By Shay Bilchik,
President and CEO, CWLA
I was heartened to read a recent sermon by the Reverend Douglas Oldenburg to a congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina. CWLA member Frank Crawford, Executive Director at Youth Homes Inc., shared a copy of the sermon with me because of its fervent message not to forget the millions of children in this country living in poverty, that every one of us must demonstrate a commitment to children.
Oldenburg outlined the sad statistics that those of us working in child welfare are all too familiar with--1 in 6 children in the United States lives below the poverty line, about 13 million American children are either hungry or at risk of hunger, and about 11 million American children have no health insurance. Oldenburg encourages us to remember the needs of all of our children, with a special concern for those in greatest need.
With faith currently a hot button issue on newspaper editorial pages and over morning cups of coffee, the message Reverend Oldenburg conveys between society's problems and the responsibilities of people holding strong religious and ethical beliefs will hopefully extend beyond the church door. Indeed, from political campaign trails to school board meetings, we're a society that talks a lot right now about faith and family values and their role in our culture.
Reverend Oldenburg's sermon, and all of the discussion about faith, for me, not only stirs reflection about general societal and moral responsibilities toward needy children, but also raises the question about whether we as a society are upholding the child welfare system under the same bedrock principles we are taught in our sanctuaries, temples, mosques, and elsewhere--such as practicing kindness and forgiveness, and performing good deeds for others. The answer, quite simply, is that we talk a much better game than we play.
The child welfare system serves some 500,000 children in foster care because they've been abused and neglected and we've not done enough to prevent it. Each year, we recognize May as National Foster Care month as a continuing reminder to our society that these children need our love, support, and faith in their future. The fact that children in foster care are without permanent, loving homes, and that millions more live in poverty is, as Oldenburg's sermon points out, "horrible and scandalous, but the most scandalous and debilitating poverty is not theirs. It's ours. It's our deadening poverty of will."
To practice what Oldenburg preaches requires not only watching out for our own children, but also for the kids in our neighborhoods by volunteering to participate in local tutoring and mentoring programs. It also means advocating for public policy, and voting for tax levies that support and extend services for families and children. It means preventing the abuse and neglect of children the first time, or eliminating their risk of enduring harm a second time.
In addition to fully embracing the notion that all of society's children are our children, we must not forget the power of forgiveness. Understandably, it's hard for us to comprehend why a parent or guardian would abuse or neglect their children, but this does not justify turning our backs on those parents by adopting a mind-set that they should never parent their children again. This is not only a disservice to their children, it's a disservice to the notion of hope, forgiveness, and resilience, and it's a sign of our losing faith in the goodness of mankind altogether.
Studies have shown, for example, that as many as 80% of children in the child welfare system are there because one or both of their parents is dependent on drugs. Over the years, we've learned a great deal about what works to treat addiction, and those interventions are taking hold in many communities. So on a humanistic level, as well as a scientific one, let's have faith in human nature that drug-addicted parents can be rehabilitated, turn their lives around, and become healthy, nurturing caregivers; let's forgive them for the wrong they've committed, instead of simply judging them to be hopeless causes.
Reverend Oldenburg's message is one we should hear more from our clergy and other leaders. If we addressed the problems that result in the need for a child welfare system with the same fervor we live other parts of our lives, including our religious beliefs, then we would see a much stronger commitment and investment, and find much greater success in making every effort to ensure that no child would be harmed.
To cite Oldenburg once more, "There is something every one of us can do," and no one has any excuse for not becoming somehow involved in helping our children, however little it may seem. I add my voice to Reverend Oldenburg's and hope that, as a society, our values and faith deepen in our commitment to this nation's most vulnerable children, and I thank him for his passionate words of wisdom and caring.
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