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911, 411, Mass 2-1-1: which one do you pick?

small black mobile phone in man hand

I remember thinking quickly on my toes to get what I needed for my three amazing children.  Sometimes I would be searching on the web, reading an article or a book and I would come across something I knew I would need.  I would say to myself,  ”The next time I feel alone or in crisis, I have to remember this.”  Other times when I was going through a crisis with my oldest son, who was behaviorally challenged and experienced unpredictable trauma flashbacks, I’d have to call 911 for the police to assist. The running, the standing in the middle of the road wanting to die or the violent physical aggression would overwhelm my ability to cope.  It was then that I would call. I have to admit I did not tell the police about his violent behavior toward me because I did not want him arrested.

All this was prior to our new law, Child Requiring Assistance (CRA), which has created a few more resources.  This was the old CHINS days, where I would have to bring my child to court to access certain services .  So, I would call and have one to two cruisers with officers in uniforms dispatched to help my kid.  911 was the resource I’d reach out for to have someone to help me keep him safe.

I was fortunate to know the sergeant in town. He would come and talk to me and my son and try so hard to figure out what could he could do.  During those conversations  is when filing a CHINS  would be mentioned.  After researching it more, I decided it was an option I did NOT want and sometimes I’d have to dig in my heels and fight not to use it.

Parents like me are often given the option of CRA and told we need to pick a choice and or direction. As a parent I would go back and forth on what to do, where to go and who to talk to. I would also think “maybe I am a bad parent, screwing up and not helping my kid.” But many of you reading this may know a parent like me or be one like me.  Sometimes, we find we are alone and the blame and shame we feel makes our story and voice feel weak.

For kids who go to court and may have to enter detention, Department of Youth Services is redesigning the options through an approach called Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI). In the JDAI principles we discuss alternatives to detention, mental health in secure facilities, youth with trauma, racial disparities to say the few.  I continue to read on bias and decision making when you believe that the child is “bad” or label the parent “dysfunctional and bad.”   Remember, I was the parent that called 911, 411, and Mass 2-1-1 regularly.

Mass 2-1-1 connects callers to resources, benefits and other programs.  What it doesn’t do  is the next level questions on helping with your needs.  It’s great for basic info but not for the help you need in raising a child, especially one with lots of needs. I have called several times.

Ever try dialing 411 to get the local Emergency Mobile Crisis team? It’s not going to happen unless you already know the name and location of that CSA (Community Service Agency) in your area. Then, if you get their 1-800 number, you have to be patient, calm and able to explain what you need so that the person on the phone can even try to figure out where to connect you in their agency.

Then we get to dialing 911 or the police .  The police have to keep the community safe, it’s their job to take care of the full community.  After being at PPAL for 10 years, I have had the pleasure of working with many police departments, academies and school resource officers. All and all I have been embraced with thankfulness and gratitude for having resources and information to share with them. But at the end, I also hear, “where do we go when the CRA isn’t working? What can we tell parents that feel lost?” Sometimes I walk away thinking that they have been asked to be things they are not : clinicians, doctors and evaluators to keep kids safe.

The best network beyond Mass 2-1-1, 411 and 911 is to connect to a parent to parent network like PPAL or a youth peer network like Youth MOVE Massachusetts. It amazes me that we have reached many so parents, young adults and peers.  They, too, have reached out to get ideas, support and knowledge.  That network is strong and offers tailored customer service which allows you to express your need and get a specific answer.   Let’s help youth and parents and give them resources that work and understand them! But also teach them what each  toll free number can and cannot offer!

It’s true that there are different things for different needs. 411 locates the local pizza, Mass 2-1-1 can get you to resources like WIC, and 911 is the fast route to help in a medical emergency.   The good news is that the parent and youth network is there to offer understanding and support and direction. It may not be Mapquest or Google but it sure can connect!

Meri Viano is our guest blogger.  She is the parent of two sons and a daughter who continue to inspire her blog posts.

Why can’t a strength remain a strength?

two hands just meLots of people in my family are ambidextrous.  My grandfather could use his right or left hand interchangeably and so could my dad.  Once, before going on a trip to Germany, my dad had lots of pre-trip shots and his right arm swelled up.  He had begun painting a room and needed to finish before he left. “I love being able to use either hand,” he said and promptly painted the room using his left hand.

My son was also two-handed and I was glad for him, thinking it was an advantage.  He colored with either hand in preschool and couldn’t understand why he had to hold a fork in his left hand and knife in his right.  “Can’t I just switch when I feel like it?” he asked.

When his mental health problems hit like an avalanche, I would remind myself of all of his strengths.  Smart, curious, creative and cute were on my list.  So was being able to use either hand.

He landed in a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt at age seven and three more hospitalizations followed.  He had just turned eight when his doctor called for a neuropsychological exam.  When I sat down to listen to the results, it was devastating.  I heard the word psychosis for the first time. The report listed problems with attention, wild mood swings, suicidal thoughts and intense anxiety.  Then the psychologist casually added that being ambidextrous was “a soft neurological sign.”  Just like that, what I’d thought of as a strength got moved into the problems list.

One of the things that keeps parents like me going is focusing on the wonderful things about our children, particularly on the very bad days.  They might have a sense of humor or a strong sense of generosity or fairness.  They can be pretty smart (even if they can’t always apply it to school work) or write or draw beautifully.  Since many of the meetings with professionals or reports on our child’s needs detail their challenges and focus on their problems, we can feel downright discouraged.  For me, reminding myself of my son’s strengths was a kind of ritual to ward off the negative thinking.

Parents know that a diagnosis or evaluation opens doors to services.  It’s an important tool for advocating for our son or daughter. However, we can’t run a family that way.  Parents want to cherish what makes their child interesting, loveable and special.  We know they will face formidable challenges and every item we deem positive is fiercely protected.

Linda, a mother of a teenage daughter, told me she had been proud and even in awe of her daughter’s ability to draw and paint from the time she was small. The artwork was beautiful and emotional.  When her daughter became severely depressed and was harming herself, her art showed a darker side, and Linda, viewing it with a mother’s eyes, found it alarming at times.  Her daughter’s art teacher agreed that she had remarkable talent but said other students found some pictures upsetting.  “Can you ask her to draw different, maybe happier, subjects?” Linda was asked.  Linda felt that her daughter’s talent, once seen as something to encourage was now being seen as something to contain.

In a strengths-based approach, there is a deliberate move from defining the problem and its solutions, to identifying the strengths in an individual, family or even an environment.   A situation might be reframed from “this child is truant from school” to “the child still attends school and is strong willed” or from “family is in constant crisis” to “family has had stress for a long time but has survived together and has strengths.”  This focus on resilience and the potential pluses in a situation is an important move in the right direction.

But when parents focus on strengths, they think about the individual strengths of their child, themselves or other family members.  It’s personal and each strength is like a winning number on a lottery scratch ticket.  Get enough of them and we might win a prize. It’s okay if it’s a small one.

A friend of mine reminded me that each trait our children have can be seen as a strength or deficit depending on who is doing the assessing. If my son played baseball, she said, he would be rewarded for being a switch hitter.  I think I’ll move being ambidextrous back onto the strengths column.