Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich

Up until December, 2007, I thought that the blogosphere was a place for people to discuss their political interests or their health concerns and since I had neither, I had never ventured in. But, a conversation one night at a dinner party with Amity peaked my interest. The next day, I discovered that I could search for blogs through igoogle using keywords. Well, I had just finished reading The Winter World for the third time and decided to search blogs using the author's name. I typed in Bernd Heinrich and found Jennifer's blog A Passion for Nature and from there links to many other wonderful nature blogs and with a sigh of relief, found the place in cyberspace where I belong.

Bernd Heirnrich is one of my favorite authors for many reasons, chiefly, he is a good story teller and is able to explain scientific processes so that a lawyer with an undergraduate degree in math can understand. His explanations and descriptions of the natural world don't simply satisfy curiosity, they stoke it.

From reading many of his books, I have found places where our lives have kind of been tangent lines and that lends an interesting piece, too. In the early 1980's, I was working my way through the University of Vermont as a secretary in the Microbiology and Biochemistry Department. One of my duties was to make coffee at 10:00 every morning because many of the professors and researchers in life sciences would get together for a forum and discussion over coffee in our conference room. Whether my memory has invented it after reading so many of his books or whether he really was occasionally part of that coffee group, I'm not really sure. But, I think he was and how I wish that I had paid more attention to the conversations in that group and less attention to whether or not it was an infringement of my rights to be expected to make coffee.

The cabin in Weld, Maine, that Bernd often writes about is up the road from me and, in fact, when he was training for the ultra marathon that he wrote about in Why We Run, he used to run right by our house and turn around at the corner of Route 2 and Weld Street. That was long before I lived here but he told me about it in an e-mail correspondence.

As a teenager, Bernd spent many years living at Good Will Hinkley, a place where I spend a fair amount of time because of the young people that I work with who are in foster care and placed there.

But, aside from those superficial tangential connections, I cannot claim any similarity to Bernd Henrich. He is a rare genius with a gift for sharing his genius with the common man and his most recent book does just that by combining natural history, European history, scientific discovery, family dynamics, the will to survive and the desire to excel into a fascinating read.

A few months ago, Charlie bought me The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology and, honestly, I feel that any description that I can give of this book is such a vast oversimplification that it might be better to not even try. But, I will.

The book starts out with the history of the Henrich family on their estate in Germany/Poland. Bernd's father Gerd has the heart and mind of a naturalist and a passion for collecting ichneumon wasps but his genteel life as a collector is interrupted by first one world war and then another. In between the wars, he travels the world collecting birds and mammals for museum collections. As World War II draws to a close, the family must flee the encroaching Russian Army and four year old Bernd along with an assortment of family members take refuge for five years in the Hohenwald Forest. It is here that Bernd discovers his own passion for the natural world. Eventually the family makes their way to the United States and to Maine.

The ichneumon wasps are as much a character of this book as any of the people and the creation, burial and resurrection of the collection is as dramatic as any rescue that Hollywood could cook up. The coincidences and serendiptous discoveries that allow Bernd Henrich to discover so much of his family's history are almost incredulous but are actually the result of a dilligent and disciplined researcher.

The book is written honestly, no one, including the author, is spared from a realistic portrayal. The book is full of real people with passions, energy, curiousity and flaws.

If I was a reviewer with a rating system, I would give it 5 stars and tell some smart producer to buy the movie rights. It is truly a story with an appeal that goes beyond the community of nature bloggers and right to the essence of the 20th century.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A new semester of Maine Life 101

blog readability test

Movie Reviews

Well, that was a surprise! I really expected that my overuse of exclamation marks would have down-graded the level of my blog. I do like exclamation marks and now feel validated in my frequent employment of them as a literary device!!!

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Christmas Visitor

We are babysitting a friend's greyhound for a few days. As you can see, she and Molly have different profiles but they share the same quiet gentle personality.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Day, 2008

Thank you family for one of the best Christmases ever.

