Voice for the Vulnerable

In honor of Child Welfare Worker Appreciation Week, we would love to share some insights from our Executive Director who spent several years as a social worker on the front lines.

As a former Child Abuse Investigator, I have interviewed hundreds and hundreds of children. Similar techniques, building rapport and trust, allowing them to tell me their story. Given the nature of the job, a large percentage of these interviews resulted in the disclosure of some horrific events. It was not uncommon for my day to start with the sudden buzz of a cell phone at 3am, rush to throw on clothes, grab notepads and county paperwork, drive in the dark hours to the scene of an open law enforcement investigation.

Before most people were waking or eating breakfast, I would have already had a conversation with two small children, where they disclosed for the first time the ways they had been sexually abused by their father, while their mother watched and recorded this on film. I had already interviewed a mother and father in the back of a police car, as they explained why they sold those pictures of their sexually exploited children online for money.

In those years of investigations, I made very difficult decisions in very heated environments. I had to remove babies from their mother’s arms because they couldn’t protect their child from the drug dealing pimp who insisted on storing drugs and weapons in the crib for safekeeping. I interviewed toddlers who described to me where their parents hid the “special candy” in the dog food bag in the kitchen, as law enforcement found pounds of cocaine exactly where those kids told me. I have been in the room as other social workers broke the news to children that their mother committed suicide.

I have done hard interviews. I have carried the weight and burden of children in horrific scenarios, often as the very first person they have ever opened up to about the abuse they were experiencing.

Almost a decade later, I was working on recruitment videos for children who had once entered the foster care system due to abuse or neglect by the people who were supposed to love and protect them. They were sitting in front of me that sunny afternoon in a park, because all reunification efforts had failed. For whatever reason, their parents had not been able to complete the plans that were set up by the investigative social worker years ago, and their parental rights had been terminated. They are now in need of permanency. A family to call them their own. A place to belong.

I couldn’t shake the feeling of heaviness after the first video shoot we completed. I interviewed a handful of children that day, most of which did not share anything that had to do with the abuse or neglect they had suffered in their little lives. As I processed in the days and weeks following, I summed it up to the fact that I was a parent now. I understand what it is like to love my children well, want to protect them from any and all harm, I had become much softer.

Still, this didn’t seem to capture the weight of the experience.

Then, it hit me. These children were the same children I had interviewed 10+ years ago. A different state, a different story, a “where are they now?” follow up piece.

People have often asked me about my time as an investigator. Do I miss it? Would I ever do it again? It occurred to me, I am back to doing what I loved about that job… giving children a voice. During an investigation, my hope and goal was to make a child to feel safe enough to be heard. To create space for them to disclose whatever was needed, so that we could get them into a safe environment, protect them from their abuser, bring justice to the situation. Friends and family couldn’t understand the thrill I felt when a child I had been meeting with finally disclosed abuse. I knew, it was their disclosure that would start the healing, justice, and freedom from the control of the abuser. They now had a voice. With these videos, we are giving the child a voice to express their desires, their needs, their hopes and dreams. We are striving to give them exposure to families who will truly hear them, want to protect and love them… forever.

It breaks my heart to wonder how many of the kids I interviewed over a decade ago, will eventually need a recruitment video done. Which of those little souls who had endured so much, will by now have been labeled “hard to place”. Which of those sibling sets that were piled into the back of my car… clinging to each other…terrified, have since been separated. I remember a shaken baby I picked up from the hospital, grateful he had survived. I was so nervous every bump I hit driving to that foster home. At our first video shoot, I interviewed a foster mother about the little boy she was holding. He was in a wheel chair, nonverbal, non-mobile. He was also a victim of Shaken Baby Syndrome, and his outcome was very different. I looked into his eyes, hoped and prayed that someone who could care for this medically fragile little boy would see this video. And then I wondered what had happened to that 8 pounder in my backseat so many years ago. I prayed for him too.

Kristin Allender

Executive Director, Tennessee Kids Belong

To view videos from the I Belong Project of children currently in need of an adoptive family, please visit: Waiting Children.

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