“The Butterfly Effect” was a 2004 movie starring Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher portrayed a man who learned he could dramatically alter his present by traveling back in time and making small changes in the past.
The movie title comes from a lecture given about 50 years ago at a meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science. Edward Lorenz famously posed to the group a profound question: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” The question's point was that once a small event occurs, it may be responsible for huge consequences later. The movie showcased how humankind’s ability to measure small changes and to predict those later outcomes is woefully lacking.
Though Mr. Kutcher’s film may have tanked at the box office and with critics, the premise of the story—that even tiny alterations in a narrative can make a huge difference later on—is the foundation of one of my favorite aspects of being a CASA. As a CASA volunteer, we can help affect small changes now in the lives of the children in our cases, and those changes can be to monumental in ways we cannot now predict.
One volunteer was recently instrumental in having children removed from deplorable conditions. The case was new to him, though it had been appointed to CASA for some time. He didn’t know it when he visited a few days before Christmas, but based on the local social worker’s recommendations, the case closed on the last court date before he got the paperwork on it.
What he saw during his visit appalled him. Thanks to the action of him and his CASA support team, the county prosecutor and the judge swiftly opened a new case and removed the four children from a home that had several broken windows, was strewn with garbage, crawling with roaches, had no working furnace and was, in his supportable opinion, a fire hazard.
When I visited the children after they had been taken in by clean, safe and loving relatives, the change was profound. One of the girls—a petite four-year-old who was morose and near tears the last time I saw her, caked with dirt and in raggedy clothes—ran up for a hug that lasted several minutes. The boy was wearing glasses necessary for his school work that his natural mother had been putting off buying for more than three months.
Granted, this change is more significant than a mere flap of an insect’s wings. But the small act of my volunteer—taking time to support the removal—will have a profound influence on the lives of these children.
And not only will it change their destiny, it will change the destiny of their children and their grandchildren. All it took was a volunteer who gave his time to do the right thing—that made all the difference.
Another lesson the short rhetorical question teaches me is that too often I look at the parents and other malfeasant adults involved with our cases with harsh judgment.
Most people don’t set out to be bad actors in the lives of the children in their watch. They parent the way they were parented. They live in homes not dissimilar from the homes in which they were raised. Most times, someone abused the abuser. Someone neglected the neglected. And unless some influence comes along to nudge them in a better direction, they may be cursed to perpetually inflict upon their younglings the deficiencies in love and nurture that thwarted their own maturation into kind, responsible adults.
Of course, this understanding doesn’t let them off the hook. It’s not the primary role of CASA to focus on the evolution of abusive and neglectful adults, though it has some merit as a secondary or tertiary one. But, I do believe we become more effective servants of our children when we can regard their villains less with hate and anger and more with empathy and concern.
Just maybe some of those adults will be moved by encountering such grace and opportunity to reform as a CASA volunteer may present it and thereby travel a smoother, hastened journey to becoming better parents.