Bob Orleck: A return to values will benefit children

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bob Orleck, who is a retired pharmacist and lawyer. He served as an assistant attorney general under Vermont Attorney General Jerome Diamond.

After reading the article, “Vermont Schools Grapple with the Residual Impact of Opiate Abuse,” in VTDigger, one comes away with a very bleak picture of Vermont students’ emotional health. The experts quoted seem to know what the causes are and solutions that are needed but careful reading should bring their thinking into question. The causes they cite are really symptoms coming from a cause they only give lip service to addressing. These causes they identify, for them, drive a defined need for more special education and mental health treatment even to younger children and also an increased role for government to provide the fixes.

The article even questions cause and effect and the credibility of it all is suspect further when the first expert, a paralegal, discusses the problems of society and opines that we don’t have sufficient mental health supports in preschool and early elementary schools and that special education is tied to both poverty and opiate addiction. Shouldn’t we be looking to the opinions of medical experts on such matters over someone working in a law office? Could it be we are listening to the wrong people?

The article points to younger and younger children experiencing problems and having to deal “with extreme circumstances and struggling to thrive” and the situation keeps worsening to a greater degree even over the last five year. The number of children ending up in state custody is doubling in two years of time. The system has failed us as much as any failed government program and has increasingly done so over the past 25 years. How they can call all this failure as “good work” and hope to build on that is a puzzle when they see this need for increased mental health services as required to even “keep our education program going.”

Jo-Anne Unruh, executive director of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, is the prime source for the direction this article goes but there seems to be a lack of coherence in what she is saying. Her final conclusion is the one that makes the most sense.: “… serving the children with the right level of support is the answer.” The question becomes what is the “right level of support” and what “support” is the correct one.

 Love is at the center of it all and the love of two committed parents to a child will result in a secure child who is able to face a difficult world knowing that his folks have his back and he need not become disturbed when times get difficult.


The identified causes as mentioned above are really symptoms of a failed cause. They define them as “poverty, substance abuse, physical violence, homelessness and neglect” as well as unemployment, underemployment and what they term as “adverse experiences” a child is exposed to. These are symptoms of something that has gone terribly wrong and that is the breakdown and loss of the family structure. Families are falling apart. People have lost their moral compass. Values have become twisted. Right is wrong and vise versa.

What can we expect from the messages that we keep sending to our children by media in TV, movies and the like. The emotional problems increase every year and yet our experts have put blinders on regarding the true reasons. We see weakness in our nation at almost every point and that is directly tied to the strength of our families. There is a cause and effect here!

Such weakness does show symptoms that are poverty, economic stresses and these influence the behavior of our children. How could they not? If you picture buildings with strong columns to hold up its ceilings and give them the beautiful shape they have, think about chipping away at those columns until they do not have the integrity to stand any longer. When they fall so will all those things they support. Our children have lost that support structure in their lives. How far do we have to descend before we see why it is happening here?

Core values are attacked at every point in today’s world and their being undermined has put the American family in a condition of high stress and vulnerability. Things are getting worse and so are the inappropriate messages our families and children are getting. Tie it all together. The breakneck speed in which the sexual revolution has proceeded, the epidemic rate of out-of-marriage births, abortion and the number of single parents out there who just cannot make it financially.

Vermont has such a high incidence of addiction problems. Our schools are not performing adequately academically. It is frightening the way children are abused and neglected in our beautiful Green Mountains. Children and youth are increasingly disrespectful of adults and others of their age. It is getting harder and harder in this government-dependent society we have built for parents to adequately provide and so we see increase in child poverty. The reason for the emotional problems we see with children lie at the feet of a deceived society that believes it can reject all the past tried and true traditions that accounted for strong families, and still the benefits will inure to future offspring.

So what is the answer? Stable homes with a mother and father are the answer and not more Band-Aid approaches by a paternalistic big government. Government has a legitimate role to play to develop laws and policy that support and cause families to thrive. Just as plants need fertilizer to grow tall and strong, so too do families need support that enables them to carry out the difficult job of raising a family, supporting that family and doing so in a safe and secure society.

There is no question that if the areas where emotional disturbances were studied carefully in this regard you would find a relationship to married intact family unit or the lack thereof. Investigate further and in the majority of these strong family units you will find religious faith in some degree. Love is at the center of it all and the love of two committed parents to a child will result in a secure child who is able to face a difficult world knowing that his folks have his back and he need not become disturbed when times get difficult.

