The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. - Pablo Picasso
I started working at CASA for York County on December 29, 2014 - just over two years ago. And it's sometimes a little surreal to think about everything I've learned and experienced during this time. From hearing a little boy's cheer when his adoption was finalized to learning about sexual abuse of minors and beyond, I never imagined that my life would lead me down this path.
I grew up with friends whose parents kept foster children. Watching them, I developed an appreciation for the work that foster families do. I came to view them in much the same way as missionaries to third world countries. Worthy of an incredible amount of respect, but a mission that was definitely not my calling.
In college, there was no way I wanted to get involved in psychology or social work degrees. I'd heard enough of the drama that went on from my fostering friends to know that I would not have the patience for it. Again, respect for those who choose the fields, but still not my calling.
Then ten years after getting my degree in General Studies, I was job hunting. I had worked a myriad of full and part time jobs. I had even spent a few years as a stay-at-home-mom, but I was looking for something new, challenging, and fulfilling. In short, I was looking for a career. I happened to see a posting for an administrative assistant at CASA for York County. I looked at the skill set required and said "I can do that." Then I started learning about the mission of CASA for York County. And I found an organization I could believe in.
Six months after that I attended a workshop on childhood sexual abuse and had the most unexpected reaction. It took me three days to figure it out, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to know what the long term effects of abuse were. I wanted to know how the abuse would affect the development of children. So I went back to college for a Psychology degree, while continuing to work in the office at CASA for York County.
And with each class, each case, each workshop, I become more certain that this is where I belong. I may not be cut out to take in abused and neglected children. I may not be the person to work with families to get them back on track. But, I am the person to stand behind those people and give them the support they need. Maybe in the future I can take a more direct role. But for now I am right where I need to be.
There are many ways to help abused and neglected children. Some people work directly with the families. Some work only with the parents or the children. Some people donate money or resources. If you have a heart for getting directly involved, then hats off to you. But if that isn't your thing, there are still ways that you can help. Don't let fear or a belief that you aren't cut out for this field keep you from doing something.
I went from believing I would never be a part of the child welfare system. But I learned otherwise. Now when people ask me why I work at CASA for York County, I can say, "This is where I found my calling."
Melody K. Coehoorn
"Once you stop learning, you start dying." - Albert Einstein
Well I can say I'm not dying yet, and by the time you finish this post, hopefully you can say the same. One of our volunteers taught me something the other day, and she doesn't even know it.
But first, some background. You see, after they finish their initial training, we ask all of our volunteers to do an addition 12 hours of training every year. It's not as bad as you think. It can be reading a book, or watching a movie, or attending a workshop. Then they do a little write up, just a paragraph or two, about what they learned. It's really not that hard.
One of our volunteers was a little short on hours last year, so over the holidays she was trying to get caught up. I came back to the office to find a stack of write-ups she had submitted about podcasts from the National CASA website. I didn't know that there were podcasts on the National CASA site. Well that's one new thing that I learned. I start logging all the inservice for this volunteer, and one of the topics in a podcast jumped out at me. So I went to the site and found the podcast and listened to it while I was working. (For the record, it was "Speaking Up for Autism" from May 2011.) As a result, I logged half an hour of inservice myself while I was at work, because I listened to a podcast about advocating for an autistic child.
Imagine that. I managed to get a start on my own inservice for the year without taking time away from anything else that I had to or wanted to do. And it can work that way for you. Are you a fan of Lifetime Movies? We have another volunteer who logs most of her inservice hours by watching them. Do you like to read? Our Executive Director, Carol, got about 2.5 hours credit last year by reading a novel that related to our work.
Learning doesn't have to be boring. Inservice doesn't have to mean sitting in a lecture for several hours. There are many ways of learning. And there is always something new for you to learn.
Melody K. Coehoorn
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Dr. Celeste Napier about the effect of addictions on the brain. In many ways this was an overview of a huge topic because the speaker talked about the different types of addictions, how they affect the brain, treatment methods, and how society views addiction. Since so many of the families we work with have substance abuse as one of their issues, I really got a lot out of this lecture.
