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Starfish: A Tale of Abuse and Neglect

I want to tell you a story. It could have happened in any town. But it happened here, in Thermopolis.

I came home one night after midnight. I had gone with one of our local deputies to help take a young child to a psychiatric hospital. He had tried earlier in the day to kill himself.

Someone once asked me, “How can kids have problems, they have nothing to worry about?” Obviously this kid did. And you know he isn’t the first I’ve seen nor will he be the last to act in such a desperate manner.

But it’s not suicide I want to talk about, it’s the desperation, the agony that children feel and why that can happen even here under our very noses. It takes a lot to drive a 10-year-old child to this point.

You see this child has lived a life of abuse and neglect. He has lived in trauma for such a long time it has become his world. He knows no other. When I asked him what happened he said, “I just can’t take it anymore”. The terror that became rage turned inward and he couldn’t see another way to stop it. He longs to belong, to be part of a family, and he had accepted the pain for years just to belong. But he just couldn’t take it anymore.

He also said, “I don’t trust social workers or counselors, they lie”. And, you know, he’s right. We tell him we will keep him safe, but can only do something when he is hurt and hurt badly. We tell him we care but do nothing until he acts up and then call him a delinquent or tell him he has a problem. We tell him to ask for help and when he cries out in pain and anguish we put him in an institution and tell him if he is good he can come home.

Don’t get me wrong, there were many caring people around this child that night; people who wanted to help, people who genuinely cared and were very frustrated with a system which couldn’t respond adequately or appropriately to the situation. The only option was to place him in a hospital over a hundred miles away. To take him away from family, community, school and all that’s familiar, the things which make up his world, in an effort to “keep him safe.” Did he feel safer? I would have to say, “No”. We felt better, he felt afraid. He wanted to be home. He probably is better off at the hospital but my question is did we add to his trauma, to his fear of being left once again without anywhere to belong, without anyone to belong to?

As time wore on that evening, I had begun to see him change. He started to blame himself for what had happened. I watched as many well meaning people gave him the same message – “be a good boy and you will come home soon”. I thought about this message and what it meant to him. “I was bad”, “I did something wrong” seemed to be his conclusions.

You see children who are traumatized and children with mental illnesses don’t fit well in our organizations of care. So when they act out, we tell them to behave. The consequence for not behaving many times is the removal of the child from that system so the system isn’t disturbed. By removing them we take away parts of their security, their safety, their world and ultimately their hope. All children need to belong and need to see the adult world as safe in order to grow. Only a community can make this happen for some children. Without a safe and caring community hope can be lost and desperate acts follow.

This story is not over for this child and what happened that night may bring hope and resolution for him. But there are many other children out there whose lives need not lead to such desperate acts. What can we do? Become active.

We need to become more involved in children’s lives. Not just our own children’s lives but the many “orphans” which surround us. Become a foster parent, volunteer for the Big Brothers/ Big Sisters Program, talk to the kids in your neighborhood and get to know them, help with recreation programs, give of your time and not just your money. Talk to your legislators about the laws and making them child and family friendly. Support activities which bring families together and strengthen them. But above all allow yourself to care.


There once was a Man who was walking along a beach and he saw a Boy throwing starfish back into the ocean. He stopped and asked the Boy, “What are you doing?” The Boy replied, “I’m helping the starfish to live.” The Man then said, “But you can’t save them all, there are thousand of starfish along this beach. So why does it matter?” The Boy turned around, picked up a starfish and threw it back into the ocean. “It matters to that one.” he said.


How many starfish have you helped today?


About the author

Allan Braaten, LPC

Allan Braaten is a former Clinical Director of High Country Behavioral Health in Thermopolis, WY. He has been a practicing psychotherapist since the mid-1970s, specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapies.

Allan obtained his Bachelor of Science in Education from the University of North Dakota and his Master of Arts in Counseling and Applied Behavioral Analysis from Ohio State University in a specialized program involving special education, counseling, and therapeutic recreation designed to work with children and adolescents in therapeutic placements.

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