A day to cherish.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

'twas the night before christmas.....

Christmas Eve with my family.

We'll bake today, wrap presents and miss Ethan and Sara.

We always enjoy sausage balls and cinnamon rolls for breakfast on Christmas morning. This year I think that I will use Amber's recipe for monkey bread to go with the sausage balls. The sausage balls are a favorite in middle-Tennessee where I lived twenty years ago. Middle Tennessee is one of the places that I call "home" whenever anyone asks where I'm from and the foods from that area are the foods that we have carried with us as we moved about the country and which are part of our lives here in Maine.

These are simple to make but don't tell anyone--they are too good to be so simple.

Sausage Cheese Balls
1 lb. sausage
1 lb. extra sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
3 cups biscuit
Mix ingredients well. Drop by tsp. on ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes in a 350 degree oven.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Solstice Storm, 2008

Well, Western Maine got wallopped with snow through the shortest day and into the longest night.

With school canceled, today is for the cleanup. Charlie kept up with the snow pretty well yesterday with the snowblower and is out for the final cleanup this morning.

I'm not sure what is wrong with my muse lately, but writing seems difficult. I just finished reading The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich and want to write a post about how fascinating it was, but perhaps tomorrow.

Until then, stay warm.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A morning on a windowsill

When the outside is cold and frosty, you can always find a sunbeam that calls your name.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

From Macedonia

Yesterday Sara finished her training in Veles, Macedonia. The picture on the right is from yesterday's swearing-in ceremony and the lady beside Sara is the sweet host mother who has taken care of my little girl for the past three months as she learned the language and her way around.

Finally, in her new apartment in Vinica where she will spend the next two years, Sara has reliable internet service and for the first time was able to send me pictures from the last few months. The picture on the left is from a hike that she took into the mountains above Veles. I can hardly wait to go see this country!

On Monday, she will start working at the local high school and hopefully start updating her blog with her adventures. Vinica is near the Bulgarian border and there is bus service to Sofia and flights into Sofia from Boston---dream, dream, dream.

Friday, December 12, 2008

If I were a rich man. Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.

Have you ever wondered what you would do if you were rich? Whenever my mind has wandered that far from reality, I haven't been able to come up with much beyond paying off outstanding debt for me and my family. Anything more than that--I don't know.

What I hope, though, is that I would be as responsible with my wealth as Harold Alfond. Mr. Alfond may not be well known outside of Maine but within Maine his generosity is evident everywhere. Anytime there was an opportunity to help young people--from Colleges to Boys and Girls Clubs to millions given to Good Will Hinkley--the man who made his money selling shoes provided that opportunity.

He died last year and a bequest of his will was a gift of a $500 college fund to each child born in the State of Maine after January 1, 2009. The parents will be able to add to the fund as the child grows and beginning in 2027, when that first group graduates from high school, high school graduates born in Maine will have an opportunity to head to college thanks to Harold Alfond.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Child Protection--Part III

After a child has been in foster care for a year, the State will make a decision on whether or not reunification with the parents is a realistic possibility or whether it believes that termination of parental rights and adoption is the best course of action. The guardian ad litem makes a recommendation to the Court as well and if the parents do not agree with the State's position and/or the guardian ad litem's recommendation then a hearing is held.

Obviously, if the plan is to send the child home, there is usually not a hearing but if the decision is termination of parental rights then there often is a hearing. The parents have the option of consenting to the termination and many do recognizing their inability to meet their child's needs.

In order for a court to terminate a parent's rights it has to find two things by clear and convincing evidence. First the court has to determine the unfitness of the parent and if the court finds that that is true, it must determine whether or not the termination is in the best interest of the child. Usually, if the court finds that the first part is true then the second falls into place but sometimes, especially with older children who have an attachment to the parent and who might not be candidates for adoption, the court may find that while the parent is unfit and the child should remain in state custody termination is not in the child's best interest and in those cases the court will not terminate parental rights. There are some long-term options for these older kids who remain in state custody. In Maine, we have Good Will Hinkley where my favorite nature writer, Bernd Heinrich, spent many years. There are other options, including independent living programs, group homes and sometimes family members, who were reluctant to get involved during the reunification phase, come forward late in a case after chances of reunification are over.

