Pediatric Psychologist Discusses Blackstone Case

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Health officials and other town leaders in the central Massachusetts town of Blackstone hold their first public meeting Tuesday night to address the discovery of infant remains found earlier this month in a home so filthy it may have to be torn down.

Just before the remains were discovered, child welfare officials removed four children from the home. Two of them had been attending school in Blackstone for years. But schools officials say there were no reports or indications that anything was wrong.

To understand what may be ahead for these children, Ellen Braaten, director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Mass. General Hospital, joined WBUR on Tuesday.

On whether she’s surprised the situation went unnoticed in Blackstone for so long:

It does surprise me that they wouldn't know, but this is not a unique story. We have heard over and over the years about situations like this — that there have been traumatic things happening in a house that other people don't realize, even people who live right next door.

On what it suggests that no one realized the two children who attended school were living in squalor: 

I think it suggests that these kids were very good at compartmentalizing. That they were very good at being a different kind of child at school than they were at home — you know sort of hiding what's going on at home while being a better student or more pulled together kind of student at school. That would be my guess. I don't really know for sure.

On how children can conceal that:

It's really hard, especially in this case because it does sound so deplorable, but kids are very good at defending against things. We all have defense mechanisms — kind of ways that a healthy mind uses to defend against these sort of awful, powerful, traumatic kinds of experiences. Kids are very good at being able to do that.

These kids may have been so afraid at home — again this is just, you know, I'm just guessing at this — but they’re home life might have been so awful that at school they really tried very hard to be good because this was their safe place, their safe haven.

On what’s ahead for the children:

One thing to keep in mind: most people who go through a trauma do not experience significant long-term effects. Only about five to ten percent of the population who experiences a traumatic event goes on to experience really significant effects.

So the chances that these kids will be OK are actually quite good, but also it depends on what they have in the environment going forward - - if they have an adult that they can depend on, that gives them a sense of efficacy and hope. Whether or not they can sort of think through problems very well, whether or not they have that those support systems in place — that's going to make or break it for them going forward in terms of their ability to cope.

Advice for neighbors or teachers who might have an inkling that something’s wrong in another family:

Well I think if someone has a hunch that a child is not being well-taken care of — or, even worse, abused — they really should intervene. They really should say something. The first thing you can do is talk to the child, but the child oftentimes will not admit that there's something going on because that's their home and they want to protect their home no matter what's going on in there.

So I think being able to then you know talk to other adults in the environment — when neighbors, talk to other neighbors — and then being able to notify people in social services if you really feel like it's a dangerous situation — or even less-than dangerous situation to be honest.

This segment aired on September 23, 2014.

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Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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