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Carolyn Hax: How a college student can help siblings left in a dysfunctional home

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: Since going away to college, I've realized that the way I was raised wasn't normal. We often had nothing to eat, were ignored by my parents and lived in a messy, chaotic home. They're both gone about 12 hours a day for work. They make decent money but spend most of it on their phones, cigarettes and booze. They both might be functional alcoholics.

I'm back in school, but my brother and sister, 13 and 12, are stuck in that situation. When I was home on break, I made sure they had good food to eat and got some attention from me. When I tried to talk to my parents about this, they got angry and told me that between bills, work, commuting, yardwork — they do enough not to get fined — life is hard and they need their distractions.

But there's no reason for my sister and brother to have to make one box of cereal stretch for a week of breakfasts and lunches and then try to show up at a friend's house at dinnertime hoping they'll get fed. I don't want to risk their ending up in a foster home, where they'll probably be worse off, but I hate knowing how neglected they are. What can I do? Should I report my own parents?

— Neglected

Neglected: I am so sorry you carry this terrible weight.

You do need to intervene, and also shift the responsibility to the people who are old enough, trained enough and equipped enough to handle it.

They carry too much weight themselves — and are underpaid to do it — but the teachers and administrators at your sibs’ school are in the best position to help your sibs. Call them. Call the principal, explain what’s going on.

I understand your fear — schools are mandated reporters — but the whole point of child-protective services, if it comes to that, is children’s safety. That purpose isn’t served by dropping kids from bad situations into worse ones. The emphasis is on keeping children in their homes.

This may sound naive, because of course any intervention runs the risk of making a bad situation worse.

But that’s not a good enough reason to leave neglect unaddressed, and you can’t take this on alone.

If you’re not ready to call authorities directly, then call Childhelp instead, 800-4-A-CHILD. It’s a nonprofit, and its staff can advise you anonymously.

Take care. Your sibs are lucky to have you.

The following are readers’ suggestions:

●“Neglected” could also use a service like Amazon or Instacart to ensure there’s food being delivered to the kids once a week. Perhaps the parents would be okay with a $50-per-week charge for a simple, recurring order of easy-to-cook staples and healthy snacks that don’t require the parents to do anything.

●The sibling should reach out to the school about a school feeding program, for a breakfast and lunch five days per week.

●Please make good use of your college’s counseling services. You’re doing a wonderful thing for your siblings, but you also need to take care of yourself.

●Child Protective Services always attempts to place neglected children with relatives before sending them to the homes of unrelated foster parents. Her younger siblings may end up with grandparents or an aunt and uncle.

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