Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Crime of Bad Parenting by Sandra Ruttan

I'm pleased to welcome Sandra Ruttan to the blog today. She has an excellent post regarding the aftermath of emotions surrounding the Casey Anthony case. Read. Think. Comment.  Please, don't be shy. 
I saw a tweet the other day that caused my jaw to drop.

"If Casey Anthony wants Nancy Grace off her back, she needs to start killing black babies."

It's really easy to pick on Casey Anthony right now, but when I can set my own feelings about the case aside, I find myself wondering more about the rage against this woman.

Is it about what she allegedly did to her daughter?  Or is this some weird way of absolving ourselves of any guilt we have buried deep in our own subconscious?

I don't mean guilt for the death of Caylee; I mean guilt over our actions or lack of actions and how they may have affected someone else.  How many parents out there have never said something to their kids that they regret?  Worse still, how many of you live haunted by the action you can't take back, or guilt about the thing you should have done?

I went through this a few months ago, when a student at the school I was working at was shot and killed.  I've been working at schools in Baltimore for the last two years.  I've worked in middle schools and high schools. 

I know drug dealers.

I mean, that's just reality.  Two students in one of my classes from last semester had to be put into protective custody after one of them got shot.  And I've never been particularly good at overlooking the big picture.  I can connect the dots.  I've talked to some of these kids, tried to reach them.

But when I heard about the student who was killed, and realized it was a student I'd talked to in passing on a number of occasions, I processed a lot of emotions.  There was shock and grief.

And guilt.

Had I done enough?  Was there something I could have said that might have changed the outcome for this student?

And then I saw this story about Edmonton-area mom who fought police and shedded her clothes during a "bizarre" drug-and-booze-fuelled rampage earned a judicial tongue lashing Tuesday.

(She pleaded guilty to assault, causing a disturbance, mischief and resisting arrest.)

After hearing the mother-of-three had committed some of the crimes in front of her 10-year-old son, provincial court Judge Ernie Walter fixed his steely eyes upon her.

"Get your life in order madam," said Walter. "Your children deserve better than this."

It sounds more like something you'd expect to read in a book than a news story, and yet Cher Alina Badger really did find herself branded by newspapers as a "bad mom".

If only being a bad mom was a crime.

Okay, being a "bad" parent is a rather subjective term, but when I read this article I really did wonder just how bad a parent has to be in order to have someone step in to protect the children.  This woman committed crimes.  Including assault.

Shouldn't any act of physical violence be grounds for some intervention?

While our society reels from the outcome of the Casey Anthony murder trial and her acquittal for murdering her two-year-old daughter, I think the only way we can really, honestly address the issue of how to protect children in the future is to start by eliminating assumptions.  Where mothers are concerned, society is often willing to turn a blind eye and excuse all actions.  The belief that mothers know best and sacrifice all for their children is one that's based on the example of millions of mothers that's true of.

Unfortunately, the mothers who are anything but selfless and protective of their children use the stereotype to their advantage, and even now, in the 21st century, courts still tend to favor mothers in custody disputes.  The only proof of equal treatment of parents would be an automatic assumption of 50-50 custody between fathers and mothers, with one parent being required to prove the other parent is unfit or unsuitable in order to take a higher percentage of custody.  And that's not the way it is.

I think every individual proves their merit by their actions, and that includes 'mothers' and 'fathers'.  We need to stop projecting what we want to be true of all mothers and fathers onto everyone without evidence that they actually are good parents.  That's the only way for us to look deeper, and actually put the welfare of children first.

This is an issue I wrestle with through the pages of my latest novel, HARVEST OF RUINS.  Evelyn Shepherd - known as Vinny - is a girl who is torn apart by her parents after their divorce.  Her relationship with her father is easy and natural, while her mother pressures her to be what her mother wants her to be, and manipulates her and controls her, with devastating consequences.

There are a lot of ways to damage a person, especially a child, and they don't all involve physical abuse.  As a society, we need to consider that.  Think about that "bad mom" and her son, and what type of person he's likely going to grow up to be if this is how his mother behaves.

In Vinny's case, it's her father, the one person who genuinely loved and cared about her, who's plagued by guilt over his decisions and the regret he has over letting his daughter remain in the custody of her mother. 

But the central character of the book is Hunter McKenna, who carries her own guilt over how her actions have affected her own life, and the lives of Vinny, her father, and Hunter's own daughter.

I think if we're all honest with ourselves, we've had a moment where we could have done more for someone.  Could have shown our child (or parent or partner) more patience, or could have reached out to help a friend who was in a desperate situation and needed our support.

And that's what makes guilt a good thing.  It's what causes us to examine our shortcomings and prompts us to try to do better in the future so that we don't repeat the same mistakes.

