Friday, October 23, 2009

Adventures With Balloon Boy: What should Happen Now?

Oh, what to do about good 'ole balloon boy. It seems like just yesterday when I watched the charade unfold on television, thinking to myself, 'In 20 years of following safety issues, I've never seen anything like this.' But then again, the general rule is that if you have anything in your house or backyard that through some freak chain of events might get a child into trouble, then somewhere, somehow, it's bound to happen sooner or later. Children are masters at initiating the right combination to unleash mayhem, if for no other reason than that curiosity tends to lead them to flirt with every possible scenario. As it turns out, my first instinct was right, and police now say the whole thing was a hoax.

Sure, like most everyone else, I was a little perturbed to find out it was all a sham. I haven’t felt so used since that time I passed out at Uncle Jed's house. CNN cut away from two hours of regular programming,(Of course, anyth1ng that gets Rich Sanchez to shut his trap is a plus) and I, like much of America, wasted a lot of perfectly good worry and a precious tear or two when it appeared that 6-year-old Falcone might have taken a land-dive at 3,000 feet. It's not as though worry is hard to come by, and granted, I also cry during Bambi, but still, I feel a little bit cheated by the whole thing. Apparently, such sentiment is common all across America.

Yet what bothers me more about this whole situation is to hear pundits on news stations or Entertainment Tonight talking about how the state should take the kids away. Now, I'll be the first to point out that this mother and father won't be winning any parent of the year awards anytime soon. And if there was ever anyone who needed to be on medication more than Richard Heene, I wouldn't want to meet him. The kids seem ill-behaved, rambunctious, and out of control. Watching little Falcone throw up on television while (allegedly) being made to lie about it all was almost as heartbreaking as the incident itself. But what would you expect? After all, according to Dad, the entire family is descendants of aliens. Yet is this enough to justify placing the kids in foster care? To those who answer yes, we would say to you: I don't think you realize just how damaging such an action really is.

How many of you would support a person who lurked outside a park, wait for the first child whose parent looked away or wandered off, only to decide they knew better and moving in to snatch them away, bring them home, and keep them in a strange house for months or years? Would we view such a person as a hero or a monster? CPS workers may be wearing a state issued name tag, but to the child involved, it couldn't matter less whether the person is sporting a ski mask or a smug smile of superiority. It's still someone snatching them away from everything they know and love in life, (even if those people and/or environments are imperfect, neglectful, or abusive) and plopping them down into a strange situation with strange people.

As imperfect as a child's caretakers may be, a child's family is important to every child, as is everything else in their environment. (Siblings, schools, their home, their bedroom, all those things familiar that serve as a source of comfort.) Attachment, or a child's bonds with caretakers, is a youngster’s most important need. In fact, the major problem with child abuse is not necessarily the actions themselves, but the fact that when children are abused or neglected repeatedly, their attachment with caretakers is injured. The action of removing a child from their home often causes a profound injury to attachment and emotional security, doing in one swift swoop what even years of abuse might only whittle away at. In fact, if you compare long-term outcomes for foster kids to studies of children from other abusive or neglectful situations, it's not even a close call. Foster care, by leaps and bounds, predicts the most harmful adult outcomes when compared to any other type of abuse. It's an act so severe that in terms of trauma from the child's point of view, it rivals the most brutal assaults or violent rapes. It's not uncommon for kids to go mute afterwards or show other signs of acute shock, something generally only brought about by the most brutal of attacks. Foster care attacks what is more important to a child than anything else in the world: their sense of belonging to a family. Taking a child away from their family may be legal for CPS works, but it’s still an act of child abuse, and a serious and quite devastating form of abuse at that. It shouldn't be taken lightly.

If it does turn out that this thing is a hoax, I'm sure the Heene family will pay dearly for it as it is. The ironic thing is that this stunt will probably eliminate the possibility of them ever getting the reality show they were striving for, so in this regard, it's a little bit of poetic justice. The reality charade they did get will probably not be nearly as much fun as they were anticipating. As for the criminal charges, probation would probably be appropriate, especially since that whole rescue effort looked expensive, and I'm sure restitution is in order. Above all, we need to remember that as imperfect or abusive as families or parents may be, we can't simply swap them out for what we deem to be a better situation, at least not without doing a child the gravest of harm in the process. It's easy to criticize and act superior. But if we do so in a way that incidentally causes a child much more harm than was necessary, doesn't that make us the real child abusers, the real monsters of society?

While we're at it, rather than pointing fingers at a family who (quite obviously) have enough problems as it is, perhaps we should ask ourselves why parent's would be moved into taking part in such an ill-thought-out stunt. Perhaps we should ask ourselves why viewing the naughty, malicious, and self-destructive behavior of other has become a favorite pass-time for hundreds of millions of people. After all, if we didn't watch, if we didn't make it a sport to revel in other people making fools of themselves on television, there wouldn't be families out there who feel a need to stage such things to get on television, or even considers such self-deprecating fame so important to begin with. This episode is as much a reflection on the state of society at large as it is on this family.

These kids will have to face enough as it is, without us screwing them up even more by yanking them out of their home. Look on the positive side: I don't know about you, but after a couple hours of non-stop balloon-expert testimony, I now know more about flying hot air balloons than I ever imagined, which should come in handy if I ever need to make stealth James Bond-like getaway in a hot air balloon.

General references:
1. Nina Bernstein, 'The Lost Children of Wilder,' New York: Pantheon Books, 2001

2. J. Hodges & B. Tizard, "Social and family relationships of exinstitutional adolescents." Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 30, 77-"'97

3. J.J. Doyle Jr., "Child protection and child outcomes: measuring the effects of foster care." MIT Sloan School of Management & NBER, Working Paper

4. Global Children's Fund, “Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison,” unpublished manuscript, Chapter 36,

For more information on kids, check out our website,

No comments:

Post a Comment