Finding a life after trauma: How Chatham is responding to child abuse

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/29/20

This is the second of a two-part story about child abuse and neglect in Chatham County.

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Finding a life after trauma: How Chatham is responding to child abuse

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Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part story about child abuse and neglect in Chatham County.

Child abuse happens in Chatham County — and reports of it and neglect have risen by more than 30 percent in the last year. But there are individuals and programs in Chatham that have taken steps to push back against that rise.

Positive parenting

One of the ways advocates want to decrease incidences of child abuse is widening access to parenting classes.

The 2019 Community Child Protection Team report stated that “limited child abuse prevention programming” exists in Chatham. The programs that do exist are limited, but still address the need.

The Incredible Years Parent Training program works with parents of children ages 3-6 to teach them parenting skills. Courtney White runs the program in Chatham County for the Chapel Hill Training-Outreach Project.

“The purpose is to teach social and emotional growth, to help parents support and nurture that in their kids,” White said. “The purpose of the skills is to provide an avenue for parents to get information and to teach in a way that children are more receptive to and are more developmentally and socially appropriate.”

Anthony Izzard runs the Fathers in Focus program with the Chatham County Health Department. The initiative, which has been in place since 1999, works with 20 fathers of children age birth to 5 at a time, with most participants referred by the Chatham County Department of Social Services. Izzard said fathers being present in the home is vital, as is preparing them for the challenges that come with parenting.

“Research shows that it’s better to have two parents versus one,” Izzard said. “Most programs in North Carolina are geared toward mothers and/or children. A program that supports and advocates for fathers helps the development and success of the family, since accessible, individualized attention is so important.”

DSS director Jennie Kristiansen said good parenting is the best way to “get out in front of” a family in crisis and abuse or neglect taking place, and programs like Incredible Years can help with that.

The goal with every DSS case is to reunite the children with their family. DSS social worker Hilary Cissokho said not every parent is a bad person — the ones that come to DSS “probably didn’t get what they needed as a child.”

“I hear a lot of judgment of parents, and certainly we are working with people who have made some really significant mistakes and maybe who have done some very bad things,” Cissokho said. “But more often than not, most of the time, we are working with people, we’re meeting them at their lowest point, and they would really like to be good parents and would really like to provide better care for their children.”

Most of the time, DSS can work with the family to keep the child in the home. But not every time.

Taking in someone else’s child

David and Amanda McMillan live in Pittsboro and have had a foster child in their home for nearly a year now.

“We both really enjoy kids, and we both had the instinct that we want to help out in general,” said Amanda, who works from home for a biotech company based in California. “Fostering is a great way to do that. You can help individual kids, but it helps us as a community also. Possibly those kids have better outcomes.”

The couple currently have an 18-year-old foster son. The McMillans had spent time with other children and provided some respite care — temporary stays to provide a break for other foster parents. They won’t share what their foster child went through for privacy reasons, but they have been amazed by what they’ve seen from him.

“Stuff he’s gone through, he’s still come out of it,” David says.

“Remarkably well-adjusted,” Amanda adds.

“And wanting life and wanting to see what’s out there,” David concludes. “Resilient. That part is amazing, because I’m like, ‘Wow. Go you.’”

Advocates say there is a significant need in Chatham County for more foster parents, for more people to fill the role that David and Amanda McMillan fill for their foster child.

“We’re always recruiting foster parents,” Cissokho said. “That is something that people often feel like, ‘I could never care for a child and never see them go home.’ There is incredible joy in caring for a child and experiencing how much they want to go home and helping them foster that relationship with their parents and the joy in a child being able to go home is pretty incredibly. We have foster parents that maintain relationships with kids they have cared for and their parents.”

There are multiple options for engaging in foster care. There’s respite, where you get a taste of what it’s like while filling in for a foster parent going out of town or having an emergency. Then there’s the normal foster situation. Then there’s fostering with the intent of adoption.

In all cases, if possible, DSS attempts to maintain a relationship between the child, their original family and the foster family.

“That is what is most healthy for the child,” Cissokho said. “Certainly there are CPS cases that are contentious, but if we can put those things aside and let those issues be between the adults and present to the kids a united front. The more that kids can see everyone working together, that makes the experience a little easier.”

Nickie Siler, the supervisor for the Guardian Ad Litem program in Chatham County, said Chatham’s foster parents are solid.

“My experience is that they’ve always been willing to co-parent with the bio(logical) parents, and I think that’s great,” Siler said. “I don’t think that every county could say they’ve had as much success with co-parenting with bio(logical) parents as Chatham does.”

