Last summer the media was awash in pictures of a doe-eyed toddler whose body was found in a garbage bag near Boston. Dubbed Baby Doe, the little girl remained unclaimed and unnamed for almost three months.
In this week’s New Yorker, Jill Lepore, staff writer and Harvard professor, details what happened next. Despite careful forensic analysis of Baby Doe’s DNA, not until someone close to her family came forward was she identified as Bella Bond. Soon afterward, her mother and her mother’s boyfriend were arrested.
In many ways the case is unexceptional – and sadly, according to Lepore, inevitable.
“Child protection is trapped in a cycle of scandal and reform,” she writes. The public is repeatedly shocked by high-profile cases of abuse and murder, reforms are proposed and tried, and nothing really changes.
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Where Lepore blames the pendulum swing of public policy, I think the problem is a deeper one. As Americans, we say we value children, but our actions prove otherwise. We value youthfulness but not young people. We celebrate our entertainers and reward them financially, but contrast that with the salaries of childcare workers and social workers and school bus drivers and teachers – the people we entrust with our children.
If we truly valued children, we wouldn’t let them spend their days in overcrowded buildings with black mold and rats. If we genuinely valued children, they would have access to a challenging curriculum and necessary supplies. Technology wouldn’t be a luxury for the well-off. Every school would have a thriving arts program, and children would be encouraged to be creative as well as critical thinkers.
If we valued children, we would want the best educated and trained teachers leading their classrooms. Education programs in universities would be well-funded and rigorous, and beginning teachers would be closely supervised by veteran teachers before launching into classrooms of their own.
That doesn’t happen. Instead, many school districts staff their most impoverished schools with untrained, inexperienced novices or long-term substitutes. They pay them poorly, offer them little support, and watch the majority leave within five years. The churn keeps the school culture in chaos – and the public points fingers and blames the schools when children aren’t successful academically. That steady drumbeat of blame has made teaching such an unattractive profession that serious teacher shortages loom nationwide.
If we valued children, we would take the lessons of researchers to heart – that class size matters, that investments in child health and family support services pay off in higher graduation rates and less community crime. We would admit that poverty is the major stumbling block to academic success and commit ourselves to a more just society.
If we valued all children– not just our own – we wouldn’t write some off as thugs or worthless or the undeserving poor. We wouldn’t confuse “authoritarian” for “authoritative” discipline policies. We wouldn’t punish children for the sins of their parents.
If we valued children, we’d focus on the big picture instead of insisting that the bottom line is the only view. We would ensure our own children’s future safety and happiness by addressing the very real needs of other people’s children now – the children who will grow up to be our children’s citizen companions. We’d put our shoulder to the wheel instead of shrugging with resignation, do the heavy lifting now instead of throwing up our hands – if we valued children.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.