Dr. Napier pointed out that up until recently, drug abuse has been cited as evidence of moral degeneracy. As a child I certainly got the impression that only "bad" people used drugs. But science has shown us that's not really the case. We now know that some people have a genetic predisposition to addictions. We also have a better understanding of exactly what addictions do to the brain that makes them so hard to break.
Dr. Napier cited a NIDA resource that compared addictions to an illness. She said this isn't an illness like strep throat where you take some antibiotics and you are all better. Addiction is more like diabetes or hypertension and asthma. All four are diseases that will affect the rest of your life, and will have instances of relapse. According to the slides shown in the presentation, diabetes has a relapse rate of about 30-50%, while the rates for asthma and hypertension are around 50-70%. The relapse rate for drug addiction is 40-60% - right there in the middle. If someone's blood sugar or blood pressure numbers go up, we don't automatically say that the treatments failed. It means that the patient fell back on bad habits or stopped taking their prescription medications. Likewise, the relapse of a drug addict is not indicative of treatment failure. It's normal and expected. It means that treatment needs to be restarted or adjusted. Also many of the medications given to help "break" addictions are only given for about 90 days. After that time is up, the patient is on his own with a brain that is still wired to addictive behaviors. He is going to fail until his brain has a chance to rewire itself, and even then, he will always remember how the drugs made him feel and he will continue to have occasions where he wants that again.
A diabetic isn't going to stop wanting cheesecake just because she's on Metformin or insulin. She still has fight the urge to indulge in a negative behavior - in her case it's the dessert table at a holiday gathering. This is no different from what the parents we work with deal with. They have a mental illness that they will be living with for the rest of their lives. This is why DHHS, the court, and CASA enter the picture. Because of what the parents are dealing with, because of how the addictions have rewired their brains, they need help to take care of their children. We're not here to be the bad guys. We are here to make sure the children are safe while DHHS works to get the parents on the path to remission. That is also why cases are not open and shut as soon as the parents complete a treatment program. We all keep working with the families until the parents are ready to take responsibility for themselves and for their children.
Melody K. Coehoorn
"Christmas is a day of meaning and traditions, a special day spent in the warm circle of family and friends."
When I was a little girl, the tree was always topped with a needlepoint Santa that my mom made, and right below it was the 1984 Chicago Cubs Division Champs ornament. Oak Ridge Boys Christmas was our soundtrack in the car. We didn't always open gifts at home. Many years we travelled to see one set of grandparents or the other - bonus if my cousins were also there.
As teenagers, my brother and I (though mostly it was my brother, who is a bit of a Griswold) took on decorating the house and the tree. Our high school chorus would have our annual Christmas concert and at some point we would go sing carols at the county courthouse. Gifts and stockings would be opened Christmas Morning.
Christmas with my kids means cleaning the whole house before we can get to the fun stuff. Then we bake and decorate cookies to take to the emergency service personnel who are on duty Christmas Eve. Finally we get to open gifts while munching on cheese and veggie trays with an assortment of Christmas music playing in the background.. Then cookies and cider are left out for Santa, who will arrive to fill our stockings during the night.
Every family has their Christmas traditions, but not all traditions are lovely and worthy. Christmas adds a lot of stress. That stress can cause adults to engage in destructive behavior, such as excessive drinking or fighting. And the children are the ones who suffer for it. This is where you can step in and help. If you know a family is struggling, find a way to help them out. See if it would be okay for your family to give some gifts their kids. Or adopt a family through a local program, like the York News-Times Adopt-a-Family for Christmas.
Even in families that aren't visited by Santa, Christmas should be a time of joy for children. It is a time to share love and goodwill. There are so many ways to spread happiness this season that no one should feel unloved. Make spreading joy a part of your Christmas traditions.
Melody K. Coehoorn
Normally I'm writing about what you can do to help the people around you or I'm attempting to explain to you what the kids we serve go through. But not today. Today I want to focus on you.