Government needs to understand its proper role and a good start would be for our leaders to adhere to the original intent of the framers of our founding documents and to look to higher authority for solutions to the problems that they themselves have created for our families and children over the past. Instead of fighting churches and faith-based initiatives, our leaders would be well advised to let them do their good works. Our leaders should allow the free exercise of religion and provide the necessary support for families as they do their jobs as father, mother and child. Emotional problems would be reduced dramatically and the costs for support services will as well. Spending money on problems by big government has never worked on anything and it will not work now. The problems only continue to get bigger and so do the arguments put forth by legislators that they spending must increase to fight those problems. The cycle will never end until our nation falls.

Right now we are at a breaking point and we better get honest with ourselves and the reasons we are having all these emotional as well as other coping issues. Time is running out.

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  • Lee Stirling

    You had me following along Mr. Orleck…right up until you busted out the religion. Sorry, not interested.

    • Bob Orleck

      Sorry about that Lee: I guess its a heart thing! Appreciate your comment.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    Unfortunately, support of the family structure is no longer valued in our culture. Children are paying a high price. Future generations will not know how much they have missed.

    We institutionalize babies in day care centers. Then we send them to Pre-K. Then in a few years schools contemplate giving them condoms without the consent of the family. And because there is no real family structure, we institutionalize the elderly in assisted living centers and nursing homes.

    Big Brother can never replace a loving, nurturing family.

  • Sally Greeno

    Dear Mr Orleck:

    I hear and understand your frustrations regarding the systems we create. It can be so overwhelming when we see and feel the negative things around us that we can’t control. However, I respectfully disagree that our morals are the root cause of substance abuse or mental health struggles.

    We all have different life experiences. We all face risk factors and protective factors on a daily basis. There are so many life experiences that affect both risk and protective factors. As a human being, as a community, as a society, as a government… we have the power to fill our world with protective factors. So many of our systems, policies and procedures alienate people. As a society, the sense of being alienated can have a huge, debilitating effect on human beings; we condition people to believe that they do not belong, we condition them to “fail”.

    So, how do we instill positive change? I don’t have that answer. But my instinct and experiences tell me that instead of judgement, understanding each other is a powerful thing regardless of which side of the conversation you are on. Instead of focusing on the risks, focus on the protective factors that we can control. Instead of making this a personal fight, unite to affect change in our systems beginning with a close look at policies and procedures to determine if we are unintentionally alienating people. And, analyze our actions to try to understand our part in conditioning each other.

    How powerful would that be if we all conditioned each other to succeed? The Serenity Prayer, especially the part about courage to change the things you can, takes on a whole new meaning when, as a society, we unite for the common good of all in a kind and loving way. For every individual person, our perception is based on our life experiences. As our life experiences change, so does our perception. If the lens we are looking through does not serve us well, change the lens. Have the courage to change perception in a positive way.

    Respectfully Yours,
    Sally Greeno

    • Bob Orleck

      Sally: “How powerful would that be if we all conditioned each other to succeed? The Serenity Prayer, especially the part about courage to change the things you can, takes on a whole new meaning when, as a society, we unite for the common good of all in a kind and loving way.” Maybe we are not too far off. I believe in actions to go with faith for one without the other is nothing. As you recognize, “loving”, is the way. People of faith recognize the sacrificial love that was given on their behalf and as a result they have the obligation to give that to others.

  • Dave Bellini

    Good letter. Values, morals and family are not topics politicians care to engage in. I’ve been an employee in the Agency of Human Services for 38 years. A politician once asked me: “Dave, what’s the single biggest factor in keeping people out of the criminal justice system?” I answered immediately: “Two parent families.” She looked horrified and abruptly ended any conversation. I suppose she was looking for me to point to some government program or state intervention initiative. Topics like, responsible reproduction or work ethic make today’s political gang in Montpelier very uncomfortable.

    • Bob Orleck

      Thanks Dave: It is amazing how people are so deceived.

  • michael olcott

    If the only thing that can save our society/state/fill your blank is a mythical voice in the sky and a book of magical thinking then we are already lost. you speak of a return to ;values’ but whose, i am very morally flexable so i doubt you would care to adopt mine,nor do i wish to live under the thinly veiled theocracy you seem to be an advocate of.

