Seven Essential Books for A Child Welfare Lawyer's Library

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People gathered in barber or beauty shops have emphatic opinions about what is and what is not best for a child in any given scenario. And everyone who has been a parent or child has some, albeit narrow, experience to inform their opinions. These opinions are sufficient to pass the time during a haircut, but lawyers and judges making decisions for children need more than community folklore and personal experience.

There is peer reviewed and replicated research on attachment, child development, neuroscience, and trauma establishing what is good and bad for children. Legal decision makers don’t have to guess which childhood experiences support, and which undermine long and short-term emotional health and happiness. There are answers. Here, in five books, is the information legal professionals and child welfare social workers need to consistently get their decisions right.

1. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D., 2015.

The Body Keeps the Score is the classic book to develop a comprehensive understanding of childhood and, also adult trauma, the impacts and treatments. It is an excellent introduction and will deepen the understanding of a reader who has already studied trauma. Though there is a fair amount of neurobiology covered, a layperson can follow and benefit from the presentation. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s “voice” is engaging and accessible and the information offered is both immediately useful and provocative of lingering contemplation.

The author is an early trauma researcher who began his work with veterans and went on to recognize the applicable to children and victims of sexual assault.  For the purposes of child welfare advocates, it is particularly useful to know that the most damaging trauma occurs at the hands of a trusted caregiver and that the younger the victim at the time of the trauma, the greater the expected injury.

The frank discussion of the psychological establishment’s resistance to reframing diagnostic paradigms to include well established trauma science is an interesting subplot. The number of trauma treatments, both established and experimental, is encouraging. This is one of few books with a 5 star rating on Amazon and the reviews are full of attestations of life changing revelations. Highly recommended.

2. The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships Are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust by Claudia M. Gold MD , Ed Tronick PhD, 2020.

This book explains exactly how a responsive caregiver enables a child to create a healthy and separate identity and a sense of agency through mismatch and repair. Those who have encountered the still face experiment will know Tronick’s work. The book has applicability to child welfare work because it establishes the devastating consequences of absence of parental attunement at the earliest months of life.

3The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook, by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., and Maia Szalavitz. Revised and Updated Edition, 2017, 418 pages.

The audience of this book is professionals and policymakers, but the case study approach and explanations that assume no prior knowledge make the information accessible to any interested reader. In addition to lawyers, judges, therapists, and social workers, those caring for traumatized children, like foster and adoptive parents, will find this book extremely helpful.

The chapters begin with a story of a traumatized child. While the case study method requires description of child abuse, just the information necessary to understand the child’s experience is provided, without sensational detail. Each case description is followed by the diagnostic process and the treatments recommended.

The authors use analyses of individual cases to cumulatively show the reader how trauma impacts the developing brain and to demonstrate effective treatments. Because the approaches are compassionate, creative, and eventually successful, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog is fascinating and hopeful, rather than depressing. For professionals seeking to understand childhood trauma, this is the first book to read.

4.  What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., and Oprah Winfrey 2021, 302 pages.

This book brings much of the same information on childhood trauma that was first presented for clinicians in The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog to a general audience. What Happened to You? offers understanding of a reader’s personal traumatic childhood experiences and practical paths toward healing. Useful examples are provided from Winfrey’s own childhood and from the lives of guests on Winfrey’s television show.

The presentation style is entirely conversational, between Perry, the medical and psychological expert, and Winfrey, the observant and insightful layperson. The Audible version is read by Perry and Winfrey as conversation and offers essential diagrams and charts in a separate file. The audio book is very engaging, much like a long format podcast, but listeners will want the graphics on hand to truly understand the concepts.

This is a recommended read even if a reader has previously read The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog because some new scientific information is included, particularly applicable to newborn stress, and the review of much of the same information presented very differently will deepen the readers overall understanding.

What Happened to You? is a book you will read and give to your sister, client, colleague, or fellow foster parent and it should be required reading for all foster parent preparation courses. Anyone can better navigate parenting and just being human after reading What Happened to You?

5.  changeable, How Collaborative Problem Solving Changes Lives at Home, at School, and at Work, by J. Stuart Ablon, Ph.D. 2018, 276 pages.

A “trauma informed” person understands the impact of trauma and has compassion for those living with its effects. But acutely traumatized people and the mentally ill can be real stinkers to live and work with no matter how compassionate you are and how trauma informed you become.  The books suggested so far foster compassion and even suggest approaches for long term treatment of traumatized people. But when faced with unwanted behaviors parents, teachers, police officers, and co-workers need an approach that works in real time.

In change·able Dr. Ablon operationalizes trauma informed compassion by providing an effective approach to challenging behavior that not only often works in the short term, but also helps the struggling person develop the skills necessary to interact more appropriately in the future. Parents and professionals can use Dr. Ablon’s approach, not only with traumatized children, but with the wide array of stinkers encountered in daily life. change·able is recommended reading for anyone who wants effective tools for difficult interactions, but the book is a lifeboat for foster and adoptive parents at their wits end with a challenging child.

6.  Handbook of Attachment, Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications

Third Edition 2016, Jude Cassidy & Phillip Shaver

This is a big book, over 1,000 pages, 43 chapters, covering all aspects of the attachment between people, including attachment theory, attachment in infancy, childhood, and adulthood and attachment related dysfunction. Each chapter is concluded with several pages of citations to supportive research. This is a reference book for professionals offering comprehensive and organized access to the modern scientific understanding of close relationships, healthy and otherwise.

Handbook of Attachment is a reference book to spend some time getting to know, first, peruse the table of contents and then, delve into the chapters that sound intriguing, and some certainly will. Finally, pull it off the shelf for information and answers as cases present specific questions.

In addition to professionals, this book may be of interest to curious laypeople. It is technical and scientific, but the language is fairly accessible, particularly if the reader begins with the introductory chapter before skipping around. Why wonder, guess, or operate under long-standing popular misconceptions about close relationships and what people need to be emotionally healthy when the answers are known and clearly organized in one book?

Because Handbook of Attachment is a big reference book, it is pricey compared to the other books on this list. Still, it is affordable compared to other textbooks or law books. Look it over in a library before purchasing if the cost is a concern.

7.  The Best Interest of the Child, The Least Detrimental Alternative

“The landmark trilogy of Beyond the Best Interest of the Child, Before the Best Interest of the Child, and In the Best Interest of the Child in one revised, updated volume.”

Joseph Goldstein, Albert J. Solnit, Sonja Goldstein, and the late Anna Freud, 1996

The fusion of law and science and the clear and logical guiding principles for decision making offered make this book unique and uniquely useful. This is not a book for laypeople, but a “must read” for lawyers and judges deciding or advocating in child placement cases like custody, visitation, and termination of parental rights.

Even this revised and updated edition is 25 years old, and the first book in original trilogy was published back in 1976. But despite its age, this book is an ambitious, and much needed effort to bridge the chasm between those studying children and families and those making decisions for and about children and families.

The Best Interest of the Child, raises essential questions about confluence of families and law that merit the serious consideration of both practicing lawyers and legal scholars. In a few minor respects, the suggestions in this book haven’t held up to time, but the foundational science has only been reinforced by subsequent research and the four decision making guidelines that make up the recommended approach remain inspired and if applied, revolutionary.