until dawn. On occasions, my stepmother went after my father with a knife, while I watched in terror. I witnessed horrible things during the weekends, but nothing compared to what my half-siblings experienced every single day.
Other family members reported the abuse and the authorities responded. But my siblings would always end up back in the abusive home. As a police officer said at the time: “If their bones aren’t broken and they’re not molested, the system wants to preserve the family unit.”
Each time the kids were removed, my stepmother would shield them from the loving family members who were doing the reporting. After two removals and two re-placements, my siblings distrusted the system. When they were put back into the home the final time, their mother became even more controlling and abusive. I didn’t hear from them for months, and they would never speak up for themselves again.
At 30, a healthy, happily married entrepreneur and mother of two beautiful children, I realize from my own family experiences that I’m an anomaly. I never touched drugs with a ten-foot pole, and am near completion of a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University. At age 25, I became the youngest press secretary to a big-city mayor. I currently run a growing public relations firm.
But my heart still screams and cries when I think about my drug-addict older brother’s plight. Every time a creditor calls my house trying to locate him, I’m reminded of my painful past. My two younger siblings will never earn a high school diploma. These are more common outcomes for kids who are raised in abusive homes.
The system completely failed my family. There were healthy homes my siblings could have gone to. Now, as a mother, I’m committed to starting a national dialogue to examine our shortcomings in protecting children. Women fought to end slavery, we fought to vote, we are fighting for LGBT rights; now, we must fight for children’s rights. I believe children’s rights should be the single largest human rights issue for milennials.
The philosophy of our current child welfare system protects parents more than children. On the extreme end, young children, mostly under 3, are dying at the hands of their parents. In my home state alone, 90 children died or nearly died from child abuse in 2013. More than half of these children were “known” to child authorities.
Despite stunning research proving that psychological abuse severely damages developing brains and causes long-term mental illness, only children who are in physical danger are considered for removal. Every time I see a drug-addicted adult, I feel so frustrated. Were they once an innocent, abused child?
We want to believe that our government is doing everything possible to protect our most vulnerable children, but it isn’t. In Pittsburgh, a recent case left me floored and finally pushed me into doing this advocacy work. Two Ethiopian-born children were nearly killed by their adoptive parents. When I learned that the main perpetrator would be “punished” with only six-months work release so that she could take care of her two biological children, I was physically ill. I reached out to many local advocacy organizations. No one would take a public stand against the powerful judge on the case.
So I did. I decided to hold a rally, and in the meantime I learned everything I could about our so-called “child protection” system. I squeamishly read department of public welfare child fatality reports. Every case, every child’s name, drew a tear. Sometimes the floodgates would open. This could have been one of my siblings.
If ordinary citizens like me demand deep, meaningful change to our system, there is hope. Child advocates throughout America need to come together in a coordinated lobbying effort to ensure that Congress enacts federal laws that have teeth, and send a real message to perpetrators. But the judicial system is just one layer of the onion.
Mothers, ordinary citizens, lawmakers and the media need to roll up our sleeves and ensure that not one more child is robbed from their childhood at the hands of an abusive parent.
Joanna Huss is a Pittsburgh- based PR executive, children’s advocate and Mom. Follow her on Twitter.