In Greek mythology, Zeus has three daughters who can shower gifts on humanity. The gifts are happiness, wisdom and flowering — referred to as the Three Graces. Later, in the Bible, they were reframed as faith, hope and charity. There are other iterations of these Graces as well.
Interestingly, in every depiction, they are meant to remind us that there is no one perfect trait. The ideal lies in their blending, but with the probability that every life situation demands perhaps one more than the other two.
In our desire to find creative, compassionate and effective ways of reaching families, we should have our own version of the Three Graces. This might provide us with a context for assessing and balancing the many mandates and tasks of a safety and well-being system for children and families.
At a recent community meeting that I facilitated in Florida, residents and stakeholders reinforced my thoughts about this. No one was advocating for us to abolish anything. They realize that a toxic cauldron of circumstances, such as substance use, mental health problems and the stress of poverty can put children at risk of abuse or chronic neglect at any moment. From their perspective, there isn’t a judgment attached to that danger — it is a reality and the result of converging levels of family and historical trauma and drama.
These aren’t researchers or pundits. They are people who have every reason to fear and dislike child protection services, but they value their instincts over ideology.
These residents want a system that works to the advantage of the family and the safety of the child. They have an expectation that those with responsibility and authority will act with the Three Graces of opportunity, competence and empathy.
A child’s birth presents parents with an opportunity. It also requires us, the proverbial village, to ante up an equal share of opportunity for family success.
Parents can, and ultimately must experience the birth of a child as a moment to improve their quality of life, teach their kids how to live in the world and navigate systems, develop a moral compass for responsible decision-making, to heal, and at a minimum, provide them with the basic resources to survive. These elements should be the first page of every assessment instrument we use with families.
The corresponding opportunities are also our responsibilities as helpers. Communities with whom I speak think of this as the fair thing to do. They don’t expect parents under the constant weight of social-emotional stress to bear the weight on their own. Not surprisingly, many client families are frustrated with us because we claim to know those stressors, but we’ve never been “all in” on addressing them. That should be page two of a safety assessment: asking the question, “Are we helping or hurting this family’s opportunity to heal?”
The second Grace, competence, is a value proposition, and exactly what children, parents and communities should expect of us. Here too, we frequently lack depth when the situation calls for clarity of purpose, roles and responsibilities, creativity, collaboration and mostly, critical thinking. What if there were a check box and a service plan for systemic competence on every assessment?
Finally, communities with whom I have spoken place a high value on a third Grace, empathy. In fact, they see this as the cornerstone of the family engagement process. Understanding that many parents are ambivalent about or resistant to change, we know that our most effective and seasoned team members understand the complexity of social circumstances in which families attempt to function. Empathy is the entry point for helping a parent prepare themselves for change.
After months of isolation, we are experiencing a spiraling number of parental substance abuse cases and untreated mental health problems, scores of families without permanent homes, and economic stress rooted in inflation — all circumstances we agree can lead to child maltreatment.
But closing out 2022, I was struck by two things: the paucity of conversations about how America performed on the metrics of child safety during the past year, and an abundance of wholesale chastising towards the child safety profession. There was not a bit of grace in any of this, nor was there any attempt to shed the shared delusions that child maltreatment is singularly about poverty.
In 2022, we spoke about the real and sometimes perceived grievances of adults but not the grief that comes along with child maltreatment. When we say that childhood is a magical period, it implies that a child is indifferent to time and responsibility while fully embracing a world that is all about them. All as it should be. But ultimately, children mirror what they see from their parents and their environment — healthy or sad — because that is all they see for the first several years of their lives.
Youngsters connect to adults whom they trust to keep them safe. They bond to adults who help interpret an irrational world of contradictions, ideas and decisions. No matter how many siblings, family members or friends are around, without those healthy connections, the opportunity for safety, predictability and the right level of resources, it is a lonely world.
Within that context of shared responsibility, we teach children security, kindness, selfless regard for others and the virtues of sound decision-making. The onus on parents to do all that in isolation is overwhelming under the best of circumstances. This is why community-based family support programs are critical to any credible child protection system.
No one Grace stands alone. Without a “village” that shows up to support that collective shouldering of tasks, we all stumble. That’s why it’s time to hold ourselves accountable for improvement, reminding ourselves of the Three Graces. Only then will we see an upward trajectory of safety outcomes for children — and their families.