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Category: Children (page 1 of 4)

Rehoming Troubled Children

This week, the Arkansas Times broke a tragic story about a sexually abused 6-year-old girl. The most horrifying element of this story is how the girl came to be living with the man who molested her, rather than with the family of the three-term Arkansas state legislator who had legally adopted her.

The facts, as we know them:

The girl and her sisters, who were 8 and 3, were wards of the state of Arkansas. They were in foster care when their natural parents’ parental rights were terminated. In September 2012, the Department of Human Services (DHS) placed the three girls in the home of Justin and Marsha Harris for adoption. Justin Harris is a third-term Republican state representative here in Arkansas. He sits on multiple legislative committees that oversee matters pertaining to children. He also runs an overtly Christian preschool that is unconstitutionally funded with government money.

The oldest girl stayed in the Harrises’ home for just a few weeks before DHS moved her elsewhere. It was obvious that the Harrises’ home was not the right placement for her. The Harrises did eventually adopted the two younger girls.

Then, around October 2013 – just a year after the girls had come to live with them – the Harrises “rehomed” the girls, who they claim were a danger to their family. Eventually, in March 2014, someone called in an anonymous complaint to the Child Abuse Hotline to report that the the girls were no longer in the Harris home. During DHS’s investigation of that complaint, the Harrises’ adopted 6-year-old daughter, by then living with yet another family, revealed that she was touched inappropriately by the man the Harrises had given her to.

When the perpetrator was arrested, Justin Harris made public statements about how tragic it was that any child had gone through such trauma. He never admitted that the victim was his own daughter, or that Harris himself had given her to the man who abused her. Until the anonymous complaint, no one had notified DHS that these little girls were no longer living with the Harrises, who, as their adoptive parents, were receiving a cash subsidy for their support.

Because they were foster children, we can assume that these girls were removed from their biological parents by the state because of neglect or abuse. According to the Arkansas Times story, the 6-year-old had been sexually abused by someone before she was ever placed in the Harris home. The story doesn’t reveal whether this sexual abuse was the reason for the children’s natural parents losing custody, or whether it might have happened while she was in foster care. In all likelihood, that information was not available or ascertainable by the Times reporter, because the records of juvenile courts pertaining to child abuse and neglect cases and adoption records are sealed.

When children are placed for adoption, Arkansas law requires that the adoption not be finalized until the children have been in the adoptive home for at least six months. Typically, if there is no guardianship in place, the court issues a temporary order of adoption when the children are first placed in the adoptive home.

The state might never have known but for a call to the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline in March 2014. DHS apparently investigated the abandonment by going to the older child’s school and interviewing her. The child revealed that the caller had told the truth, and that Eric Francis, the man the Harrises had given her to, had molested her. Francis confessed. The molestation had happened in January 2014.

It’s sickening that this little girl was abused, spent time in foster care, was adopted, was abandoned by her adoptive parents, was again molested by the man her adoptive parents gave her to, and was then put in yet another home. It’s horrifying that the abandonment and sexual abuse and second rehoming happened without the knowledge of DHS.

This triggers the juvenile lawyer in me.

I practiced juvenile law for more than 15 years. I saw a lot of abused and chronically neglected kids get adopted into new families. When their existing foster parents adopted them, I wasn’t worried about them nearly as much as when new families adopted them.

In defense of families who give up on children

Children who have been abused have so many emotional and behavioral problems that it takes a special family to take them in. It takes really special – and dedicated – adoptive parents to deal with all the therapy appointments, crises, acting out, insecurities, and everything else that goes along with the trauma of severe child abuse and neglect. And face it: if the abuse and neglect weren’t severe and chronic, those kids wouldn’t be in a position to be adopted.

It’s hard enough if the parent has bonded with an abused child since birth and has shared the joys of the child’s development and personality as well as the despair of something this devastating. It’s much harder to remain committed to a child with whom the parent does not have a strong bond. And it’s harder still when, because of a serious case of reactive attachment disorder, any bond between the parent and child is tenuous and volatile. In my experience, attachment disorder is tragically common in foster children and abused children.

New adoptive parents who think they can manage when they’ve only known a child for a few months have no idea what they’re getting into. The honeymoon period is real; problems may be ignored or minimized because they think the child “just needs time to adjust.” Nope. Those problems aren’t going anywhere, at least not without a lot of seriously intensive help. And truthfully, no matter how young the child was at the time of the abuse or neglect, the trauma from it lingers for a lifetime.

What’s worse, when that six month period between the court orders for the temporary and final adoption nears its end, the new adoptive parents are completely stressed out and exhausted. They don’t have an attachment disorder so they feel committed to the child, who they may not ever be able to handle. Saying no to a clearly troubled child is devastating for well-meaning and deeply compassionate people, especially when there’s an encouraging DHS caseworker standing in the wings, promising that things will improve.

There comes a point at which foster parents and adoptive parents break. Maybe it comes when their natural child is abused by the adoptee. Maybe it comes when the child sets a fire or when the parent wakes up to find the adoptee wielding a knife in a darkened bedroom with mayhem clearly on her mind. Maybe it’s when the family dog is bludgeoned to death. Maybe it’s when feces get smeared all over the walls and furniture. In the worst cases, these kids are so disturbed that they end up institutionalized. (Newsflash: There’s not a lot of love or nurture in a long-term mental institution. They don’t come out “fixed.”)  In his prepared statement yesterday, Rep. Harris said that his family was in danger from these two little girls. Even at the ages of 4 and 6, that might well have been true.

What to do when adoptions go wrong

I have no doubt that the Harrises meant well when they adopted these children. The problem isn’t that they wanted to adopt. I’m sure they had every intention of giving these children their “forever” home. The problem is that when the adoption went south, they passed already-traumatized children off to non-professionals who had not been vetted. The Harrises had no way of knowing whether the new home would meet the needs of children whose needs the Harrises apparently could not meet. Without the help of the state, it’s highly unlikely that the severe emotional issues of these children – issues that caused the Harris adoption to fail – could get addressed adequately.