The McMillans said they’ve had a “great experience” with their foster child and would encourage others to “give it a shot and go for it” if they’re curious.

“I think it’s really fulfilling,” David said. “It’s challenging as well, but it’s amazing to see a young adult go through basically a lot of firsts in their life. Just to grow and have those experiences and share them with him — it’s amazing how much I’ve thought about my experience growing up talking about his experience.”

Then there’s adoption. It’s a much more thorough process, but Chatham families have been taking advantage of it too. The CCPT report stated that 23 children were available for adoption throughout 2019, with six not having “identified adoptive families” at the end of the year.

Another way to help

Another common option for individuals wanting to help children in abusive situations is to serve as a Guardian ad Litem, or GAL. GALs are trained volunteers who are appointed by the court to be the child’s voice in any child abuse cases that reach the justice system.

“Our main focus is best interest of the child,” said Siler. “We are to report to the courts what we feel is in that child’s best interest. We definitely take the child’s wishes into account, if the child is old enough to express their issues.”

Like DSS, the GAL system’s first priority is returning the child to their parents, but if that doesn’t happen, it’s the GAL’s responsibility to work with the justice system and DSS to find the best result.

The News + Record heard from a number of Chatham County-based GALs in preparation for this story and asked them why they became one, what a case looks like and why people should consider becoming one as well. Here’s a sampling of the answers.

Pat Walters: “These children have been neglected, abused or placed in a situation where there is no adult responsible for their care. The parents have lawyers who represent their interests and present their cases to the court but the child, without a GAL, has no representation.”

Sue McMaster: “I have been an advocate for teenagers, young children and infants. Some cases are resolved fairly quickly and some go on for years. In some cases, the children are placed with relatives and in other cases they are with total strangers. Some children have frequent visits in person or by phone with their parents, some have no contact at all. The only common thread is that each child is in a situation where he or she needs someone to listen, to investigate and to speak for them in court.”

Tom Newcomb: “A GAL is appointed by the Court to investigate the abuse or neglect of a child and to make a report to the Judge on the best interests of that child. The well-being of a child in need is a GAL’s sole focus — how can you top that as a mission?”

Claudette Womble: “I wanted to be part of the GAL program because I believed my experiences growing up and my work experiences made me want to be of service to kids in my community. I believe kids should live in homes that consist of parental guidance, love, safety, emotional well-being, good health and stability.”

Why kids matter

While parents, caseworkers and judges are and can be parts of a child abuse situation, at the center is a child. And sometimes, the child is the only one left at the end of the day.

“Every situation is different,” Kristiansen said. “So there are kids and parents, sometimes parents relinquish. You don’t want that situation to happen, but when it happens, sometimes you have birth parents who have a relationship with the foster parents, they are able to have contact with the child. They know he or she is doing OK. They’re just not in a position to parent again right now. So they relinquish and they are able to keep that relationship, kids adjust. Kids are amazingly resilient. Is it their loss? Absolutely. But are they able to make a successful transition? Yes. That’s a success, even in the midst of that loss.”

April was Child Abuse Prevention Month, something recognized by a resolution from the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. The resolution stated that “preventing child abuse and neglect is a community responsibility affecting both the current and future quality of life of a community.”

Chapman said everyone in Chatham County should be concerned with what happens to children, particularly those who find themselves in abusive or neglectful situations.

“Kids are all of our business,” she said. “Most adults are caring and would never hurt them. But unfortunately, there are some who do and it’s all of our jobs to be aware and listen to kids. And if you see something, say something.”

There are gaps, advocates say. Pittsboro-based counselor Suzanne Saunders said there needs to be more access to mental health services, particularly for the Latino population. Kristiansen said she’d like to see more funding for preventative programs and initiatives.

Cissokho said that the more community members are engaged with the children in their schools and in families, the better chance abusive situations will be spotted or even prevented.

“Absolutely make a report to CPS if that feels necessary, but also, if you see someone in your community struggling, try to help,” she said. “We’re all our neighbor’s keeper, and there are certainly situations where we’re encountering parents who are trying their very best who are facing circumstances that are incredibly challenging.”

In his book “The Body Keeps the Score,” psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes that while the brain can be damaged by trauma, leaving long-lasting effects, other things are also true.

“Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another,” he writes. “Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being... we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.”

That’s what all these advocates say will make a difference, right here in Chatham County.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.


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