Due to recent events at America’s border, many more people are becoming aware of the toxic effects of stress on children when they are separated from their parents. “To remove children from their parents is brutal and tragic and traumatizing,” said Anne Venhuizen ’05, “and it makes me very sad.”
And while the public’s attention has been primarily focused on what is taking place at the U.S. border, it is something that Venhuizen faces every day in the Bronx, New York.
“The current situation exposes people to the fact that our nation does do this [separate children from parents],” she said. “Throughout our history this has happened in different forms.”
As a supervising attorney at The Bronx Defenders, Venhuizen fights for the rights of parents accused by the state of neglect or abuse.
According to the Center for the Study of Social Policy, poverty is still the greatest threat to child well-being and the best predictor of abuse and neglect. And according to the 2010 U.S. Census, the South Bronx is the poorest district in America, with more than 50 percent of the population experiencing high or extreme poverty.
“I represent indigent clients, and things are often not as they appear on paper,” she said. “Poverty can often be confused as neglect.”
This is where the Bronx Defenders, a public defense non-profit that provides holistic services to low-income people, comes in.
“I try to remind people that my clients are human beings,” Venhuizen said. “They struggle with things that a lot of us haven’t had to struggle with, so behind situations that might sound terrible are actually some incredible people who really love their children.”
Growing up in Manhattan, Montana, Venhuizen was not exposed to urban issues occurring in big cities like New York. As a student at Calvin, she said she was challenged to think through things in a Christian way.
“Calvin prepared me well,” she said. “It gave me exposure to different possibilities and pushed me to look outside of myself.”
Venhuizen volunteered at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America in Grand Rapids and spent a semester in Washington D.C. working for Amnesty International.
Those experiences prompted her to spend a year doing volunteer work at an orphanage in Palestine before pursuing law school at New York University. A six-month volunteer term at The Bronx Defenders following her graduation from NYU has turned into nearly a decade of serving the underserved in New York.
“My work has forced me to rethink assumptions that I myself had about child welfare, abuse, poverty, neglect, racism,” Venhuizen said. “My clients remind me of ‘the least of these.’ They’re the people society tends to reject: poor, immigrants, minorities; they suffer from addictions, mental illness. They don’t have anyone to fight for them or listen to their voices.
“For many people, the loss of their children exceeds even the loss of their liberty,” she said. “The interference of the state in the intimacy of a family is the largest interference that the state can do.”
Venhuizen fights a system that is four times more likely to put a black child in foster care than a white child. She fights systemic biases. She fights against the path of least resistance: foster care leading to termination of parental rights.
“I feel like I have a vocation, not just a job. Calvin taught me that was something I wanted to look for,” she said. “It's not easy. It requires a lot of empathy, patience, persistence, diligence, listening, and walking through things with a client, but it's important, and God would want people doing it.”