Lessons Learned as an Amateur Child Advocate

This post is from guest blogger Ashley Irwin Stafford, 2014 J.D. Law Graduate:


           In the fall of 2013 I enrolled in the Child Advocacy Practicum as part of my law school course load. I love children, however, my love of them often manifests itself in a combination of tenderness, tough love, and high standards. At the time I signed up for the Practicum, I was primarily driven by the latter two, due to a year of volunteering at a juvenile detention center and being dismayed at the kids' failure to acknowledge personal responsibility for their actions.

While working at that center I was amazed at the juvenile justice system's inability to convey personal responsibility to the children that processed through it, and the Practicum seemed like a great opportunity to do research regarding how to reform the system to better accomplish this. I entered the Practicum fully intending to work independently, and looking forward to an opportunity to voice my frustration with some current trends in our approach to juvenile justice. Instead, I found myself working on a brochure as part of a group project centered on helping previously incarcerated fathers reintegrate into their children's lives. The Practicum was not what I expected, or what I actually wanted.  I wanted an opportunity to voice and prove my opinion, but The Lord wanted to challenge my motives and refine my understanding of what advocacy means. Here is what I learned:

1. Passion can be blinding.

The brochure I worked on was part of a larger project to assist in implementing a Fathering Court program. This program was intended to help previously incarcerated fathers reintegrate in their children's lives and was based on statistical recognition that children whose biological fathers are not active in their lives are more likely to experience a number of obstacles including behavioral problems.  With my focus squarely on confronting the juvenile justice system and finding a way to use it to teach personal responsibility, the Fathering Court program seemed entirely disconnected. However, as I saw more of the Fathering Court program, I saw the connection between the mission of the program and my desire to understand how to teach adolescents personal responsibility. 

Though our society takes acting outside God's design lightly, there is no escaping the consequences of doing so.  As we deviate from God's design, evidences of doing so emerge.  In our society, our rebellion against God's design for families has resulted in the destruction of our families and consequently our children.  We try to fill the void left by absent parents, ineffective parenting, and unstable home situations with judicial discipline.  What we have found is that this is not an effective replacement.  Though it may be necessary to mitigate the damage, and though it may be an effective rehabilitator at times, it does not address the primary issue of family breakdown.

The Fathering Court program on the other hand, works to fill the void of an absent father by equipping the father to reengage. The heart of the Fathering Court is to stabilize children by equipping their parents to fill the roles they were intended to fill.

While my zeal for reform of the juvenile system was sincere, it was also misguided in that it was centered on the ancillary issue of making our courts more effective instead of the primary issue of making our families more effective. Passion alone can be dangerous in this way, as it often narrows our focus and prevents us from listening to and valuing the input of others. It is not enough to be passionate. We must also be wise enough to seek the advice and perspective of others. We must not be so focused on our own solutions that we miss advocating for a more effective solution that is already in process. We must not over value our experience or undervalue the experience of others. I have learned that passion alone frequently leads to one or all of these things, resulting in an intellectual blindness that makes us less effective advocates. Effective advocacy requires passion that is accompanied by wisdom and humility.

2. Effective advocacy requires weathering the red tape.

            After the fall semester ended I reenrolled in the Child Advocacy Practicum for a second semester. Both semesters I was amazed at the amount of red tape we encountered and the profound hindrance it was to our ability to volunteer effectively. At first, I was irritated and found myself spending a significant amount of time thinking about the problems the red tape created, the fact that I thought it was unnecessary and frivolous, and concluding that red tape is a waste of everyone's time and resources.

            The problem with this response is that it is profoundly ineffective. In fact, the only thing it effectively accomplishes is diverting energy away from the tasks that can be accomplished. While there is a time and place for reform, there is also a time and a place for humble, patient compliance. To be an advocate is to face red tape.  Any given situation may expose weaknesses or even failures in a particular system. Where those weaknesses or failures prevent advocacy altogether, pursuing reform may be the only option. But where those weaknesses or failures are simple annoyances, or things that make the system less efficient, having the discipline to patiently comply and forge ahead will likely make you a far more effective advocate.

3. Even in advocating for a good cause, unethical means do not justify the ends.

During the fall semester a fellow student and I completed the rough draft of the promotional brochure for the Fathering Court.  In the spring semester, we reworked the brochure based on feedback we received from those implementing the program. One of the changes we were asked to make was to "reframe" some of our research.  While we understood why they wanted the research "reframed," it was an unsettling request to both of us. 

As an advocate, I know that intellectual honesty and personal credibility are of great importance for a few reasons. I wanted to apply my principles to this task, and accommodate the request, so I really had to think it through.  First, promotion of any program, like the Fathering Court, without intellectual honesty, will likely result in disillusionment as it increases the likelihood that the actual results don't measure up to the projected results. Second, mishandling statistics, misrepresenting research results, and exaggerating issues can lead to dramatic long term setbacks by compromising the credibility of the project. Third, personal compromises of this nature in the name of advocacy are a misunderstanding of what advocacy is.  Advocacy is not a call to misuse or manipulate a given system or group of people.  It is a call to use a system to accomplish and pursue what is good and right. Although there may be differences in perspective regarding what that may be, where each advocate is working toward that goal with integrity, the result should be an increased ability to identify and accomplish the best outcome. 

My fellow student and I were able to honestly and accurately reframe the research in this situation, but the request reminded me that in practice we may face requests that we cannot ethically accommodate. What's more, we may face the temptation to believe that a good cause can justify a compromise in standards. This temptation must be resisted in favor of the slow steady progress that results in lasting change.

In summary, I have learned that advocacy is not for the proud or the faint of heart. It requires humility, determination, and uncompromising character.

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