I hope that this series has helped answer some questions for readers--it's been interesting to try and summarize the process in a succinct manner but it is by no means a comprehensive description just an overview. I am looking forward to going back to stories about the beaver family, books and nature tomorrow.

Beckie asked me if I could change one thing about the system, what would that be. My list of changes for the system is quite lengthy, but if I could wish one thing for children, it is the one thing that I wish for everyone--to know that they are loved, cherished, cared for and valued.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Child Protection--the role of faith and family

I am going to interrupt my description of the process of a child protection case to talk a little bit about the role of faith and family in these cases.

Before a case is even filed and before a child is placed into foster care, an attempt is made to place the child with safe and willing family members or friends. At least in Maine, there is not a requirement that people with a close connection to the child be licensed foster homes, only that they meet some safety criteria. A child is less traumatized by the removal if placed in a familiar setting and there is a greater chance of success for the family if there are close extended relative supports. Some of these cases never make it to court if the parents are cooperative and the support systems are all strong enough to provide help with assistance from the social worker.

Sometimes, though, the issues may be extremely significant and for safety reasons it is best for the child to come into state custody even while being placed with the relative. Those are the ones that I see. One of my favorite early posts was about a grandmother who had taken in her two grandsons.

Of course, there are times when the issues that brought the child to the attention of the state are entrenched for many generations in a family and, even though those families often want to help, it is best under those circumstances to remove the child from the environment and try to stop whatever generational disfunction exists by providing services for the parents while the child is safely out of the situation.

To be honest, fathers are not always present when a child is removed and sometimes they aren't even identified. Because the father has rights to the child, the mother is questioned about who he is or could be and he or they are found and tested for paternity. If the potential father is not found and tested, then there is a publication in the newspaper with the child's first name, date of birth and the mother's name. In my experience a man has never come forward because of the publication and claimed paternity but at least one time that I can remember, a paternal grandmother did. Ultimately, she adopted the child--I still see them from time to time in the community and the grandmother always stops and gives me a hug. No one would ever know that they weren't biologically mother and daughter--both tall and pretty with strawberry blonde hair--in that instance the publication in the paper paid dividends.

But, not to be too hard on fathers, there have also been times when the father had nothing to do with the child after conception and after being identified and getting involved in the case has proven to be a good option for the child. To me, they always have to answer the questions of where have they been and why didn't they try to help. But, in cases where the mother cannot or will not do what is necessary to reunify with her children, those formerly deadbeat dads sometimes manage to provide a good home for their children.

Faith-based organizations often provide parenting education, supervised visitation services and homes for young mothers. Over the last five or six years, those organizations seem to have diminished in my area leaving a great deficit of services. When I first started doing child protection cases, I wondered how we would manage without all of the private faith-b
ased services and now that there are fewer of them--I realize that we don't manage very well at all without them.

Also, faith provides a motivation for many individuals to help in situations that would be easy to walk away from. Many people, motivated by their faith, have taken in children or provided rides for families or supervised visits or provided other support--not for any reason other than they feel that it is the right thing to do. I have immense respect for those folks.

Sometimes, parents who become involved in the child protection system use it as a "wak
e-up call" and will begin going to church. I am usually cautiously optimistic when a parent tells me that they began going to church and are going 3 times a week. The support from the church community is great and if it gives the parent a whole new social group, that is great, too. My only concern is when they treat their conversion as a panacea and do not do the serious and difficult work necessary to address their underlying problems.

Many foster parents are church-going people and I have never met a child in foster care who does not like to go to church. They always talk about Sunday School and the church songs and the youth group activities and they like dressing up on Sundays and they like having so many adults and other kids who are nothing but kind. For some of them, that's the first time for that experience.