Here's the deal, if you are running on fumes, you want to pull your hair out, or you are giving thought to running away and starting again somewhere else.... well, you're no good to any one. We love to hear stories about people who are completely selfless and are constantly giving to others. But NO ONE can do that 100% of the time. At some point you have to stop and care for yourself. Your body will make you. There is a reason why you get sick when you can least afford to spend a day out of commission. It's because you have pushed yourself too hard for too long. Some jobs, paid or volunteer, are more demanding than others. When you work with abuse survivors, this downtime - this self-care - is essential. If you don't take time to see to your own physical or mental needs, you can't keep up what you are doing. That's when burnout happens. And we don't want anyone to burn out.
So what can you do? Well, personally, I like to color, or read, or sew, or bake when I'm stressed out. I find fun things to do that will give me a change of pace and something else to think about for a while. Last summer, when I was at the Nebraska Victim Assistance Academy, my self-care one night was to go over to a chocolate shoppe and get myself a few sweet treats to savor. Carol, our executive director, likes to use deep breathing and yoga. Maureen, our volunteer supervisor, enjoys walking, meditating, or calling a friend. One of my sisters-in-law is an ER nurse and she likes to switch out her nail wraps. The variety of colors and patterns in the designs helps keep her happy.
There are lots of things you can do to care for yourself. Here are a few places to look for suggestions.
64 Ideas for Self-Care
18 Ways to Relax and Unwind in 5 Minutes
Pinterest - Self-Care Ideas
The internet is full of ways to relax and de-stress. There is no shortage of ideas. You just have to make yourself practice one or two. It can be anything from a few deep breaths between tasks or a five minute walk or an hour of fun reading. Just do something to restore yourself. We want your help. But we don't want you to help at the expense of your own well-being.
Melody K. Coehoorn
"I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people." ~ Maya Angelou
Kids need heroes. They need adults they can look up to and admire. But in this era of reality television, when crudity is mistaken for humor and abrasive personalities are seen as talented individuals, these heroes can be hard to find.
It doesn't help that for years, celebrities would neglect their education to become famous. How can we expect children to focus in school when the latest teen heartthrob dropped out of school to achieve fame? Why would kids put in the effort to excel in academics or extra-curricular activities when there are celebrities who get attention just because daddy has money?
It is so hard to find public figures who are good role models for my children. So I have to give kudos to a few that my husband has pointed out to our kids. First there is Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a safety for the Green Bay Packers. Ha Ha dropped out of college before his senior year to join the NFL draft. But he has been continuing his education during the off-season and plans to graduate with a degree in Criminal Justice next fall. His plan is to join the police when he retires from the NFL. Then there is John Urshel, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, who has announced that he is about to begin work on a doctoral degree in Mathematics. Before joining the NFL, he completed a bachelor's degree from Penn State in three years and then a master's degree a year later while teaching Integral Vector Calculus Trigonometry. We don't normally associate athletes with brilliant minds, but I have to say, I'm impressed with these guys. They are showing that there is so much more to life than just wealth and fame. These gentlemen have also shown an awareness that young people look up to them and have chosen to set a good example on and off the field.
But there is more to be done. Children shouldn't have to look to celebrities for their heroes. This morning I heard a college student give a speech about the most successful person he knows. The person he talked about? His mom. He said she was the most successful person he knew, because she was also the happiest. She had learned to find happiness in whatever situation she found herself in. And that was the example she set for her children.
You can be a Hero to the children around you. Don't point at a public figure and say "That is who you should be." Take your kids out with you to help in your community and show them "This is who I am and who I want you to be." If you know children who don't have a good role model at home, you can step up and be their hero. And for the kids you don't yet know, you can become a CASA volunteer.
Melody K. Coehoorn
Is pedophilia a sexual preference or a mental disorder? Are all pedophiles destined to molest children? Is it possible to stop a pedophile before he ever offends?
These are the questions asked, and attempted to answer, in this documentary by Steve Humphries (available on Netflix). I want to make clear that this documentary does not seek to raise sympathy for the predators who have hurt children. Instead, Mr. Humphries focuses on the effects of child sex abuse on the victims and to raise awareness that some men, who find themselves sexually aroused by children, do not act on that arousal. He also looks at how pedophiles have been treated by British society and what other countries, like Germany, are doing to help the men who seek it.
