Monday, August 10, 2009

Failure and Guilt

It’s not always easy to stir up compassion within my heart for the women I meet in the WIC Clinic. Sometimes, my judgmental side flares up and I think it is at these times that I fail to serve my clients well. I’ll never forget a time when I let my judgments get the better of me.

One of our regular clients, Alexis, was a petite woman with two small children. Her children were completely out of control during our visit. They were playing with the water at the sink, throwing toys and ripping books. They were shouting and hollering and fighting with each other. They were rummaging through my desk drawers. All the time that this chaos was occurring, Alexis did nothing to stop it. She sat and watched and didn’t speak one word of correction to her children.

Naturally, I became irritated, but I regret that I allowed the misbehavior of these children to get the better of me. I listened to Alexis speak about how tired she was and how overwhelmed she felt. She told me that she often fell asleep during the day because she was so tired, and left her 2 and 3 year old children unsupervised. Then, she told me that the last time she fell asleep during the day, her two-year-old son nearly started the house on fire by turning on the stove! She criticized her children and said that they were just plain bad and there was nothing she could do to improve their behavior. What I heard and saw were two children badly in need of loving discipline, but instead, they received criticism from their mother. I worried that these small children were in danger during their times without supervision at home.

So, rather than helping her to find resources that would help her with her parenting skills, and help her children with their social and behavior skills, I reported her to Child Protective Services for possible child neglect. I failed to look at her heart and see her pain and frustration, but instead saw her as some kind of careless mother who didn’t care about her children.

I immediately regretted the report after I made it. What have I done, I thought? How would I feel if I was having a bad day and someone did that to me? I was so upset that I couldn’t sleep that whole night. Walking into the office the next day was extremely difficult for me as I couldn’t keep my tears of regret from showing, and all of my coworkers questioned me about what was bothering me. I felt so guilty over what I had done that I could hardly talk about it. When I finally worked up the courage to speak about it, I could see by the looks on their faces that I had certainly made an error in my judgment of her. My coworkers knew Alexis better than I did and they thought of her as a loving mother who did her best for her children.

I called the caseworker from Child Protective Services for some reassurance. She told me that they would visit Alexis at her home, assess the situation, and try to offer her help in caring for her children and meeting her own needs for stress relief as well. She promised me that their goal was not to take children from their mothers. She told me that I had done the right thing.

Several weeks later, I received a letter in the mail from the caseworker. They were unable to find Alexis at home and had dropped the case. I never saw her back at the clinic. I don’t know if she had moved or just decided to go to another WIC clinic where she might be treated with more compassion than what I had shown her. One thing I do know for sure is that I will never again refer a client to Child Protective Services unless I am absolutely sure that the child in question is being abused or neglected without a doubt. In the future, I will spend more time with my clients to offer all of the possible assistance and resources that are available to them without resorting to drastic measures that could separate a family. I pray that in the future God will slow me down, open my heart and allow me to bring goodness and love to the clients I serve rather than looking down on them in their stress with judgment.


  1. I'm not sure that your reaction was all that off the mark. When in doubt, it is better to have a professional take a look. I say that as a victim of 18 years of extensive, daily child abuse -- where no one (not a teacher or a doctor or a neighbor) was willing to step forward and say, "We don't think all eight children in this family are all klutzes every day," which was the way our bruises were explained away. No one wanted to be wrong, and so we felt that we had no one to turn to. Fortunately, we had the eight of us; my brother called us the 8-pack, and we would intervene when we could on each other's behalf, feel guilty when we could not intervene, and offer each other emotional support that kept us all sane (more or less, anyway). Don't beat up on yourself. I wish there had been an Anne in my life as a child.

  2. Anne,
    We all have regrets at times and wish we could have handled things differently. As my husband says," Honey, I'm glad you are not perfect because if you were, you wouldn't be here with us now." Anne, you have a beautiful, compassionate heart. It shines in your posts.

  3. Anne,
    In the end this mother and her children got the help they needed. I too do not think your decision was as hard hearted as you think.As a teacher for more than 20 years, I've seen my share of abuse and what may appear to be abuse or neglect, in my experience it is better to be safe than sorry. Having said all that I do admire your humility in sharing this with us.
    Thanks and God Bless!

  4. Anne,
    I tried to post earlier, but basically if you had not done anything to at least alert DCYF to a woman who obviously needed some help and resources. Perhaps something may have happened that could have been far worse. You may never know how much you may have actually saved this mom and her children. It sounds to me like the mom was crying out for help. Perhaps you are the only one that actually heard her cry for help. God bless you!

  5. It's never easy to know what the right thing to do is in a situation like that. You had the best interest of the kids in mind when you made that decision, and I'm not sure that I wouldn't have done the same thing. As Karinann said, the family got the help they needed, and that's the most important thing. God bless you!

  6. Anne-what you did was in their interest, even if it was just to get the Mom some help. Again, thank you for opening yourself up and sharing this story!

  7. Anne..try not to beat yourself up about this.
    I know that is probably a lot easier said than done. You did the right uncomfortable as it was! Just keep praying for Alexis and her childrend. God almost always brings something good out of something not so good.

  8. You know, often God steps in and corrects a situation without our knowing about it. He can't be taken by surprise and knows what stupid things we are going to do. (NOT saying what you did was stupid, that word is a reference to ME and me alone!). You may very well have done the right thing, or at least perhaps it was used for the right thing. Only He knows, so turn it over to Him and let Him handle it. He will. Or...He did, probably. :-)

  9. You probably helped that mom and children more than hurt them.

    As a past recipient of WIC, I also used to judge the other moms I would see in there, until one day I realized that I WAS one of the moms in there!!

  10. At least you are learning from what you have done, but don't let the process drag you down, yeah? God loves you every bit as much as He loves them. We have a very limited ability to actually help people and some of the time, even well intentioned help, can cause more problems. In this case, you do not know, but you can HOPE that they are fine. They most likely are.
    BTW, TDY means outta town/on assignment. He's in another country.

  11. Anne,
    I don't think the behavior displayed by these children was acquired overnight. I believe you did what you felt in your heart was the right thing to do. To do the job you do requires a loving, gentle and compassionate heart. If you get to feeling bad about this situation, think about that other young mother scarffing down your lunch a few weeks ago!
    Mary Catherine

  12. Thank you for sharing this intimate feeling of guilt.
    I don't think you will ever know if you did well or not but everyone makes mistakes ... and lessons are learnt and what's important is that you go on with head held high and Jesus in your heart and continue to do your best. Just put your trust in Him.

  13. Thank you for giving us an intimate and beautiful look at the living and dynamic Divine Mercy of our Savior. Your experience shows how He shares and shapes that infinite mercy in our souls and lives!