I won’t condemn the Harrises for giving up on a pair of seriously troubled children. I’ve worked with these kinds of kids and their natural, foster, and adoptive families. I’ve seen how tough it can be to live with a deeply disturbed child. It’s can be emotionally and physically draining for the parents and completely disruptive to other children already in the home. Not everyone can or should take on such a situation. When they realize the situation is beyond them, the potential adoptive parents should throw in the towel – it’s best for the child and for themselves. So, no, I don’t condemn the Harrises for deciding that these children shouldn’t live in their home.

When a situation with a child gets that bad, though, there are avenues for relief. The first thing parents can do is seek medical intervention for the child. This kind of help includes mental health treatment, therapy, and even institutional treatment. If the parents can’t afford the medical or mental health treatment, they can tap the resources of the state.

Arkansas juvenile law allows parents of troubled children to file a petition with the court to claim status as a “Family in Need of Services” (FINS). Even with no resources of their own or only modest ones, families can ask the state for assistance with therapy, treatment, and even temporary foster care for their troubled children. By saying formally that they can’t cope with their child’s problems alone, they are not deemed bad parents. Parents who avail themselves of the state’s resources are not abandoning their children, even if a judge decides that the child should be removed from their home – and even if the parent asks the court to remove the child from the home for the safety of one or more other family members. When parents have to choose which of their children to protect, they need the help of the system.

With a FINS action, the parent can ask that the state take custody of the child. There are special foster homes that are specifically trained to provide therapeutic foster care to seriously troubled children who disrupt from regular homes. The Harrises could have availed themselves of such training had they been serious about keeping the girls in their home, too.

When problems arise with adopted children, adoptive parents are encouraged to get help directly from DHS.  “[I]f you’re having difficulties or troubles with a child you adopted from us, reach out to us, we have resources that can help families,” said DHS spokesperson Amy Webb when asked about the situation.

There were services the Harrises could have tapped to get help, and when all else failed, the children could have gone back into the foster care system. While they might have had more disruptions and uncertainty there, as wards of the state they at least would have had a caseworker who was ultimately responsible for seeing that they were safe and had the treatment, education, and basic requirements of living in a non-abusive environment.

If it looks like abuse, sounds like abuse, and smells like abuse

Children aren’t pets. Responsible parents – natural or adoptive – don’t just give them away when they become inconvenient, and parents don’t surrender their parental rights or responsibilities when they park their troubled kids with someone else.

According to the statement the Harrises’ attorney issued yesterday, they apparently felt that they could not seek any help for the children:

Due to threats of possible abandonment charges, they were unable to reach out to [the Arkansas Department of Human Services] for help with children who presented a serious risk of harm to other children in their home. Upon the advice of both a psychiatrist and a pediatrician, they were forced to move the children to the home of trusted friends, who had a lot of experience with children with reactive attachment disorder. Rep. and Mrs. Harris are devastated about the outcome of that decision, but faced with no good option, they did the best that they knew how.

This statement raised more questions than it answered.

Presumably Rep. Harris had some clue as to how the law in this area works – he is vice-chairman of the state House Committee that oversees matters pertaining to youth and children, after all.

Why didn’t the Harrises make sure that these children, at least one of whom had already been severely abused, were able to get the services they needed in a stable and loving home? Giving them away to another family – one that had not been vetted and made perfectly aware of the needs of these children by professionals and not merely by a pair of frustrated and overwrought adoptive parents – is abuse and neglect in and of itself. They packed one trauma on top of another when they gave these kids away to be rehomed. They set the children up for the abuse that was to follow.

Furthermore, what they did clearly constitutes child abandonment. “Rehoming” happens a lot, even to children who aren’t adopted. Think of the children who live with grandparents or other relatives because their parents are not able or willing to take care of them. There is no state involvement unless the new custodian goes to court to get guardianship.

Rehoming is often very informal. The people who acquire possession of a child this way don’t have legal rights. Without legal guardianship, they have at most a power of attorney from the legal parents or guardians, and they don’t usually even have that. This means the person who the child lives with is not legally able to consent to medical care, can’t enroll the children in school, and can’t apply for government benefits for the children.

Questions needing straight answers

But these aren’t the only questions that demand answers. Michael Cook at Talk Business and Politics has a long list. I agree with each and every question he’s asked, and want to add a few more:

  1. Were Justin and Marsha Harris trained as a therapeutic placement for seriously disturbed children?
  2. Did the Harrises ever consider residential treatment for these girls? If so, why didn’t it happen? If not, why not?
  3. Who was the “head of DHS” who told the Harrises that abandonment charges would be pursued against them if they tried to dissolve the adoption?
  4. Were Eric and Stacey Francis trained as therapeutic foster parents?
  5. Did the Harrises give the Francises power of attorney to take care of the girls’ medical, financial, and educational needs?
  6. Did anyone ever talk to the Harrises about a FINS petition?

When he spoke briefly with the press without making a statement yesterday, Harris understandably looked strained and upset. I have no doubt that he and his wife are heartbroken over the way the adoption unfolded, not to mention traumatized the negative publicity swirling around them now.

Justin Harris

Screen grab from video posted on KATV

At his press conference this afternoon, a clearly emotional Harris described a hellish situation. If pets are being tortured and killed and the rest of the family has to sleep barricaded away from the adopted children, there are obviously very serious problems. The Harrises’ home may not have been a suitable placement for those children.

But I find it difficult to believe that the “head of DHS” threatened to file abandonment charges against him and his wife if they gave the children back, despite the fact that the therapist, psychiatrist and pediatrician all recommended that the children be removed. DHS definitely does ask the courts to dissolve adoptions when all else fails.

I practiced juvenile law for 15 years before I threw in the towel myself, burned out and discouraged at the horrible things people did to their children and the unresponsiveness of the state agency tasked with protecting children. I know that DHS caseworkers routinely dole out threats and misinformation to people who need help. DHS is rarely held accountable for failing the people it is supposed to protect and serve.