Should pedophiles be held accountable for molesting children? Yes. That point is never debated. But what about the men who face the temptation without giving in? What about the men who know it is wrong and want help so that they never give in? That is the point of this documentary.
Most of the time, society can only react to abuse after it has happened and come to light. But to truly protect children, we need to identify the causes of abuse and encourage potential abusers to get help before someone is hurt.
Melody K. Coehoorn
Our Volunteer Supervisor, Maureen, is putting together a group to go through Volunteer Training. If you've been thinking about becoming a CASA Volunteer, now is a good time to contact Maureen (email@example.com) to get involved.
If you are on the fence, well, I was listening to Pandora this morning and I want to share this song with you. There are a few words in particular that I want you to listen to and reflect on.
"Well, I just couldn't bear the thought of
People living in poverty
Children sold into slavery
The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, "God, why don't You do something?"
He said, "I did, I created you"
If not us, then who
If not me and you
Right now, it's time for us to do something
If not now, then when
Will we see an end
To all this pain
It's not enough to do nothing
It's time for us to do something"
Read more: Matthew West - Do Something Lyrics | MetroLyrics
Not too long ago I was reading an article where Elijah Wood (of Lord of the Rings fame) stated that child abuse is rampant in Hollywood. Corey Feldman, who was a child actor in Hollywood, is one of the victims that Wood was referring too. But according to Feldman, because of the Statute of Limitations, his abuser is now protected by the law, and justice cannot be served unless a current victim comes forward.
So what is this Statute that Mr. Feldman is talking about? Well each state has a rule about how much time you can take to report a crime before too much time has passed. Beyond that time frame, the accuser will be the one in legal trouble. In Mr. Feldman's case, because he lives in California, the Statute of Limitations says that for sexual offenses against a minor, charges must be filed before the minor is 28 years old. In the case of rape, the victim has only 10 years to bring charges against the rapist. If Mr. Feldman were to name his abuser today, he could be sued for defamation of character by his abuser. And so, even though he has reached a point where he can talk about his abuse, the law forces his silence.
I have a big problem with this.
According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, there are a number of reasons why a child may have trouble talking about abuse. The child may experience memory loss, or lack the ability to clearly communicate the trauma to an adult. It is likely that the trauma was inflicted by someone that the child trusts, and in doing so the child may not be able to handle the cognitive dissonance of being hurt by someone trusted. So the child may suppress them memory in order to preserve the relationship. Or the abuser may tell the child to keep quiet because no one will believe the child.
All these reasons build to why a child may be unable to talk about abuse until long after it has stopped. But our legal system does not always allow children the time they need before saying it is too late to punish the abuser. In Hawaii, sexual assault against a minor must be reported within 3 - 6 years of the trauma, otherwise the abuser faces no legal repercussions. But what if the minor in question is too young to understand what happened? What if a 3 year old is abused, but doesn't realize it, or isn't ready to say anything until she is 16?
Even adults have trouble admitting they have been raped. A recent rape victim, in a letter to the court and her rapist, even admitted that she did not want anyone to know what happened to her, until she found out that it was getting national attention. This was not a child. This was an adult woman who had the ability to speak for herself. And it took at least a week just for her to tell her parents and boyfriend what had happened. Even then, if there had not be media attention on her rape, she wouldn't have said anything. And yet we expect children who don't have the vocabulary or a loud enough voice to speak up?
The Statute of Limitations on child sexual assault should have no expiration. There is no time frame for being able to speak up about trauma. Fortunately Nebraska does not have a Statute of Limitations for Sexual assault of a minor. To learn about the Statute of Limitations in your state, you can look here. If your state does have a time limit on reporting sexual assault, particularly of a minor, contact your representative in your state legislature and your state's Attorney General. Child abusers need to be accountable for the trauma they inflict, regardless of when the trauma occurred.
Melody K. Coehoorn