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Closing Plenary Session
Thursday's Children: Directions in Reframing the Protection of Childhood in the New Millennium
Dr. Erylene Piper Mandy
"If you're still into happily ever after, I got a few fairy tales for you, but I won't be telling them today," Dr. Erylene Piper Mandy began. What she did offer, instead, was a sustained discussion of the "epistemics of helping" and the ways in which culture affects our perspectives on child abuse and neglect treatment and prevention efforts. According to Piper Mandy, "Epistemics is simply understanding the limits of knowing. It's a question of what you can know based on what you do know you are constrained by what you know, and those constraints are influencing powerfully what you are able to do and what you are not doing with respect to your work."
What we are not doing, Piper Mandy argued, is realizing the integral role culture plays in our lives. "Culture's not icing on your cake; it's not gravy on your meat. Culture is the essence of everything we do and everything we are." Culture, she continued, plays an essential role in our ability to understand each other and our capability in working with children and families in crisis.
Piper Mandy claimed that the ways in which we have learned to help people "are as problematic as they are problem-solving." She said that while we "do a lot of good on good days," we also "wreak havoc on bad days." We violate the first law of helping - to "do no harm" - because "we have been trained to see the world in certain ways and the world is not like that." She continued, "You and I have been trained to treat people the same, on the theory that the same meant equal, but the same does not mean equal."
"I'll never forget the day the helpers came to help," Piper Mandy said. She shared her own experience with the child welfare system, illustrating that interference from the child welfare system is not always beneficial for the children and families it is supposed to protect. She argued, "Each of our cultural communities has resolved the issue of child abuse and neglect...they've figured out ways to handle the problem. It's in the culture. All you got to do is look for it, rather than simply impose our cultural answer onto everybody else's."
According to Piper Mandy, we need to be open to learning from all cultures and recognize that our cultural differences create tensions that give our country a cohesive unity. She concluded with a strong reminder: "You're working with a population of people who have a long way to go The truth of what you and I must do well is not find answers, but learn to walk with people as they look for the questions. You and I cannot avoid the reality of being human ourselves in the attempt to help somebody else be more human. You and I must be willing every single day of our lives to know less than [those we help]."