There is more to this story. It all needs to come out. It’s not going to be easy for the Harrises. It may not make them look very good, but my guess is that DHS won’t look very clean, either. No one is going to “win” this investigation.

But wait – there’s more

For abandoning troubled children into the questionable care of others, both Harrises should investigated for child neglect – and that investigation should not be done by DHS. No agency is capable of policing itself.

If Justin and Marsha Harris neglected and abandoned their adopted daughters, they should be listed in the Child Maltreatment Central Registry, which lists people who have been found to have committed child abuse and/or child neglect. I’ve represented parents who have been listed in the registry and had their other children removed from their custody for less.

Listing them in that registry would disqualify them from operating a daycare or preschool. No more state funds would go to support that patently religious institution run by a state legislator, something that is entirely unconstitutional to begin with. Another problem solved.

Furthermore, Justin and Marsha Harris must be forthcoming with proof that they forwarded the adoption subsidy to the girls’ actual caretakers. The subsidy is taxpayer money intended to get treatment and assistance for children whose natural parents have already abused and/or neglected them to the point of getting their parental rights terminated. If someone other than their caretakers was getting the government assistance intended to address these children’s emotional, physical, developmental, and medical needs, that’s fraud.

I’m no fan of Justin Harris. He’s a hyper-religious Republican who ignores separation of church and state with great abandon, something that deeply offends me. But in this situation, I’m not ready to condemn him or his wife. I’ve seen the ugly side of an uncooperative DHS too many times over the years to disbelieve their version of events entirely.

Investigative journalism is the bedrock of democracy

Investigative journalism is an important and necessary way to get things like this addressed properly. Benji Hardy, with help from Leslie Newell Peacock, has done a fantastic job of exposing this rot. Had Justin and Marsha Harris been more forthcoming about the situation when the press asked, there might be a bellowing call for investigation of DHS right now instead of the pillorying the Harrises are getting in the national press. DHS’s shortcomings are in dire need of exposure, because they are outrageous. DHS has more power to ruin lives than just about any other state agency, and they do it regularly.

When we allow the decline of print media, we forget that excellent journalists like Benji Hardy keep our government and our elected officials accountable. If you live in Arkansas but don’t subscribe to the Arkansas Times, change that. This weekly paper has some of the best, most astute, and well-seasoned serious journalists in the state working for it. Don’t ever dismiss it as just restaurant reviews and a calendar of community events.

And about that First Amendment – without it, articles like this one might never see the light of day. I maintain it is the best, most essential, and most humane of all the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights. All of the others flow from it.

 

Duggars Accidentally Raise Money for LGBT Kids

A funny thing happens when someone broadcasts hate. Sometimes – just sometimes – love proves itself to be stronger.

I’m sure Jim and Michelle Duggar never intended to give money to any young LGBT people, especially not LGBT youth made homeless when they came out to their parents.

The Duggars (of TLC’s 19 and Counting reality show fame) live near Fayetteville, Arkansas. In August, Fayetteville’s city council passed an historic civil rights ordinance  that prohibits discrimination against LGBT people with respect to employment, housing, and other accommodations. On the eve of the vote, the pre-recorded voice of Michelle Duggar, mother of 19 good and self-righteous Christian children, made robocalls around town. She was panicked that if transgender women used the “wrong” restroom, some of her brood might be subjected to the discomfort of not knowing whether the woman in the next stall maybe had a penis.

Since the ordinance passed, the Duggars have spent $10,000 in an effort to get it repealed.

Last week, their eldest son, Josh Duggar, who works for the anti-gay hate group Family Research Council, hosted a rally of hate at the Arkansas State Capitol against same sex marriage the day before the Arkansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the pending lawsuit.

Poor Josh. He never dreamed he’d be giving a helping hand to those same homeless LGBT kids he and his family, along with their sanctimonious ideological minions, like to bully.

But it’s happened. And as a board member of Lucie’s Place, I’m not thanking the Duggars. I’m thanking an outfit called Memeographs.

See, Memeographs got busy and made a graphic and started tweeting the heck out of it.

Lucie’s Place is a relatively new nonprofit in Arkansas with sights set high to help the local homeless population, many of which are LGBT youth who have ended up on the streets because their parents kicked them out for the dubious sin of homosexuality or being transgender. The graphic got good attention, so later in the day, Memeographs ramped up the campaign with this tweet:

Memeographs tweeted the graphic to various groups and it got picked up and retweeted hundreds of times. In just a little over eight hours, Lucie’s Place was flooded with lots of small donations.  Among many others, Dan Savage retweeted it.

Penelope Poppers, the Executive Director of Lucie’s Place, alerted the board members once she realized what was happening. By mid-afternoon, 54 different people in 28 different states and Canada had donated. The campaign was even mentioned on Sirius XM satellite radio by Mike Signorile, the editor of the Gay Voices section of Huffington Post.

Penelope is not a full-time executive director – Lucie’s Place just doesn’t have the budget for that yet. She said, “I was sitting at work and had to turn off my phone because notifications of new emails were coming in quicker than I could check my email.”

And when she checked the Lucie’s Place bank account?

Lucie’s Place had received about $1,000 in the space of about 8 hours.

Right now, Lucie’s Place offers counseling services, toiletries, clothing, bus passes, and phone minutes to as many clients as possible. Lucie’s Place wants to open an actual shelter for homeless LGBT youth in Central Arkansas, and maybe a mentoring program to help give these homeless young people, most of whom are 18-25, a decent chance at a successfully independent life.

If only about 15% of the entire population is gay, but 40% of homeless youth are, it points to a societal problem.

family rejection

Only one shelter in the area will accept openly gay or transgender people, and it is always full. On the shoestring budget it has, Lucie’s Place does what it can. It is raising money and saving toward a facility, which may be years in the future unless something amazing can happen. The organization is still hundreds of thousands of dollars away from its goal.

