Comprehensively Serving the Whole Child (Part Two)
Earlier in this series we provided a simplified definition for the term “human rights” as “basic needs and freedoms.” Basic needs would include food, drinkable water and shelter. Basic freedoms would include freedom of religion, speech and expression. Although we may disagree on how exactly these rights should be guaranteed, most of us feel that every human being is entitled to these most basic of things. Going a bit further, we might also include things like healthcare, basic education and freedom from violence.
When discussing the rights of children, though, many of us would agree that kids need and deserve much more than that to grow and develop into adults. Children require guaranteed play, freedom of thought and expression that is both protected and encouraged, socialization with peers and healthy attachment with safe adults.
Unfortunately, no individual, organization or community perfectly protects the rights of children, and when we examine the nuances of some of these “rights,” we often disagree.
So if human rights are inalienable, how could we disagree on how to put them into practice?
To figure out how we might put these ideas into practice we can look to sources like the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Surely intelligent, caring people—including some people of faith—helped develop this document. However, though it is extensive and thorough, it also leads to disagreement and convoluted debate. We should also mention again that no nation that agreed to its ideals is upholding them perfectly.
In addition secular sources like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we as Christians should turn to Scripture, prayer and our personal relationships with God’s Holy Spirit to encounter wisdom, guidance and personal convictions that help us decide how to care for children, understand secular philosophy on human rights and act in trying situations.
Still, among some of our brightest and most passionate as well as within our own churches and Christian non-profit organizations, the debate continues.
We struggle with questions like:
- How much freedom is too much for a child?
- How do we provide individualized care to children with unique needs?
- How do we discipline a child who is misbehaving?
- How do we apply God’s heart of justice and mercy to our interactions with donors, staff members, the children in our care and others connected to our ministry?
Caring for children—in the Micah Project’s case, caring for children in a way so that they’ll leave behind street life—is not as easy as it seems on a superficial level nor as glamorous and exciting as social media might have us believe.
It’s tough, convoluted and nuanced.
It’s also critically important, serious and urgent: It is often a matter of life or death.
And it’s rewarding—full of lots of love and, at times, even miracles.
As we wrap up this series on the complexities of standing up for the rights of children, we won’t be able to provide many concrete answers, because we at the Micah Project are still learning too. We will, however, ask some important questions and apply our past experiences and biblical wisdom to provide insightful context and suggestions. We’ll do this by (1) applying biblical passages to this issue, (2) summarizing a practice we’ve learned to call “trauma-competent caregiving,” and (3) doing a brief case study on the situation of a fictional child, based on real-life experiences of some of the “Micah boys.”
1. Biblical Wisdom
As we think about the best ways to honor the dignity and human rights of the children we work with, let’s start by considering our ministry’s theme verse, Micah 6:8:
“He [the Lord, God] has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
At a quick glance, Micah 6:8 could appear to be a checklist. If we could just act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God like this verse commands, we’d be perfect people! But such an understanding would be ripping this verse out of context, and it certainly wouldn’t be very humble to think ourselves capable of perfection. Instead, we at the Micah Project try to remain aware of our faults and always strive to live this verse better and better each day. We ask God to strengthen us to do what is right and help us love and serve the children in our care. For we know that without the work of Christ, we are truly hopeless sinners. Without God’s presence walking with us, we could not serve street-connected youth well. In this truth, we find great freedom, strength and hope. We walk humbly as we continue to learn and grow—developing our understanding of the complex issues faced by street-connected people, training ourselves to better care for children who have experienced trauma and always asking God’s Holy Spirit for guidance.
Other biblical verses and passages that provide guidance to our work include:
- “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27)
- “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” (Proverbs 29:7)
- “‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 10:14)
- “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)
- “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:9-10)
- “The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of [God’s] unfailing love.” (Psalm 33:5)
Of course, applying the good news of the Christian gospel itself helps us continually walk in humility with God and extend the grace God gave us to others. If we think ourselves superior to anyone, it is hard to truly connect with that person. Instead, we must remember that we are sinners capable of great evil without God’s hand in our lives and therefore treat others with understanding, patience, compassion, mercy and grace.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,
just as Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:13)
Throughout Scripture we can see the interaction of God’s justice, mercy, love and grace. Our Creator is a God of justice who will not let wrongs go unpunished. Yet God is also our Heavenly Parent full of love for us, and through Jesus Christ, God executed the most amazingly gracious plan—putting justice and punishment upon the only perfect person to ever exist. Jesus Christ is our Immanuel, God-made-flesh, and for those who trust in his atoning work upon the cross, there is grace and freedom from guilt and punishment. We must proclaim this good news to all, including the Micah boys and practice this knowledge in all our interactions with others.
2. Trauma-Competent Caregiving AKA Trauma-Informed Care
Nearly every boy, teen and young man in the care of the Micah Project is experiencing “complex trauma.” According to traumafreeworld.org, “complex trauma is when a child experiences abandonment, neglect, and repeated abuse, starting when they were very young and from the people who were supposed to keep them safe.”
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not the same as complex trauma. According to the “Blue Knot Foundation,” PTSD generally comes from one-off events like witnessing violence, an emergency or an assault, and we often connect PTSD to adults. Of course, many Micah boys have witnessed and/or survived one-off events like these, but what sets the complex trauma they experience apart from PTSD is that it “occurs with repeated, extreme, interpersonal trauma often in childhood…People with complex trauma often experience PTSD alongside other impacts. These can include a range of effects on physical and emotional health, well-being, self-esteem, relationships and the ability to function day to day, which can affect survivors over time.” As many of the boys and young men in our care experienced years of difficulty (e.g. neglect, abuse, violence, poverty), they are struggling with these impacts of complex trauma.
