I will never forget the first time I had to file a “51A”, the form that must be filed with the social services agency if a parent is suspected of engaging in child abuse. This can lead to a child being removed from their parent’s custody. You don’t have to be a social worker to understand the emotional impact of filing a 51A.
To me, the act is incomprehensible, whether physical or emotional. How could a mother treat her own child like that? Isn’t she supposed to be protective, understanding, and nurturing? Shouldn’t the mother instill trust in a child, so that she can be confident her child will always be truthful with her?
My inability to understand how a mother could think anything else stirred up a lot of anger. Drawing from my own experiences, it pains me to see a child fall victim to abuse. A child is so helpless, and for a parent to betray her role as the protector is inexcusable.
That doesn’t mean filing the form was easy. Somewhere in this cloud of emotions, guilt crept in. As a professional, I had to decide whether my judgment was good enough, since it might lead to the enforced dissolution of this family, however dismal that “family” appeared. It is easy to assume that the best course would to remove the child, but I’m still an outsider coming into someone else’s world. Who am I to decide whether or not this child is taken away from their mother? I’ll never forget the look on this woman’s face when we told her we had filed the form. She instantly began to cry and pleaded that we didn’t take her children away
We try to use empathy as a tool to manage guilt. In this particular case, I tried to understand the challenges the mother was constantly up against. Here was this single mother who was fleeing a domestic violence relationship herself, working a full time job, and living a communal situation with people who didn’t speak her language or understand her culture.
At the end of the day I made the call and knew it was the right thing to do. We explained to the mother that an investigation would take place and the department would assist in finding resources that would help her family. My take-away: set aside your personal opinions and feelings, and always remember victims are those who don’t have control—the kids.