Can you help make that amazing thing happen? Please donate.

Help Lucie’s Place realize the dream of a real shelter for real kids adversely affected by the hateful bigotry that so often results from the twisted Duggaresque interpretation of religion.

How Did You Arrive at Non-Belief?

Sometimes I am asked how I came to be atheist. The short answer is that I was born that way.

No one is born with a religious belief system – our parents and others have to tell us the stories and indoctrinate us with their religion. That’s why there are so many Hindus in India, so many Jews in Israel, so many Muslims in Arabia, and so many Christians in America. We are indoctrinated into the religion of our parents. No Buddhist kid surprises his Christian parents with his full-blown understanding of the sutras as soon as he can talk, just like no Christian preschooler tells his Hindu parents that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. We all have to be taught religion.

I think some kids are born skeptical. I think I was, and I see those traits very strongly in my oldest and youngest nephews and in my oldest niece. My youngest niece and middle nephew are plenty smart, as is my son, but they don’t have the attitude of “Nuh-uh, you’ll have to prove that to me!” and the excitement inherent in “That’s so cool! How’d that happen?” that the other three do.

DA Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian Church, Des Arc, Arkansas (Source: Kevin Stewart)

My mom is Presbyterian and my dad was Catholic. There was no Catholic church in Des Arc, Arkansas, where I grew up. The Presbyterian Church had been founded by my mother’s ancestors when they first came to Prairie County in the 1800’s, so naturally, that’s where we were taken as kids. The ceiling was pressed tin, and I cannot begin to guess how many times I counted those decorative squares out of sheer boredom.

In Sunday school, we were taught all the usual stories. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the Sunday school classroom coloring a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and listening to the teacher explain that God had closed the mouths of the hungry lions so they wouldn’t eat Daniel. I remember thinking, “Nuh-uh. They just weren’t hungry, or there was some other reason.”

By that age (probably by about 6), I already knew the truth about Santa, and had ruined it for my sister and one of our friends. My sister and our friend Mischelle will say how mean I was – truthfully, I think I was just so delighted and excited to have my suspicions confirmed that I couldn’t wait to tell them. They were about 4 or 5 when I ruined Christmas for them forever, and neither one has ever, ever forgiven me.

When I was a little older, I realized that the weekly sermon was supposed to be based on the Bible readings that were part of each church service. I started opening the Bible and reading the verse along with the minister, then reading the passages that led up to it and beyond it. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and tell the minister that he was wrong – if he had read the verses that came just before or just after, he would realize how off-base he was. He was taking the verse out of context and building a brand new story around it, and assigning it meaning it didn’t have.

Then I started reading other parts of the Bible in church just so I didn’t have to listen to the inane ramblings from the pulpit. I came across Judges 19, and at that point I could not accept that there was anything good about these stories at all. A few years ago, I reinterpreted the atrocities of that chapter in a short story set in the modern era. It won a scary short story contest.

Concordant readings and the hymns were excruciating. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t say or sing the words I thought were silly or that I didn’t agree with. I refused to say out loud that I was a worthless sinner (I didn’t think I was) or that I wanted divine intervention in anything (because I didn’t think it would happen). Then I realized that the whole thing was vapid and insipid. It was just another Santa Claus story.

Illustration by Dori Hartley

Illustration by Dori Hartley

When I was about 9 or 10, I threw a major hissy fit over church. It was a Sunday morning. We were ready to walk out the door for Sunday school and I had had enough. I remember screaming at my mom, telling her that the whole thing was stupid, that God wasn’t real, that God was really mean and horrible, and that going to church was pointless because praying was stupid and the words we were supposed to repeat every week were stupid and made no sense – hey, I was 9 or 10, so everything I didn’t like was “stupid,” right?

My Catholic dad stepped into the middle of my meltdown and suggested that Mom go ahead to church with my brother and sister. He said that he’d have me watch church on television while they were gone. After I calmed down, he started telling me about the Mover of the First Part. (It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized he was teaching me Aristotelian philosophy and basically regurgitating Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic Summa Theologica.) Of course, my question was, “Who made the Prime Mover, then?” Dad didn’t have an answer, but he said we had to watch church on TV since he had promised Mom.

Oral RobertsHe told me that there was a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who started every broadcast by saying, “Something GOOD is going to happen to you!” That’s who we would watch. Sure enough, he turned on Oral Roberts, and sure enough, those words came out of the preacher’s mouth the very first thing.   As soon as the words were said, Dad switched the channel over to a John Wayne movie.

John Wayne Maureen Ohara

Dad and I spent many Sundays watching John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda while mom and my siblings were at church. I developed a great appreciation for Westerns (including the spaghetti variety), and was introduced to all-time favorites like the Cheyenne Social Club and Paint Your Wagon, World War II standards like Mister Roberts and Donovan’s Reef, and straight-up classics like The Quiet Man.

fonda-kelly-stewart-social-club I still had to go to church fairly regularly, but after that I always sat next to my dad, and we always found something to giggle about during the hymns and whisper about during the rest of the service. We made an effort to twist things to the absurd. Having a secret, fun co-conspirator made me feel better about having to go in the first place.

I don’t think Dad was atheist. He may have been agnostic, but I suspect he made Pascal’s Wager, because he always told us to get him a priest if we knew he was dying. Not a Presbyterian minister, even though he eventually joined the church and even became a deacon – he wanted a Catholic priest. As it turned out, my father died very suddenly, and there was no time to get a priest. Atheist me insisted that we call one, though, just to satisfy that need he had – because that’s what he had always said he wanted. It was a matter of respect.

When I was about 12, Mom insisted that I take Catechism classes – part of the training for joining the Presbyterian church, even though I insisted that there was no way I would do that. I dutifully memorized the Bible verses and the doctrinal responses. The Presbyterian Church in Des Arc had a tiny congregation, and I was the only student at that time. I spent more time questioning the sense of the verses and the responses to the doctrinal questions, asking “Why?”, and demanding answers to the unanswerable than anything else. The minister’s answers never satisfied me, mostly because things like “God’s ways are mysterious” and “We aren’t meant to know” are completely unsatisfactory answers to someone whose brain thrives on and revels in knowledge. When I was given an answer that rested on convoluted or circular reasoning, it drove me further away from belief, not closer. I never joined the church.