So, in closing, as I said in that other post last January; they've got love like an ocean in their heart.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Child Protection, Part II

Most people are aware of the hearsay rule in court proceedings--in its most simplistic form the hearsay rule says that a person cannot testify to what someone else has said. There are a lot of exceptions but that's the basic rule. In child protection cases the hearsay rule is relaxed a bit at certain hearings due to the immediate need to protect a child from harm but for all of the major hearings and all judicial findings in a child protection case the normal rules of evidence apply except that the guardian ad litem can testify to what the child has said. I take that responsibility very seriously and try to be as accurate as possible not only in reporting what the child has said but in attaching appropriate significance to it. The purpose of the hearsay exception is to keep the child from having to confront an abusive parent in an adverse proceeding. There are many things that I have heard from children that I wish I could erase from my mind and the long and short of it is that there are parents out there that can think of ways to torture children that ordinary people could never imagine. But, that said, there are also parents who are overwhelmed, mentally ill, addicted, or just unaware of how to parent and those are the ones that I want to talk about today.

Federal law provides a framework for what the different states have adopted as their child protection statute and one of the changes that has gone into effect over the last ten years is that within a year of a child coming into state custody there has to be "permanancy". Prior to that law there were children who spend their entire childhood going from foster home to foster home. Now the law says that a child needs to reunifiy with a parent or be on track for adoption in roughly a year.

A year isn't very long for a parent to address an entrenched mental illness or an addiction but the child protection cases are focused on the needs of the children not the parents. A year is a very long time for a child to not know what is going to happen.

During the reunification year, specific services are identified to address whatever problems exist within the family, counseling is provided, parenting classes are provided, in-patient or out-patient substance abuse treatment, supervised visitation, homemaker services....and more. There are frequent meetings and court reviews during the year to measure progress and for some families as the year progresses it becomes likely that reunification will happen and slowly and carefully the child is placed back in the home to see how it all works while all the supports are in place and the court is still available to oversee it all. Some of those families are grateful for the intervention; some are resentful but still do the right things and jump through the essential hoops in order to get their children home.

Court-appointed Special Advocates are volunteers who do the same role as guardian ad litems. Usually in the areas where CASA are available there are attorneys who will volunteer their time to write necessary motions so that there is legal advocacy for the child as well. I do not really know much about the program in Maine because it does not reach into the mountainous and thinly populated western counties where I practice, but my sense is that people who work as CASAs find it very rewarding.

If you have questions, feel free to leave them in comments and I will try and answer them in the next post--fortunately, this is a subject that most people are not familiar with even though it may affect the family next door or in the next pew.

Tomorrow I will talk about what happens when the family is not able to reunify.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Child Protection, Part I

I have spent the last two days in a hearing on a petition to terminate the parental rights of a couple. These are grave hearings--I do not believe that any court order short of a death penalty carries a more severe result and in Maine, we do not have the death penalty. No matter what the situation, we approach these hearings quietly, prepared and resolved in our positions, but with respect for the court, the law and the human beings involved.

A family becomes involved with the State or the child protection system usually because someone made a report of abuse or neglect to a child. The reports could come from a family member, a teacher, a doctor, a neighbor, a policeman....really from any one. The report is screened initially to be sure that there is some validity to it. If the report passes some minor threshold of validity it is referred to a protective social worker to investigate. Sometimes, the social worker finds that there is nothing to the referral, sometimes the social worker finds that there is some situational stress going on in the home and offers some sort of assistance to help the family get through the problem safely, other times the risk is more immediate and severe and in those cases the worker will file a petition with the court asking for immediate custody of the child or children. That's when I often get involved.

At the point the petition is signed and the child comes into state custody, all sorts of constitutional protections come into play for the family. Each parent is appointed legal counsel. If they have the means to pay for it, they may be ordered to reimburse the court for the cost or if they do not have the means to pay for it the counsel is paid for out of indigency funds through the court system. Additionally, the child is assigned an attorney called a guardian ad litem. The role of the guardian ad litem is to be the voice of the child in court, to do a investigation independent of the State's investigation and to make a written report and recommendation to the Court based on the child's best interest. The guardian ad litem is allowed to testify to what the child has said--an exception to the hearsay rule enacted to protect the child.