    • rosemarie jackowski

      Some of the most moral/ethical people around are atheists and agnostics. Some people need to be guided by religion, many others do not.

      Even our forefathers wrote about human rights – natural rights that should be respected by all. This is the root of many moral systems. Religion is nice, but not necessary to live a moral, examined life.

      • Randy Jorgensen

        We certainly could use more of Rosemarie Jackowski in Vermont.

        • rosemarie jackowski

          Thanks, Randy. I would volunteer to teach, (at no pay) an Ethics and Social Responsibility class in the high school, but I am sure it would not be allowed.

  • Mary Reed

    Mr. Orleck was quite clear in his belief that his values of 1) a two-parent family (which he defined as a mother and father) and 2) religious faith (he spoke of churches and faith-based initiatives) are the ‘tried and true’ answers to the social problems that plague us today. He defines what values (social standards) should be followed, says we should return to that way of being, and says it is the answer to our current troubles. I find that thesis troubling.

    I grew up in VT when the appearance of those ‘values’ he cites was very much in evidence. Churches were plentiful, well-attended, and many had both local and foreign ‘missions’. Divorce was rare, expensive, difficult to obtain, and a social ‘faux pas’. Abortions were illegal (unless the woman was on death’s doorstep and had enough money and influence) Marriage was only for men and women, ‘living together’ in a sexual relationship was very rare and well-hidden, and pre-marital sex was a social taboo. People of the same gender who loved and cared for one another could not be publicly known or together as a couple..

    Despite the appearance of the ‘values’ touted by Mr. Orleck, there were tremendous social problems and pressures in that time, and they caused very real suffering. Which churches were socially acceptable was well-known and mattered. People who didn’t attend the ‘right church’ were usually at a social, and often economic, disadvantage. Pre-marital sex (or just the suggestion of such) was a sure way to wound a girl or woman, socially and economically. Teen pregnancy resulted in shotgun weddings or banishment – either way, the girl’s education ended. Children and teens with serious physical disabilities and cognitive and mental impairments were denied a public education. Teens with problems, especially boys, were either kicked out of, or encouraged to leave, public schools. The lucky ones either landed with a tradesman or employer who helped them learn a job or got into the service and came out in one piece; many were not lucky. Women and children were beaten by abusive husbands and fathers, and rarely were the abusers stopped – authorities often turned a blind eye and the woman (or child) was often viewed by others as deserving the abuse. People who didn’t fit the expected model of social decorum and propriety (especially those who were homosexual or lesbian) had to be very circumspect or face tremendous social, economic, and sometimes legal, consequences. There were very few persons of color – most of those few faced tremendous prejudice.

    I was fortunate to be raised in a loving home by two wonderful parents who modeled the importance of education, being able to support oneself, being a responsible family member and citizen, accepting others’ differences and treating others fairly – the ‘Golden Rule’. My parents didn’t just talk about these important concepts – they lived them. I appreciated my secular and religious educations – they bolstered and enhanced the values my family taught. Love, family, spiritual beliefs, education and community, and accepting and treating others fairly are the basis of my values. I believe they are good values, but I understand that they are my values; I cannot force others to hold them as values. What I saw in the harsh reality of VT in the 50s and 60s was the hypocrisy – the use of the ‘values’ Mr. Orleck describes to put and keep people ‘in their place’. I talked with my parents about the hypocrisy. They were honest, practical, and optimistic. We talked about how most people, and our schools and churches, were good, did their best, and cared about others, but not perfect – these ‘double standards’ had always existed. Not everyone who used ‘social standard values’ as social control meant to cause harm, but it worked and they didn’t think much about the impact of their behavior.

    Today, we are more able to treat other Vermonters fairly, in part because we recognize the hypocrisy of attempting to impose our own personal values on those who are different and those who don’t share our personal values. For instance, we are able to recognize that children raised in a loving single-parent, or same-gender two parent home, often do very well indeed, especially when they are fairly treated in social settings. Suggesting that our social problems will be fixed if everyone adopts and lives by a set of ‘values’ that are actually personal social standards strikes me as an example of exactly the kind of thinking that lies behind the hypocrisies.