ASES Green Hall

Green Hall, All Saints Episcopal School, Vicksburg, MS

My sis and I were sent to an Episcopal boarding school for high school. During the course of the curriculum, and especially in our senior year, we had to take a class that entailed reading the Bible and being tested on it. I actually looked forward to having this class, because the priest who taught it, Father John Babcock, was very approachable, friendly, and related well with all of us kids.

Unfortunately, a different priest taught that class my senior year. He was more academic than Fr. Babcock, and had us write long, college-like essays on exams. For the midterm, he asked a question that started, “Why do you think…?” Silly me took the bait. I told him exactly what I thought about whatever the topic was. I got a C, which, if you know anything about perfectionist me, you will understand really upset me. When I went to talk with him about it, he told me that I was wrong, so he couldn’t give me a better grade. I was totally pissed – my opinion was only worth a C because it didn’t match his ridiculous opinion.

fearandtremblingAt Colgate, one of the first classes I took my freshman year was the Philosophy of Religion. Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aquinas – this is the class where I read about the Prime Mover and remembered my dad’s explanation from a decade before. None of the explanations that any of the religious apologists offered were satisfactory. The reading selection in that class that hit me the hardest was Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. It seemed to me to be the stuff of tortured logic. If religion was the source of morality, then how could Isaac’s sacrifice be morally wrong but religiously right? There was no answer to this except the “leap of faith.” Nope – not only was that answer not good enough, it was ethically reprehensible.

If none of these religious stories and doctrines made sense to me, how could they make sense to other people? WHY did they make sense to other people? I decided to try to find out. I went to different religious services on campus, both Catholic and Protestant. I talked to a friend who went from Colgate to Harvard Divinity School to be a rabbi. (He told me a few years later that the rabbi thing didn’t work out, because anyone who pays attention in Divinity School ends up atheist. He’s a doctor now in Springfield, Massachusetts.) I spoke with a cousin who is a Presbyterian minister. I’ve spoken with friends who have strong faith.

When I ask people why they believe, they tend to get defensive instead of explaining their rationale. My asking them why they believe is not meant to be antagonistic – I really want to know, because to this day I don’t understand why normally rational, compassionate people would buy into this whole faith thing. “You’ve just got to believe,” they tell me. No. No, I do not.

My mother once remarked that because I went to Catholic and Episcopalian services, I must like the ceremonial flavor of the more ritualized  “high church” sects. I wasn’t going to church so I could get religion. I was going to try to figure out what other people got out of it. What I concluded was that the ritual seems to calm and comfort the people who attend these churches. Ritual is comforting. We know what to expect, we know what we are supposed to do. Ritual, like meditation, has a calming effect on the human psyche.

Rituals need a purpose, though, and I have never found purpose in a purely religious ritual. I see the point of the ritual in a wedding. I can see the point of ritual when it comes to memorial or funeral services. I see the point of other rituals that mark life transitions, like the naming of a baby or graduation or the passage to adulthood. I understand why human beings want these rituals to formalize life transitions. It doesn’t mean they are any less real if there is no ritual, but it does recognize the transition publicly, and we all want our major life changes to be recognized by others. Recognizing those life transitions is one of the main reasons I got ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and filed my credentials with the Pulaski County Clerk. Those rituals need to be recognized regardless of religious persuasion or non-belief.

When I got married, I agreed to a church wedding. Mostly that was because a church wedding was important to my beloved mother-in-law, who has a very strong faith. She knew this was the only wedding either of her children was likely to have, and it needed to be right for her. Skip and I would have been perfectly happy – and just as married – to have a judge say the words and sign the certificate on our front porch, followed, of course, by a kegger for our law school buddies. Instead, we were married in a giant church and had a reception at a country club.

We had our child baptized for the same reason – not because I wanted to do it, but because it was important to his grandparents. We took him to church when he was about 5 or 6 because we thought he needed to have had that experience. In retrospect, that was an exercise we didn’t need to put him through. I enjoyed the young adult Sunday school class that we went to there, though, and a few of those classmates I still call friends.

I’ll never forget the Sunday the minister of that church decided to teach our class. We were reading something attributed to Paul, and I was challenging at least half of what the blessed apostle wrote.

“Good! It’s good to question your faith!” the minister said to me, and the entire room erupted into laughter. My Sunday school classmates all knew I was atheist, but evidently word had not filtered up to the pulpit.

“I’m not questioning my faith,” I answered. “I’m questioning yours.”

So, I never “arrived” at non-belief. Truthfully, I didn’t have to. I never found a reason to leave non-belief in the first place.

Teaching Children Critical Thinking

I get asked a lot about how I approached the question of religion when my son was young. Did I insist that he follow my lack of belief?

No, I did not. That he has a vivid imagination but a rational and humanistic lifestance is attributable, I think, to making sure he knew how to think for himself.

One of the things we most urgently need to instill in our children is the to think critically about the world around us. Not just when it comes to religion, but when politics, ethics, and personal conflicts are in issue, having the skill to think rationally about things is crucial to a better life.

carlin question everything

I taught my child to question everything. Lots of times, I taught him to do it by asking him questions. Yes, my son was raised by Socratic Method. We had rules, but we felt it was important for him to understand the reasoning behind the rules.