I am usually appointed as the guardian ad litem in a case but sometimes I am appointed to represent a parent. I like occasionally representing parents because it helps me remain objective and by seeing all sides of the process makes me more effective in either role.

Within a week or ten days of the child coming into state custody, the parents have the opportunity for a hearing on the petition and, in all but the most heinous cases, a reunification plan is figured out and everyone begins working toward making that happen. Reunification plans are specifically tailored to meet the needs of the family involved and to address the risk or dangers that were present when the child was removed. I think of the reunification plans as a roadmap of what the parents need to do in order to have their family intact and free from the scrutiny of the State.

If you have questions, feel free to leave them in comments and I will try and answer them in the next post--fortunately, this is a subject that most people are not familiar with even though it may affect the family next door or in the next pew.

Tomorrow, I will write about the reunification process and all that goes into trying to rebuild a family before a termination petition is filed.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

New Life for Thunder God

Five years ago, Archie and I pooled our resources and bought a bunny for Molly for her birthday. She named him Thunder God and he was part of our family. My dad and Archie built a cage and for the most part Thunder God lived in his nice outside cage but when it was cold, Molly brought him into the house. It's cold a lot in Maine, so he spent a lot of time hopping around our home where he quickly rose to the top of our Animal Kingdom.

Now, with Molly off at college Thunder God has spent most of his time in his cage watching for her to come home. Aside from a quick pet when I put his food out for him, his life is pretty dull.

A few weeks ago, Emily, one of Molly's cousins came by with her Girl Scout troop collecting canned goods. Emily asked if she could show her friends the bunny.

Flash of Brilliance! "Emily, if it's alright with your parents, you can have the bunny."

So, last week while we were in Ireland, Emily and her parents came and picked up Thunder God. He has been re-named Douglas and now he has a new little girl of his own.

I miss him when I see his empty cage but it's re-assuring to know that he's in a good place. I talked to Emily's mother and she said that he goes to Girl Scout meetings and hops around and that this week they are taking him to a nursing home to visit with the elderly.

A new life for Thunder God.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A breath of Ireland

We spent four days in Ireland over the Thanksgiving holiday and it took our breath away. Such a lovely gem perched out there in the north Atlantic and such ancient history it holds.

There were castles. The one in the picure is Classiebawn Castle on Mullaghmore Head in County Sligo on the edge of the Atlantic and just across the bay from County Donegal. The castle was the home of Lord Mountbatten.

There were ancient standing stones. This circle is called the Grange Stone Circle and dates back 4000 years. It is beside Loch Gur where artifacts and signs of civilization dating back to 3500 B.C. have been found. In a few weeks on the day of the winter solstice, if the sky is clear the sun will rise directly over one of the stones. A half a year from now on the summer solstice, if the sky is clear the sun will rise directly over a different stone. People camp out in the fields every year to experience the solstice sun rise.

There were pastoral farms where I expected to see James Herriot emerging from the barn, rolling down his sleeves and chatting with the farmer. While there were many sheep and cows grazing along the country roads, I think there are less farms in Ireland than there used to be. There seems to be a new affluence in Ireland with subdivisions full of expensive houses that could be in San Antonio as easily as Galway. The subdivisions sprawl over ancient hills and Dublin seemed like a fashion center.

There were new friends who seemed like old friends with whom we shared a coal fire, a delicious meal and a couple of hours of conversation. Mater, made famous by her daughter's writings, hosted us in her beautiful home and along with her Cousin shared the secrets of their historic community. They were so friendly and gracious--the Irish people are everything that they are reputed to be: Friendly, gregarious, conversational and witty.

We put a thousand kilometers on our rental car in our short visit--so much to see and so much to go back to.