As George Floyd was laid to rest, I was reminded that after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, I realized for the first time that black adolescents were at greater risk of harm than their white peers. I was actually embarrassed that it took me so long to understand that the typical bravado and unwarranted self-assurance of an adolescent may be seen as menacing and threatening because of the color of their skin. That in a moment an innocent uncalculated gesture could be misinterpreted resulting in life threatening harm. A Black colleague of mine shared with me that the racial unrest of the last couple of weeks has brought to the surface the constant fear she lives with knowing that her child could be subjected to violence simply because of skin color. When I think of all the Black children and youth we serve and the behavior they display that is rooted in the traumas they have experienced I worry that they too may be misinterpreted and as a result be in jeopardy.
As I shared my concern with Black friends, they all told me of “the talk” that their parents had with them cautioning them to be careful outside the comfort of their own homes especially of law enforcement. That kind of suspicion is reinforced by the blatant murder of George Floyd and the countless other incidents of fatal interventions by law enforcement that resulted in the killing of unarmed Black Americans.
As much as we point to civil rights reforms, there can be no denying that racism is the dominant undercurrent of our culture. Racism is the legacy of centuries of slavery and is a constant reality that haunts our society as a whole and presents a daily threat to the Black community and indeed all people of color.
The protests that have swept our nation have brought together people of all races, genders, ages, sexual orientations and socioeconomic status to raise a voice for change. The change is long overdue. In the midst of the unrest, we have witnessed something remarkable, a commonly held desire for justice and equality. The most compelling scenes have been of law enforcement and civil rights activists standing together to protest the lingering effects of racism and call for change.
Authentic change comes about when we can admit that there are stereotypes and biases that influence how we perceive one another. Change happens when we let go of the fears we have of those who are different and embrace the diversity that has the potential to enrich our lives and our communities. Change comes about when we understand the privilege we enjoy and our responsibility to use it for the advancement of freedom and justice for all regardless of skin color.
Much has been said since George Floyd’s death, voices have been raised to express horror, anger, sadness and resolve. Words are empty expressions unless they are followed by decisive commitments to finally change the status quo and get back on the journey begun decades ago to insure civil rights for all people of color. Our heighten awareness of the impact racism has on all aspects of our society must drive us to review how we conduct our lives, businesses, organizations and institutions with a commitment to create an equitable and just society. Our choices regarding those we entrust with the privilege of governing must reinforce our resolve to make change happen. Together we can thwart the tragedy of persistent racism and realize the dream of freedom.
At Hillsides, we pledge to increase our awareness of racism and its impact on the organization and establish a senior level work group to examine issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. This group will review our policies in order to assure an environment that provides opportunity and fairness for all clients and employees alike. This commitment will be incorporated into our new strategic plan to guide all aspects of the organization from governance to the direct care of those we serve. This initiative will develop reforms that will better equip us to serve our Black clients and support a diverse work force.
We pride ourselves in creating lasting change for all those we serve, it is our goal to use this historic moment to reinforce our capacity to fulfill this mission and be an instrument of change to bring about greater equity and justice.
There has been some debate about who exactly falls into the category of essential workers during this time of COVID-19 quarantine. Most agree that health care workers, first responders and grocery store personnel fall into this category. And there are of course many other groups of people providing indispensable services who we do not hear about as often and they do so while putting themselves and their families at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Included among the essential workers are the direct care staff at Hillsides and other child-serving facilities like ours.
Early on, it became clear that a response to the virus would include a stay-at-home approach for an extended period. In light of the Safer at Home order, Hillsides was quick to identify the staff who would be responsible for the care of children in the residential treatment program and the community-based clients who would require an in-person intervention because of a mental health crisis. Using public health guidance, we began to determine what items would be required to maintain safe client contact while mitigating exposure to the virus. Gloves, masks, protective garments and sanitizers were obtained as quickly as we could. Protocols were developed and put in place to govern operating in an unpredictable environment. Technology was deployed to allow for remote delivery of services as much as possible. To date, these measures have kept both clients and staff safe and healthy.