  1. I never said no to him without giving him a reason. “Because I said so” is not a reason. “Because I don’t feel like it” is.
  2. If he calmly and rationally rebutted me, I listened. If his argument was better than mine, I changed my position. That being said, if he was argumentative or rude, he automatically lost the argument and often got sent to his room to calm down. If only this process were observed in the political arena, we’d be in great shape!
  3. We explored his questions and his interests together. We did science experiments in the kitchen and back yard. And because Dinosaurs Are Awesome, we kept a notebook full of dinosaur information, and added newspaper and magazine clippings to it regularly. I still have that notebook.
  4. Bedtime stories were just as likely to be stories from history and science as they were from Narnia or Hogwarts. We told each other stories we made up, and we made up stories together.
  5. When he was preschool and elementary school age, we bought age-appropriate books of Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, and other mythology, which we read right along with the children’s Bible our son’s grandmother gave him.
  6. He played the video game “Age of Mythology,” which taught him about the capriciousness of deities. Later he graduated to “Age of Empires,” and when he told me William Wallace was his hero, I knew for sure that these games were okay.
  7. We played the “what if” game, to imagine how things might be different if one thing about the world was different, and we explored the best possible uses of a time machine.
  8. Magazines full of popular science were in every bathroom and on every tabletop. Discover. Archaeology. National Geographic. Smithsonian. We read those articles together, too. When he got older, he would pick up the magazines himself and read them.
  9. We watched science, nature and history shows together. Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin was at his pinnacle when Jack was growing up, and there was a lot of really good stuff on that show. We grieved his death. The Walking with Dinosaurs documentary series (not the new movie) was on the Discovery Channel – back when the Discovery Channel still was about science. Connections – that James Burke documentary series that combined science, history and technology in wonderful ways – was a favorite, too.
  10. I spent time in his elementary school classrooms, and talked not just to him but to his classmates about how to tell stories, all about fossils, dinosaurs, how the legal system works, how amber is formed, and more. I even organized a field trip to the local juvenile court where his classmates and my lawyer friends put some naughty dinosaurs on trial. After the trial, we visited a real juvenile detention facility.
  11. I took him to Sunday school. I felt like I needed to, because I wanted him to understand where his religious friends were coming from. He went to Bible School one summer, too. He was in about second grade. We only did this for about a year, because I’m atheist and it was on Sunday mornings, when civilized people lounge around the house in pajamas reading the New York Times and doing crossword puzzles. I wanted him to learn, but not be indoctrinated.

This is when I knew I had succeeded:

When he was about 11, I asked him whether I had to do the Easter Bunny schtick again that year. “What do you mean, ‘schtick’?” he asked.

“Your father never helps me and I have to stay up late and I really don’t want to,” I told him. (Yeah, I was kind of whiny about it, I admit.)

“You! What about the Easter Bunny?”

“Son, do you really think a bunny hops around the house after we go to bed hiding eggs and pooping jellybeans?”

“Well, no … but can I still have the basket? And all the candy?”

“Sure, sweetheart.”

Fast forward to summer. He had lost a tooth and I forgot to put money under his pillow.

“Mom, the tooth fairy forgot last night.”

“I’m sure she was just busy and lagged behind. She’ll get to you tonight if you put it under there again.”

The next morning he reported that the tooth fairy had once again forgotten. “Just go get my purse. Get a dollar out of my wallet.”

“What? You’re the tooth fairy, too? First the Easter Bunny, now the tooth fairy – what’s next? Santa Claus?” I could tell he was annoyed, but I needed to get to work.

“Yes, son. And right after that comes God,” I said.

He looked at me in pure shock and horror for about three solid seconds, and I wondered what I would say next. Then he burst out laughing.

“I knew all along, Mom.”

Eventually, I sent my son to an Episcopal school. I did this because, after working in the juvenile justice system for a decade, I was terrified of gangs in our local public middle schools. There weren’t a lot of private school options, so I chose the least religious of the bunch, where I thought he would get a good education (that included evolution as real science, not as part of some non-existent controversy). He was inoculated against religion before he went, because critical thinking was automatic and habitual with him by the time he was enrolled there in 5th grade.

He had to take religion classes for one semester both in middle school and in high school. That was fine with me, because I doubted he’d read the Bible otherwise. Let’s face it: it’s a lousy, poorly-written book with plot holes big enough to fly 747s through, but knowing enough to be able to talk intelligently about it is pretty important in our culture.

In middle school, he pretty much kept his head down and just did his work. In high school, though, Father John wanted more out of him. The very first day of class, the priest threw out a question:

“Jack, What do you think prayer does?”

There were pockets of laughter around the classroom as Jack hesitated.

“Yeah, Jack! What do you think?” asked one of the students.

“What’s so funny?” asked Father John.

“You asked an atheist what he believes prayer does!” one of Jack’s classmates blurted. Jack was probably grinning, too. I hope he was.

He said, “I don’t think prayer does anything, but I can understand how it might be helpful for some people.”

I’m happy with his response. My son the critical thinker is also much more diplomatic than I am when it comes to this subject.

We need to give kids credit for being able to think for themselves – but we need to teach them to do it, too. It’s part of our jobs as parents, to give them the tools to understand and deal with the world, and to be able to determine for themselves what is credible.

On the First Day of Christmas, My Sister Fed to Me…

~~I’m very tardy with this post. It should have gone up on Christmas Day. Oh, well. Christmas isn’t officially over until tomorrow, when Epiphany strikes.~~

 

The year Jack was 15, he and I went to my sister’s for Christmas dinner. When we got there, Susan put a pork tenderloin in the oven and we gathered around the tree to open gifts. Susan’s two boys, ages 15 and 13, were there, as was my mother. We spent a lovely hour ooohing and ahhhhing over what everyone got and gave. It was a very nice time.

We were almost through opening gifts when Su left to check the pork tenderloin we were having for Christmas dinner. She was in the kitchen for a few minutes. The rest of us waited to open any more gifts until she returned.

We were chatting and laughing and not paying any attention to her when Su tip-toed back into the living room and tapped me on the shoulder. “Come here,” she whispered.

I had been sitting on the floor. I got to my feet and followed her into the kitchen.

“Have you ever cooked a pork tenderloin?” she asked.

“Sure,” I told her. “Lots of times.”

