Much of the conversation about the pregnant mother who, with her husband, was arrested for shoplifting at Safeway and temporarily lost custody of her child, has centered on the adults. There’s another player in this. She’s small, but her welfare is really what the story is all about.
Zofia, the on-the-cusp-of-3-year-old, was taken into protective custody by police and spent 18 hours away from her parents, in the care of Hawaii Child Welfare Services.
To a layperson, 18 hours away from family may seem trivial. Three years of age may seem like that magic time when whatever happens to a child will later be forgotten. For experts in the fields of brain science and childhood trauma, these assumptions are way off the mark.
“Children at that age are very susceptible to high levels of stress, that’s a biological fact... the neural networks that are developing most rapidly at that time tend to be most susceptible to the biology of stress,” Dr. Robert Anda told me.
Anda is a co-investigator of an ongoing study funded by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. It tracks how childhood trauma can impact the brain and have far-reaching effects. Anda is not suggesting that Zofia suffered trauma, but he makes clear that removing any child from a parent at that age has to be considered carefully.
This particular episode is hopefully a bizarre anomaly, but it touches on the much broader issue of children and protective services.
Sometimes state officials are too slow to intervene in a dangerous family situation (Banita Jacks will haunt Washington D.C. for years to come) and the horrific stories follow.
They sometimes act too quickly, too. Recently, a report came out suggesting D.C. has taken children from their parents too frequently. When there are egregious examples of this, like the one The Post’s Marc Fisher chronicled a few years back, the attention is understandably on the ordeal for the parents.
Michaela L. Zajicek-Farber, an associate professor in the School of Social Service at the Catholic University of America, said a constant danger is that the children will carry a trauma of being separated from parents for years.
“If there were some moments that were traumatizing, it gets imprinted on our psyche, it’s part of our memory. If the child is given emotional support, if the child is comforted and shown care, than most likely she’ll get over it. But if that event is not understood and put to what I call ‘psychic rest,’ than it will lead to unresolved issues. Future events can trigger those unresolved issues.”
This is certainly true for toddlers and pre-schoolers, she said, because they use concrete thinking. “They can’t infer or rationalize like an adult. They need comfort and loving language and reassurance. If you just put them in a stranger’s home fed and put to bed, it can be extremely confusing.”
It remains unclear how Zofia was handled. Hawaii’s Department of Human Services that oversees the Child Welfare office released a statement seemingly intended more to absolve themselves of responsibility than to explain what happened. (A spokeswoman there was pleasant, but overwhelmed and unable to provide much more information yesterday.)
The issue is bigger than Zofia. It’s about what happens when a punishment is far out of portion to a crime. Zajicek-Farber put it well: “When we interpret policy with a black and white response, and we don’t consider context of human behavior, people often get hurt.”