The unknowns with this virus remain the greatest source of concern. In spite of such uncertainty, our residential services staff and those providing in-person contact with clients in the community are doing so not because of the additional “hazard pay” we provided but because they are unquestionably committed to the wellbeing of those they serve. They are among the many heroes of this pandemic who selflessly tend to children, youth and their families whose vulnerabilities are intensified by COVID-19. They provide services worrying about not only their own health but also for the wellbeing and safety of their families. This is a lot to ask of our employees. It exceeds the expectations of the job description. They have demonstrated extraordinary dedication. In the midst of anxiety and stress, they remain calm and focused and have done an admirable job reassuring clients as best they can and maintaining an environment of caring.
As we recognize employees who maintain direct contact with clients, we also acknowledge all our employees who reached out to all we serve and began to provide care remotely within 72 hours. Our doors have remained open and we have actually increased our capacity to serve those who are most vulnerable during this unprecedented crisis. Heroes are among us, unassuming, determined to support and care for those who need it most. To an exceptional cadre of employees, we voice a heartfelt THANK YOU for being our heroes.
Since the introduction of “shelter in place” measures here and around the country, child welfare systems have reported a significant decline in child abuse reports. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times noted the trend here in Los Angeles and similar stories have emerged in numerous other parts of the country. The decline in reports seems counter-intuitive since the pandemic has created conditions that often lead to abuse such as unemployment, loss of health insurance, and congested living environments, particularly for families who are vulnerable and at risk of experiencing abuse. Add to that mental health or substance dependence issues and a poor situation can quickly become desperate, traumatic and tragic, especially for children.
So why the drop in reports of such abuse? Typically school personnel are the eyes into a home because of their regular contact and interaction with children and their families. But with the temporary closures of school and childcare centers, those eyes and ears who are trained to spot abuse have been sidelined. No one believes that there is less abuse or neglect—there’s likely more happening because of this pandemic. We just don’t know what exactly is going on while families are so isolated and it is frightening to think that some children may be experiencing abuse with no safety net to watch over them.
Hillsides has a number of programs that supports children and their families who are at risk of abuse or neglect. Because of protocols related to COVID-19, our physical access to these families has been limited and dependent on technology-based contact, mostly through teleconferencing. During these “visits,” children are asked to speak in a room alone away from family and phone cameras have been used to scan the home to assess the physical environment. None of these measures are foolproof or truly allay any concerns. As a result, it is sometimes required that workers brave the risks of exposure to the virus to visit a child and family in order to mitigate any potential abuse.
These situations are not approached naively. However, the most effective posture with these families is to be seen as partners committed to easing the conditions that place the family at risk. Especially at a time when their needs are intensified because of COVID-19, families are looking for resources to address their concerns and keep everyone safe and healthy.
More than ever, now is the time for us to be a good neighbor and stay in touch with family members to be a supportive presence helping to ease the isolation, anxiety and material needs they may have. We all need a lifeline, especially at such a desperate time for some. Our caring and supportive presence can be the one thing that keeps a family from falling into a tragic cycle of violence and keep a frightened child safe.
Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness month. We thought it was a great time to ask Hillsides senior clinical manager Paul Inglizian, LCSW, for his top tips on how to keep a family mentally healthy and happy. Below is his down-to-earth, wise wisdom that all families can use.
By Alison Bell
How to keep your family mentally healthy and happy? While there is no foolproof formula, these tips can help you and your family thrive:
Schedule a regular family meeting
Have your family meet once a week or every other week to share feelings and talk out issues. Regular meetings give your family a chance to communicate and connect on a regular basis. You may want to use a “talking stick” to help each member receive equal talking time. Whichever family member holds the stick gets everyone’s undivided attention until he or she is ready to pass it on.
Create family rituals
Many families work so hard and have so many obligations, they forget to have fun. Creating family rituals can bring your family closer together. Schedule a regular pizza night on Thursday evenings or establish a Sunday afternoon family walk. The more enjoyable activities you do together, the more you will enjoy and appreciate each other.
Take time for yourself
Parents give so much to their children that they often feel exhausted and depleted. However, even the best parents can’t give to their children all the time. It’s important to take out time for yourself so you can meet your needs. Go out with friends to a movie, take an art class, or curl up with a good book for an hour or two – whatever brings you joy and replenishes your soul. Taking care of yourself will give you more energy and patience to take care of your kids.
