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As a 24-year-old graduate student, I am often praised for my devotion to my education and goals. I focus my studies on child welfare policy and women’s issues with the hope of making the lives of women and children less violent and more stable. This hope has driven me to wholeheartedly pursue my education, research, and advocacy goals. These goals are my priority, they matter more to me than almost anything else and my daily actions reflect this. Many people tell me that they wish they had this level of motivation. Unfortunately, my motivation comes entirely from my history. This history is troubled and, sadly, not at all unique to my life, although we all wield our stories differently.
I grew up in an impoverished, abusive, and neglectful home. My parents were never married and my father spent most of my childhood in prison on a number of charges including the use and sale of meth. My mother ended up marrying my dad’s best friend: a meth dealer, user, and an alcoholic. My childhood home was dominated by this man, whose violence and substance abuse were a lifetime in the making, having experienced his own struggles with poverty, family violence, and familial substance abuse as a child. His drug and alcohol use ebbed and flowed and, while our lives were certainly more emotionally and economically stressful during periods when he was drinking or using, he was never a pleasant or easy man to deal with. The abuse never ended, even in periods of sobriety. My mother served a more passive, complacent role in our lives overall and in his abuse. She sometimes committed her own acts of both physical and emotional abuse of her three children, but she also suffered the violent wrath of my stepfather, much more often than us kids.
As a young child, violent attacks on my mother were weekly. Attacks on us kids were more sporadic but just as brutal. These physical attacks were like torture: hair pulled, eyes sprayed with soap, heads slammed into walls. When we weren’t hit, we were yelled at and belittled. My brothers and I were accidents. My mom and stepfather reminded us daily that they kept us all even when they didn’t have to. We were worthless and stupid and they regretted having us. Our mother was often in a depressive state resulting from her own abuse and so we also suffered from physical and emotional neglect. Such neglect meant that we were not taken to the doctor when we needed it. We cooked for ourselves and took care of ourselves completely, despite being children. School papers weren’t signed and we were often left forgotten at school.
For reasons that I still don’t understand, I was less of a target for physical abuse by the age of about 12, though I still occasionally got smacked in the mouth for being sarcastic and defiant; Traits that, I am happy to say, I have yet to grow out of. However, I desperately wished to be in the places of my mother or brothers on so many nights as I listened to their agony while crying under my blankets. The guilt in those moments was unbearable. My one salvation came in the form of a cell phone, given to me when I was 14. In a rare display of actual parental concern, my parents wanted to keep track of me since I was becoming more and more involved in school activities to avoid spending any free time at home. I was given a Samsung flip-phone when many kids didn’t have phones yet. My family was poor, and this phone was a big deal for us.
But, mine was not a statement of popularity. It was access to something I’d never had before – the ability to make my parents stop fighting, albeit temporarily. That cell phone allowed me to call the cops from under my covers whenever the violence in my home became too much. I’d tell the police I was a neighbor and could hear the fighting. I’d delete the number from my call history and wait. I didn’t always call, for a long time I feared being caught, but when I did, it eased a little guilt.
Unfortunately, my parents were expert liars at this point. Child services came many times when the police were called by actual neighbors. My parents always insisted that everything was fine. Police officers can’t make an arrest for domestic violence if the victim insists that nothing is wrong. The same goes with child abuse. My brothers and I were well-trained to keep our mouths shut. We faced far worse at home when our parents heard of any accusations we had made to teachers or other relatives. Given the caseload so many investigators and social workers had, there was never a motivation to look beyond our rehearsed responses – we said we were fine and there was food in the cupboard, and they moved on. So, there were no drastic changes resulting from my calls. But still, that cell phone empowered me. It stopped the fighting. Sometimes for a month, sometimes only for a few hours, but it was a little bit of control that I’d never had before.