The only trick is, like Hunter, when we're wrestling with our guilt we have to learn to first forgive ourselves.

Sandra Ruttan is the Bestselling author of Harvest of Ruins, Suspicious Circumstance, The Nolan, Hart & Train series, and is the Editor for Spinetingler Magazine and Snubnose Press.


Sabrina E. Ogden said...

I can't even pretend to know enough about the law to form an educated opinion on what Casey did, or didn't do with regards to the death of her child. But I can say that it was clear even from her testimony that she didn't do enough to protect her daughter, and she should have done more in reporting her missing. The case is over so harboring any frustration regarding her being free does me no good.

I can say that as a woman that has never been able to have the children that I've always longed to have- that cases like this one, and even the less severe cases, always... always pull at my heart.

I've been on my own since I was 14. My mother died when I was 3, and our family sorta fell apart and never recovered. I've suffered abuse in many forms by family members that were supposed to care for me. And believe it or not...people didn't report abuse of any kind when I was growing up. Things stayed "secret" and "behind closed doors." And even when I did go for help, the help never came. Unless you count a fist in the face as help- I learned how to be tough, so there's that.

I'm not guided by guilt in this case for things that I haven't done, but I am hopeful that others watched and listened to this case and are willing to do more to help those that so desperately need our assistance. If anything, this case showed that society is capable of loving a child more than their own parents. I hope that love translates into more than just grief for what could have been.

I give thanks daily for those "mothers" that stepped in to guide me throughout my life. And, for me... I love and treat all children the way I wish I could have been treated in my life. If I had children, I would love them. I would protect them. I've never felt that I had to be a relative to care that deeply for a child.

This is an excellent post, Sandra. Harvest of Ruins is an amazing book. Thank you so much for being a guest today.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sabrina, I had no idea about your personal history. But you and I do share the reality of not having our own biological kids, and I wholeheartedly agree with you - I don't need to be 'related' to love a child. My stepkids are my kids - my Mom treats them just like her biological grandkids too.

I've also spent most of my adult life working with kids, and I've had to face the decision of reporting parents - specifically mothers - to social services. At one place, the kids were removed because the stepdad of one and dad of the other was sexually abusing both kids and the mother did nothing. The stepchild went to their other biological parent full-time - the child went to social services. It's devastating. I actually hate the mother more for putting other people in the position of defending her children and protecting them.

Back then, I can remember a lot of sleepless nights. But I learned a very long time ago that I had to be prepared to report - it's the law, after all - and to date, oddly enough, I've only ever had to report mothers.

Thomas Pluck said...

I was blessed to have a strong mother and grandmother who did their best to make up for a narcissistic, alcoholic father... himself born to a narcissistic, domineering, alcoholic mother.
Children are still viewed as property, which is the real issue. For every mother who gets forgiven, another has her children taken away without good cause.

gbeck said...

Wonderful post Sandra. I was blessed to have a great mother and I'm very blessed to have children and their spouses that are great parents. As a grandparent I can't imagine anything harder that to think your child caused harm or failed to protect your grandchild. Harvest of Ruins sounds like a really interesting book--I'm definitely going to have to read it!

Sabrina E. Ogden said...

I agree, Thomas. You can find cases like those every single day.

I went to college with the hope of becoming a social worker so I could save children one family at a time. Naive? Perhaps. I was even dumped by a boyfriend because he didn't want to be associated with a woman that wanted to spend her days destroying families. Yeah, that really wasn't my goal.

Then the death of Elisa Izquierdo in November 1995 made me realize that even the agencies that are established to protect children are riddled with imperfection. I would see her face in my sleep and I became obsessed with her case. I soon realized that my idea to save children, just like her, still had the ability to destroy. I ended up pulling out of the program to save my own sanity.

Which is part of the problem, isn’t it? People turning away, pretending not to see, and being overwhelmed with the desire to speak up, but not knowing how?

I might not be a social worker today, but I am the woman at the grocery store that will stand up to a mother when she smacks her 3 year old daughter in the head while calling her a “fucking cunt.” I’m childless… not by choice. You lay a hand like that on a child in front of me and you can expect to see my wrath. I’d gladly give my life to save a child.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thomas - exactly, children viewed as property. It should be mandatory that the central part of any custody case be a child advocate. And you're absolutely right, too often intervention happens where it may not be warranted and doesn't happen when it's desperately needed.

gbeck, I think it would be devastating for any grandparent. I wonder about Casey Anthony's parents. And then I stop myself, because it's pointless, but this whole family was ripped apart and will never be the same again. It's really devastating.

Sabrina, THE FRAILTY OF FLESH was my attempt to work out my feelings about social services. That book would probably get to you in a way that none of my other books would. It's pretty dark.