Create a support network
Make sure you have at least one or two people you can turn to in tough times, such as a friend, family member, or neighbor. Your support system can give you the reassurance, comfort, and friendship you need when you are feeling overwhelmed. If you don’t feel you have a strong support network, work on building one by joining a parenting group, reconnecting with old friends, or starting a new activity with people who share your interests and values.
Be the adult you want your child to become
Our children learn by watching us. Even if we don’t think they are noticing the way we act and what we say, they are. Therefore, the best way to teach positive traits, such as kindness and respect, is by modeling them ourselves. This is not to say you have to be perfect all the time; we’re all human. However, it’s important to keep in mind how much influence we have in shaping our children’s behavior.
Step back from confrontation
If a conversation among family members grows heated, take a break before the discussion escalates even further. Say something like, “Let’s all take a moment to cool down before we talk about this any further.” Give everyone five minutes to regroup, then come back to the conversation. Chances are, by then, everyone will be much calmer and you can work as a team to effectively communicate and problem-solve.
Stay alert to any changes
You know your child best. If you notice a sudden change in mood, behavior, or performance in school, don’t ignore it. Talk to your child to try to learn the cause of the change. Then, you can come up with an action plan to improve the situation. Let your child know you will continue to be there for him or her in the future. Continue to observe any changes and step in quickly when you see your child needs help.
Be real with your children
Parents think they need to be brave all the time and never show weakness, but that’s not true. It’s normal to show emotions, such as sadness or anxiety. It’s okay, for example, to admit to your child, “I had a bad day at work and don’t feel so great.” Often, simply by expressing how you feel, you will automatically feel better. In addition, being honest with your children validates any emotions they may be feeling and gives them permission to express them.
Practice patience during rocky times
Getting through daily life can be hard enough. Then, when you’re hit with a major stressor, such as the death of a loved one, a change in finances, or a move to a new place, your entire family can become unbalanced. When a change or crisis happens, know that everyone in your family may process the loss or transition differently. Some may also take longer to recover than others. Practice being patient, not only with your family, but with yourself.
Know when to get help
Stress or depression can affect all families and manifest itself in many ways, such as irritability, insomnia, headaches or stomachaches. If you or someone in your family is showing symptoms of distress, first visit a medical doctor to rule out a physical problem. Next, don’t hesitate to reach out and get mental health services, from Hillsides (www.hillsides.org) or another agency. There are many resources out there to help you, no matter what you are facing. You are never alone.
The recent school shooting in Highland Ranch, Colorado prompted the community there to gather in a vigil to recall the heroism of one student who perished tackling the shooter, another fellow student. At one point during the vigil, the assembly chanted “mental health” repeatedly, perhaps as a plea for additional mental health services to help address the ubiquitous gun violence that plagues our schools. Nationally, on a weekly basis, there is gun-related violence. Lives senselessly lost and trauma generated. These gun-related tragedies are so common that we no longer seem to be outraged, but rather acquiescent. Demoralized, we no longer cry out for gun control but rather seek additional security and mental health services to mitigate the inevitable tragedy that will touch all of us at some point.
The students that night in Highland Ranch chanted mental health, overwhelmed by a type of tragedy that seems to have no end and promises to escalate. Our children have been robbed of any sense of security; all of us live with the dread of receiving a call notifying us our child has been harmed or worse. This is the price we pay to maintain our constitutional right to bear arms.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental illness is the most undiagnosed ailment. Overlooked by many because of the stigma associated with it, mental illness is masked by coping strategies, lack of awareness, isolation, shame, limited availability of services, and often indifference. When treated, those suffering from mental illness can find their pain and sense of alienation eased, and can go on to lead a happy and full life. Treatment can keep those affected with mental illness from desperate acts and spare them and others from harm.
Dealing with mental illness can be overwhelming. For family, friends, and caregivers of those experiencing episodes of mental illness, the ease of access to firearms only adds to a sense of concern. Certainly, advocating for additional resources to increase access to mental health services is critical. Funding through the Mental Health Services Act has provided some needed services through our community-based programs. Soliciting for funding for mental health services in our schools would provide resources desperately needed for fiscally strained education systems.
Although advocating for additional mental health services is important, it does not address the fundamental issue of easy access to firearms. As tempted as we may be to acquiesce, we must not give up calling for reasonable gun control measures if we are serious about securing the safety of our schools and the well-being of our children.
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