Jeff Danziger: What will happen to the children of Kurn Hattin?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Jeff Danziger, a political cartoonist for the Rutland Daily Herald, syndicated by the Washington Post News Service. VTDigger also runs his cartoons.

I write in defense of Kurn Hattin, not that I know everything about the current situation. But first a short story from a while back.

When I came home from a year in the Army in Vietnam in 1971, my wife and I decided to try to adopt a war orphan. We had friends in Vermont who had done this, and it seemed like a way to balance the damage the United States had inflicted on the Southeast Asian people in our country’s monomaniacal global fight against communism. This was the early 1970s. Our ally, the South Vietnamese government, so corrupt it glowed, was losing. The United States had lost interest, and was cutting and running for cover. The North Vietnamese army was making its way down Highway 1 from Hanoi doing thoughtless wreckage as it came. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were on the rampage, the killing fields outside Phnom Penh echoed with the sound of extermination squads shooting completely innocent Cambodians.

Babies and young orphans were rescued by a Canadian organization called Families for Children, run by a saint among us all named Naomi Bronstein. But before they would bring a child to adoptive parents they needed approval from the local social services in the province or state. In our case this meant approval from the State of Vermont Children’s Service, known by a slightly different name back then. Approval assured the Canadian agency that there was a house and a bedroom, and that the prospective parents were reasonable and responsible. 

The social worker from the state came out to our house and looked around. She interviewed us, and, unfortunately, us included me. It didn’t go well. She concluded that I was the Manchurian Candidate and decided we would not be approved. In her psycho-analytical genius she thought that the mere presence of an Asian baby would give me actionable nightmares, the screaming horrors, with disaster following close behind. She had seen some Hollywood movies, and she knew all about war.

I admit I behaved badly. I got angry and nearly loused up the whole plan. But a fundamental question drove me to exasperation, and it had nothing to do with seeing the red queen. How could any doubts about putting a child with a couple whose husband had returned from a war zone be worse than leaving the child there in the goddamn war zone. The comparison was awful and clear. The alternative to any dangers from my purportedly damaged psychosis was the very real danger from the Khmer Rouge or the North Vietnamese. I could see that. Why couldn’t this amateur psychologist in the green hills of Vermont see it as well?

But in the last important minutes, higher-ups at the state department agreed with me and disapproved the disapproval. The Canadian agency was assured that we were OK. Literally in the nick of time. Phnom Penh had fallen, and in Saigon the helicopters were leaving the roof. We drove to Montreal and, in a night filled with wonder and in the warm company of other adoptive parents at Dorval, we got our baby. 

So, that’s my story of dealing with the child psychologists in the halls of a state bureaucracy. The Khmer Rouge murdered thousands. The Vietnamese Communists brought misery upon misery to their people. This was the alternative for our daughter, but in the blinkered view of the child psychologists operating under Vermont law, at least one in particular, none of that counted.  The story has a happy ending: My daughter is a musician and nurse, and loves Vermont even more than I do.

And here’s the question about the Kurn Hattin issue. If places like Kurn Hattin are not there to provide a home, meals, education and some assurance to troubled young people, what will happen to them? The state does not have a clear plan, nor does it seem to have a plan for a plan. If Kurn Hattin is branded with the charge that sexual aggression goes on between teens or even with some of the help (and that is rare), what is the result? Reputation is hard to salvage, maybe impossible. The damage cannot be undone, nor can Kurn Hattin protest innocence.

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Anyone who has dealt with young people, especially with young people from troubled or broken homes, or even from perfectly normal homes, knows that controls are difficult on a good day. Put a number of youths together and things might very easily become odd, dangerous or even terrible. I don’t know anyone who would want the job. Yet Kurn Hattin seems to take on this sometimes unpalatable role willingly, dealing with youthful hebephrenia, and young people who are in some cases at war with themselves. Who else will do this? Who wants to deal with adolescents, especially when they are trying to figure out the initial problems of growing up, such as relationships, discipline, and sex.

Ah yes, sex. And here is where the rest of the story drops away and people start reading. If the story hints that Kurn Hattin has a sex problem, people will start to listen. Almost everything else will be ignored, not because people are mentally louche, but because sex remains the primary interest of human beings. We have fought it for centuries. It’s still there.

But the critics among the state psychologists should have some idea of the alternatives. If the children at Kurn Hattin are to be saved from whatever they risk there, where will they go? How will things get better for them? Who else will want to take them in, with all their problems and noise and obstreperousness? And is there a problem worse than that faced by high schools and junior highs everywhere?

Kurn Hattin has been there, doing its job, for over 80 years. VTDigger reports that there have been 60 instances of sexual aggression. Sixty instances in 80 years in not, I repeat not, a pattern of abuse. In fact it hints at a pretty laudable record of management of an otherwise unmanageable problem. Children, now adults, have written that Kurn Hattin saved their lives, and have exuded gratitude for the organization and its sponsors.

So, despite all this, the Vermont Department of Children and Families has pulled Kurn Hattin’s license, and the school’s name has been tarnished, besmirched, and all the years of providing a difficult service nobody else wanted to provide may disappear. The professional child psychologists and their avaricious lawyers (now writing in the recent press) are baying that someone do something, that Kurn Hattin be investigated, sanctioned, and maybe closed. The Vermont bureaucracy disappears from responsibility and not surprisingly, moves to save itself. And no one, with the power to really help the poor, sad children, who barely comprehend this mess, takes any risk, or makes any effort.

Stay tuned. It will probably get worse.

I make a monthly contribution to Kurn Hattin, not much, but something, and I will continue to do so. And I urge anyone else who can see this problem for what it is, to make a contribution. The school will have to fight for its life. And it will cost money.


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