“Good. I have something I need to ask you, then,” she said, and opened the oven door. She reached in and pulled out the roasting pan holding the meat. I thought she would ask me about how to tell if the meat was cooked through, or how best to carve it or something. I am always willing to dispense sisterly advice. But that wasn’t what Su wanted.

“Is it supposed to look like this?” she asked.

portk-tenderloin-2

I gaped.

I blinked.

Su put the pan down on the counter and grinned at me real big. “Shhhh,” she said.

We walked back into the living room, and she beckoned to Mom.

I couldn’t help it. I could barely hold in my laughter, and it was obvious. I do not have a poker face at all. When my mother followed Susan into the kitchen, I did my best to keep three large teenage boys at bay, thinking they were too young and … ahem … tender … to witness what had been prepared for Christmas dinner.

I was unsuccessful. The boys barreled into the kitchen just as their grandmother was in the act of looking at the slab of meat that faced her. Their Gran glanced up with a quizzical look. For a second I thought she didn’t get it.

pork-tenderloin-3

Then she burst out laughing.

The boys crowded around. “What is it? What’s so funny?” they demanded. Their mothers and grandmother were laughing too hard to tell them.

Su headed down the hall to the bathroom before she wet her pants. When she came back, she suggested that a creamy Bearnaise sauce would be a lovely accompaniment.

pork-tenderloin-1

 

That set us off again. Su headed back to the bathroom.

We females of the family enjoyed every bite. “Mmmmmm.” “Yummy.” “This is delightful,” we said.

The boys, for some reason, opted for a meatless Christmas dinner.

And now, for the crucial question:
If a pork tenderloin is circumcised, does that make it kosher?

Lucie’s Place

Dear Leaders of all community-minded organizations:

A study released in September by the Center for American Progress determined that as many as half of all homeless people under the age of 25 are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning their sexuality (LGBTQ), and that those numbers probably under-represent the scope of the problem – obtaining accurate demographics on the homeless is quite a challenge.

These numbers are not surprising. Other studies have shown essentially the same thing, and that while LGBTQ adults may focus on issues like marriage equality, their younger counterparts are struggling to find the resources that will let them stay alive. We already know that school-age people perceived by their peers as homosexual are disproportionately targeted for bullying. The suicide rates among LGBTQ teenagers and young adults far outpaces the suicide rate among straight people of the same age.

Little Rock is no different. Currently, the only local shelter that will accept openly homosexual people is Our House, and beds there fill very quickly. Homeless young LGBT people desperately need resources that are less available to them than to any other segment of the Central Arkansas homeless population.

Lucie’s Place exists specifically to meet these needs in Central Arkansas. The mission of Lucie’s Place is to establish a shelter for homeless LGBTQ young adults, ages eighteen to twenty-five. The envisioned shelter will provide a safe home in which these young adults can get their basic needs met while developing skills necessary for independent living. We are a relatively new nonprofit organization, though, and not yet fully operational. We need your help.

We are currently raising funds with the hope of purchasing and maintaining a building that will house several clients as they get stable enough to go out on their own. In addition to the homeless shelter, these young people need meaningful assistance to ensure that they do not remain homeless, and do not become homeless again. This means counseling, employment services, educational and job training opportunities, and other services in addition to basic food, shelter and clothing.

Most of the funding we’ve received so far has come from grants awarded to Lucie’s Place, but fund raising efforts cannot be limited to grants. This is a community problem, and Lucie’s Place needs help from the community.

Lucie’s Place wants to reach out to churches, civic groups, clubs, and any other organization that may have members willing to help. A board member can present an overall vision of Lucie’s Place and explain the organization’s needs. We need assistance in the form of donations, service providers, and volunteers who can contribute their expertise and resources to serve our mission.

When can Lucie’s Place schedule a presentation to the leaders and interested members of your organization?

Please contact me.

In Jack’s Next Care Package

 

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Annual Christmas Post for 2012

~~This is a re-post of my annual Christmas blog, for all you perverts who asked for it. ~~
~~My sister will never forgive me.~~

Someone else's Christmas tree

The year Jack was 15, he and I went to my sister’s for Christmas dinner. When we got there, Susan put a pork tenderloin in the oven and we gathered around the tree to open gifts. Susan’s two boys, ages 15 and 13, were there, as was my mother. We spent a lovely hour ooohing and ahhhhing over what everyone got and gave. It was a very nice time.

We were almost through opening gifts when Su left to check the pork tenderloin we were having for Christmas dinner. She was in the kitchen for a few minutes. The rest of us waited to open any more gifts until she returned.

We were chatting and laughing and not paying any attention to her when Su tip-toed back into the living room and tapped me on the shoulder. “Come here,” she whispered.

I had been sitting on the floor. I got to my feet and followed her into the kitchen.

“Have you ever cooked a pork tenderloin?” she asked.

“Sure,” I told her. “Lots of times.”

“Good. I have something I need to ask you, then,” she said, and opened the oven door. She reached in and pulled out the roasting pan holding the meat. I thought she would has me about how to tell if the meat was cooked through, or how best to carve it or something. I am always willing to dispense sisterly advice. But that wasn’t what Su wanted.

“Is it supposed to look like this?” she asked.

portk-tenderloin-2  

I gaped.

I blinked.

Su put the pan down on the counter and grinned at me real big. “Shhhh,” she said.

We walked back into the living room, and she beckoned to Mom.

I couldn’t help it. I could barely hold in my laughter, and it was obvious. I do not have a poker face at all. When my mother followed Susan into the kitchen, I did my best to keep three large teenage boys at bay, thinking they were too young and … ahem … tender … to witness what had been prepared for Christmas dinner.

I was unsuccessful. The boys barreled into the kitchen just as their grandmother was in the act of looking at the slab of meat that faced her. Their Gran glanced up with a quizzical look. For a second I thought she didn’t get it.

pork-tenderloin-3

Then she burst out laughing.

The boys crowded around. “What is it? What’s so funny?” they demanded. Their mothers and grandmother were laughing too hard to tell them.