"Trauma Free World" shares the following about complex trauma on their website:
‘TRAUMA CHANGES EVERYTHING’
- BRAIN DEVELOPMENT
- Memory, emotions, judgment [decision-making], development, living in ‘fear brain’
- BODY & BIOLOGY
- Growth, illness, sensory sensitivities, genetic expression
- BELIEF SYSTEMS [i.e. beliefs about oneself]
- Guilty, damaged, powerless, worthless
- Unpredictable, disruptive
- [Inability] to trust or create healthy relationships
They also report the following statistics about complex trauma in children and young adults:
- Increased rates of attempted suicide
- 3x more likely to experience depression
- 10x more likely to have behavioral problems
- 10 x more likely to experience learning problems
- 4x more likely to have alcoholism or drug issues
We have certainly witnessed all of the above working with street-connected youth in Tegucigalpa. The good news is that complex trauma can be treated, and we at Micah are dedicated to healing!
Over the past few years, we’ve really focused on training and equipping our staff to better care for the boys and teens in our homes. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve already witnessed that understanding trauma and learning how to work with youth who have been affected by it helps us better understand the guys’ behavior, treat and reduce anxiety, handle difficult situations, avoid triggers, and empathize more with people on the streets and the children in our care (https://traumafreeworld.org/training/)
That is just a brief summary of complex trauma’s effects and how we are training ourselves to better serve young people with this type of trauma. Now, let’s move onto a case study to which we’ll apply some of the things we’ve learned over the past few years.
3. Case Study: “Carlos”
Let’s apply human rights philosophy, biblical wisdom and trauma-competent caregiving techniques to the following case. This case is fictional: We’ve made it up, but it’s based on real-life experiences of boys and young men we’ve known from our city’s streets.
Consider “Carlos” who lived at home with his mother, grandmother and siblings until he was about 10 years old. His family’s small house is located in an impoverished, dangerous part of town. Carlos’ family struggles to have enough to eat, and the children rarely bathe or go to school. At home, Carlos suffered neglect. He never experienced healthy boundaries or discipline and never had the opportunity to learn how to regulate his emotions or exercise self-control. Around six years old, he began going downtown to beg for money and food with his mother every day. He wasn’t in school and made some friends who influenced him to participate in the negative aspects of street life like substance abuse and stealing. By the age of 10 Carlos stopped going home with his mother each night to sleep in the house with his family. Instead, he opted to sleep on the street with his friends—some of whom were adults who took advantage of Carlos and subjected him to abuse. Both in his neighborhood and on the streets, Carlos has witnessed and been a victim of violent acts.
Years of neglect, abuse, violence, drug consumption and malnutrition have left Carlos with “complex trauma,” and he often displays symptoms of PTSD. Now that he’s in the Micah House, Carlos presents behavioral and learning problems, he never wants his photograph taken, and when triggered he sometimes dissociates and fails to recognize his caregivers or the other Micah boys. In addition to these difficulties, Carlos also displays a bubbly personality, athleticism, a quick wit and great love for his family and friends.
Let’s go through some of the effects of his complex trauma. What did we learn in the paragraph above?
- Carlos presents behavioral problems.
- Carlos presents learning difficulties.
- He never wants his photo taken.
- When triggered, Carlos sometimes dissociates. His brain operates out of fear, his body goes into “fight/flight/flee” mode and he does not recognize his caregivers or friends.
With those issues in mind, let’s consider the following questions:
- How can we help Carlos heal from trauma, regulate his emotions and learn how to control his reactions and behaviors?
- How do we encourage Carlos and celebrate his strengths?
- How do we do this in a way that upholds his human rights as a minor?
- How do we apply biblical wisdom to our decisions?
As we stated above, every situation is unique, and it would be hard to provide all of the answers in one blog post. However, here are some of our suggestions for this case.
- Carlos’ most basic needs must be met consistently and thoroughly: healthy food, water, shelter, etc. This will be a first step in earning Carlos’ trust and teaching him that when he is in a safe place, he can relax and focus on his interests, likes, dreams and future.
- Patience and grace will be essential in any caregiver’s interactions with Carlos.
- Carlos needs appropriate doses of both space and attention. It is essential to find the balance of protecting both his privacy and safety.
- Carlos needs positive examples from adults who will take the time to teach him to auto-regulate his emotions and react in positive ways to difficult situations.
- If and when he dissociates, Carlos will need space. Caregivers must be trained in dealing with a crisis of disassociation—able to protect both Carlos and other residents of the home when he is in “fight/flight/flee” mode and unable to recognize others. His triggers should be avoided in everyday life and worked on in therapy.
- Carlos needs professional teachers/educators who understand his unique needs and learning disabilities.
- Adults must speak to Carlos in simple language he understands as he grows and matures, strengthening his critical thinking skills.
- Adults must earn Carlos’ trust and meet his needs with consistency, honesty and humility.
- Carlos’ desire to never be photographed must always be respected. (But through therapy or counseling, we may discover why he does not want his photo taken and overcome that fear while always maintaining healthy boundaries and understanding of privacy.)
- His interactions with adults and other children—especially visitors and strangers—must be supervised. Accountability among Micah staff is essential.
- Carlos deserves to be empowered. He deserves decision-making power in his life. He needs freedoms, privileges and responsibilities.
- Carlos has a right to play, follow his interests and participate in extra-curricular activities. He deserves support as he pursues his interests.
We hope this series has helped you think more deeply about the issues faced by street-connected youth, including the very Micah boys living within our ministry’s walls.
We take our calling to serve these boys and young men seriously, and we promise to continue to learn and grow as we work to help them find freedom, family and futures in Jesus Christ.
Thanks for taking the time to learn with us. Please let us know if you have any questions or want us to dive even deeper into these issues.