The phone call came in around 12 p.m. I answered, “Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman, how can I help you?”
The static on the cell phone call was distracting. Yet her words were raw and brutally clear. She cried hard, from the depths of her soul. Grief stricken. Helpless. Desperate.
“I need your help. I know that I am a piece of shit mother, but I love my kids and want to see them for just a bit,” she said.
I would eventually learn from her that her two toddlers were removed from her care months before because child protective services had concerns about her ability to safely parent. She would eventually ask me if our agency could assist her in getting some limited visits with her children. Our office was ultimately able to connect her with someone who could help.
There was something in her voice that cautioned me to check my discomfort, avoid what could be perceived as a rote response and to give her something she really needed – someone to listen to her.
This phone call etched itself into my memory. A mother confessed the most intimate of things — that, in her mind, she had failed her children. As I heard her speak, I was taken aback and uncomfortable. My brain went into overdrive, trying to figure out how best to respond to her. My professional instincts told me to quickly assure her that I did not judge her parenting and then to offer her the names of attorneys and human service agencies to call. My second and prevailing instinct, however, was to just listen. There was something in her voice that cautioned me to check my discomfort, avoid what could be perceived as a rote response and to give her something she really needed – someone to listen to her.
The Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman (CPO) takes calls like these each day. Every year, hundreds of citizens call our agency. These calls are complicated and emotionally laden. Typically, citizens call our agency scared, nervous, angry or afraid. They believe that a child is in jeopardy, needs attention and that their concerns are not being heard by government authorities whose job it is to protect children. To address citizens’ concerns, we work with various community professionals, including treatment providers, hospitals, teachers, law enforcement and child welfare workers. Our job is to facilitate understanding, communication and, if needed, resolution between parties. After years of doing this work, we generally find that both citizens and the professionals designed to help them want to talk, be heard and resolve any miscommunications and differences. It is the rare case where people just walk away from their seat at the proverbial table.
It is the rare case where people just walk away from their seat at the proverbial table.
It is this truth that led our agency to seek additional skills to become more effective listeners and better problem solvers. This month, members of the CPO staff and myself took a 40-hour mediation course. We learned how to actively listen, identify structural hurdles to problem solving, learned how to reframe issues and facilitate conversations that are forward focused, rather than looking backward at past grievances.
As my team and I sat through (virtual) classroom lectures and practiced mediating for hours with actors pretending to be in crisis, I thought about the thousands of phone calls I have taken over the years and how I might have handled them differently, and yes, better. Without a doubt, mediation work is by far some of the hardest work I have encountered in my nearly 30-year career. It is a core component of ombudsman work and it is why the work is so difficult. In a fast-paced world that values high-tech solutions like texting and emails, lightning-speed responses and multi-tasking, ombudsman work requires the opposite – patience, deliberateness, open-mindedness and direct one-to-one communication. It requires us to slowdown and to resist the urge to put words in other people’s mouths, fill in gaps, or presume to understand the other person fully. Indeed, it is the difference between “hearing” and genuinely “listening” to people.