Su headed down the hall to the bathroom before she wet her pants. When she came back, she suggested that a creamy Bearnaise sauce would be a lovely accompaniment.

pork-tenderloin-1

 

That set us off again. Sis headed back to the bathroom.

We females of the family enjoyed every bite. “Mmmmmm.” “Yummy.” “This is delightful,” we said.

The boys, for some reason, opted for a meatless Christmas dinner.

And now, for the crucial question:
If a pork tenderloin is circumcised, does that make it kosher?

 

 

Charlie Brown Christmas Field Trip Cancelled

The field trip by the local elementary school to a church to see the Charlie Brown Christmas play, complete with Bible soliloquy, has been cancelled.

This is not a win for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers.

Why not? Because the church, and not the school, is the entity that blinked. And that’s too bad. We still have a school district that thinks it’s okay to violate the constitutional rights of children, and was ready and willing to defend a religious field trip in court.

In a statement to the press about the cancellation, the church said,

In the wake of some controversy over our Christmas production offered to schools, Agape Church wishes to salute the courageous stand that the Terry Elementary Principal made in not succumbing to the pressure of one complaint voiced to the Arkansas Society of Free Thinkers and media.  We applaud the support that the Little Rock School District has shown to Mrs. Register, and agree with their position that attending the matinees was not a constitutional issue.  Christmas is a Christian holiday, hence its name, Christmas. Our program addresses its origins with light-hearted songs and theatre.  The context of the birth of Christ is broadly described in both Old & New Testament texts.

But because of what this issue has become, as a church, it is not our desire to put hard working, sacrificial teachers and cast members in harm’s way. What we want said is that we love our city, our schools, parents and families.  People are at the heart of the matter to us.  While we regret the loss of students who will not get this particular opportunity right now, we have taken the school matinees off the table, and welcome parents to bring their children to our public performance schedule, Saturday, December 15 @ 2pm and 6pm, and Sunday, Dec. 16 @ 6pm.

To quote bible verses and song lyrics that apply, they reflect our heart toward the Little Rock School District and everyone involved – Peace on Earth, Good will toward men.

Pastor Happy Caldwell, Agape Church

“Sacrificial teachers”? Please. That is just insulting. And who was in harm’s way? ASF had threatened nothing beyond a possible lawsuit. The hate and threats came from the religious people toward us, not the other way around – unless I just happened to miss the Meetup announcement as to when all my fellow Freethinkers would be out there naked at the church with their picket signs and their evolution and their gay marriage and their roasted babies in covered dishes, all plump and juicy and waiting for the potluck after the looting and pillaging and stuff.

And apparently Pastor Caldwell does not know where the traditions of Christmas, including Charlie Brown’s tree, actually came from.

 

With the additional performances over the weekend, any family that wants to take their kids can do so. The church may even get an overflow crowd because of all the free publicity we’ve generated for them. We wish them well.

This post originally appeared on WWJTD.)

A Reader’s Legal Question: Student-Led Prayers

Reader questions are edited to eliminate references to specific people and places, unless there’s a need to call out the cavalry. If you see something here that almost resembles your question, but your main concern isn’t addressed, go ahead and ask again in the comments. I’ll do my best to respond.

Reader Question:

I was talking at a conference recently with a hotshot in the atheist movement, and she told me thought that student led prayer etc. was not really legit. With a strict interpretation of separation of church and state would that not be true? What is the principle with which students are allowed but adults are not?

– Jimbo

Answer:

In public primary and secondary schools, the adults are employed by and acting for the government. The students are not. That means that adult religious speech is restricted and student religious speech is not – usually. This answer is restricted to public schools run by the government, which accounts for most schools in the U.S. In this answer when I say “school,” I mean a public, government-run school, not a private or parochial school. The rules are different for those.

We know that schools cannot start the school day with a prayer, and we know that prayer is not allowed at school functions like school board meetings, athletic events, and graduations. These are events organized and led by the adults at those schools, though. What about when students take the initiative?

A significant United Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines School District, decided in 1969, was not a religious freedom case, but controls freedom of speech by public school students, including their religious speech. The Tinker students wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War and were suspended when they refused not to wear them. The Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment applies to public school children, and that school administrators have to demonstrate a constitutionally valid reason for restricting student speech. If the school wanted to restrict the students’ speech, it had to prove that it had more reason than just to “avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpleasant viewpoint.”

So, the general rule is that if a voluntary group of students wants to pray at school, and voluntarily gather for that purpose, they can. The key term in that rule is the word “voluntary.”

As long as there are tests and oral reports, there will be prayer in schools – just not coordinated, formal prayer. Student-led or -initiated prayer over the school’s PA system, for example, is not a voluntary association of students agreeing to come together to exercise religious freedom, free speech, or freedom of association.  Nor is a student-led prayer – even a nondenominational and non-proselytizing one – over the PA system at a football game. “Moments of silence” for secular purposes, such as a meditative moment to calm rowdiness, are fine; moments of silence during which students are encouraged to pray are not permitted. Even non-denominational prayer is forbidden because the Establishment Clause requires absolute religious neutrality on the part of the government.

“See You at the Pole” (SYAP) prayer movement began years ago, and students from all over the world participate annually, on the fourth Wednesday of September. Students who choose to do so gather at the school’s flagpole before classes begin for a student-led prayer. Unfortunately, SYAP events and other student-led religious clubs can serve as a vehicle to promote bullying of non-religious students, or even students who are not evangelical Christians. Public schools must protect their students from “subtle coercive pressure” in elementary and secondary schools, so administrators may be justified in stopping the campus meetings of these student groups if bullying actually does result.

Because of the coercive pressure exerted when the authority figures at a school participate in prayer, teachers, administrators, and coaches should not join the voluntary prayers of the students. There has not been a Supreme Court decision on this issue, but the various federal district and appellate court decisions on the subject tend to agree that adult participation lends too much emphasis to the religious activity.

(This post originally appeared on WWJTD.)

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