I moved out of my parents’ home one violent night when I was 18. The cell phone saved me then, too. By all accounts, I’m fine now. Better than fine. My ability to not only survive but to be a thriving adult is largely the result of the work of many teachers and mentors, to whom I owe tremendous thanks. I know that it is likely also, at least partially, the result of the privilege I carry as a white individual who was raised in a wealthy area, despite my family’s relative poverty. But, statistically speaking, I should not be as “okay” as I am, even considering the factors that supported me in becoming so.
Most children who face abuse and neglect get stuck in that cycle of poverty, violence, drugs, and alcohol their entire lives. One of my brothers is still lost somewhere in that cycle. My mother walked into it as a teen and never walked out. I spent a lot of time wondering why this is, and eventually found research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), like the ones I grew up with, that revealed a significant increase in negative social, economic, and health outcomes for children experiencing major childhood stress and trauma. The ACEs research typically looks at a child’s “ACE Score” on a list of 10 factors. Children with four or more ACE factors are significantly more likely to have adverse outcomes like depression, alcoholic tendencies, lower educational attainment, and so on. The risk of encountering these negative outcomes increases dramatically with each additional ACE factor that a child experiences.
I have an ACE score of 9. My first reaction to this score was survivor’s guilt; in a lot of ways, I beat the odds. But, I often wonder what adverse health outcomes may still await me as I age and the stresses branded across my existence become more apparent. There is only one thing about my ACE score that is certain: I cannot change the things that were done to me and the things I witnessed. Society, however, could have, but didn’t and still hasn’t.
Economic and political support for child welfare-related policies, such as foster care administration and welfare or income services access, is dismal. On the other hand, support for particular children’s services like basic education or even healthcare access is commonplace (albeit still too little) because the economic evidence justifying those programs is overwhelming and easy to illustrate. Given their clear benefits, massive expansions of Medicaid, early childhood education, and public school funding were passed over the last 8 years, both nationally and across individual states.
Yet, policies dealing with child welfare issues also have vital benefits for society and have not seen nearly the same support. This is likely because the benefits of child welfare are harder to trace and less directly connected to a clear return on investment. So, the arguments used most often to support child welfare policies are moral ones – we have a moral obligation to protect vulnerable, innocent children. And this is true. More than 700,000 children in the U.S. face abuse and neglect each year. The entire future of these thousands of children – their health, their stability, their education, their employment – is shaped by a world that they have no control over. Despite how upsetting that fact is, child welfare concerns haven’t seen the political prominence that other children’s education and healthcare policies have. This reality is largely considered by scholars to be a result of the moral political rhetoric supporting these policies at a time when economically-focused rhetoric has seen far greater political success.
However, I think the ACE study makes it pretty clear that there are also economic arguments to be made in this realm of advocacy, despite the continued focus on morals by advocates. Chronic illnesses and disorders are incredibly expensive public health concerns. The losses to the American economy resulting from the educational and employment challenges faced by children with multiple ACEs are huge. Research shows that these problems can effectively be disrupted and prevented and in some cities and counties, small-scale programs are making this a reality.
Yet, the nation is still largely falling short of protecting its kids these from adverse experiences. We need to truly invest money, time, and political capital in order to see large-scale, long-term change. That looks like hiring more social workers and paying them better wages so that they can more effectively serve their vulnerable clients. That looks like working seriously to reinvent and invest in effective and equitable anti-poverty policies because poverty is the number one predictor of child maltreatment. That looks like giving abuse victims the right to free legal services that their abusers already have so that they can effectively remove themselves and their children from trauma and violence. That looks like investing in trauma-informed education programs that make schools a safe and supportive place for students struggling at home. That looks like funding home visitation programs for at-risk families so that positive parental behaviors can be taught and negative behaviors can be curbed or caught early on.
These challenges, both in the home and in our legislatures, are out of the hands of our children, and yet they will carry the full weight of our failure to address these policy problems. As a child, these policy issues and my family’s struggles were also out of my hands. Fortunately, they no longer are. I choose to devote my life to advocating for effective policies and protections for our most vulnerable children and their families because I now have the power do so. To not wield this power to protect our kids is to reject their rights as human beings, their future potential, and the health and stability of society.