Invisible Children

Invisible Kids

“Yesterday upon a stair, I saw a man who wasn’t there
I saw him there again today.
I wish to God, he’d go away.”

Ogden Nash

I’m reading a book called “The Invisible Children,” about the hundreds of thousands of kids who wend their way through the Juvenile Justice System in our country. Call them “wards of the court.” Or foster kids or, more harshly, “throw away kids.” They are all around us but we don’t “see” them.

I have had quite a bit of experience with kids in this situation. Many of them, finding themselves rejected by the only parents they have ever known, are in shock. They yearn to be re-united with the very parents who abused them; they can’t help it. Their very identity is at stake.

For some reason, when I think of these invisible kids, I find the comical little verse of Ogden Nash going through my head. “Yesterday upon a stair, I saw a man who wasn’t there. I saw him there again today. I wish to God, he’d go away.”

We see our throwaway kids too, but we turn our heads away and pretend they are not there. Then we see them again “on the stair” and to be honest, we are irritated. We wish they would go away. For some of us, their very presence makes us feel guilty. We get defensive and tell ourselves that we are doing our best. These kids are fed and clothed. A mattress company gives them shoes or coats, the local civic organization gives them Christmas gifts. What’s the problem?

The problem is, and deep down we all know it, is that providing food and clothes and a basic education for kids traumatized by parental abuse and neglect is not enough.

The mental health issues faced by traumatized kids are not that dissimilar to the problems faced by our military men and women returning from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. We can choose to put a label like PTSD on them or no. The fact remains; many of the abandoned kids who live among us have been profoundly scarred. They think that is their fault that they have been taken from their abusive or neglectful parents. They blame themselves for becoming foster kids.

We need to really SEE these kids; put ourselves in their tennis shoes. It is not their fault that they find themselves in foster care. And, like the man on the stair, wishing they would go away will not make it happen.

A Kid With Integrity

A Kid With Integrity

True Story. I’m taking this tall Afro-American teenager out with me to help him look for a job. A friend had helped him with his resume and it looked pretty good except there was little to show for his work experience.

“Alonzo, that one paragraph, that’s all you have?” “Yea, it is what it is,” he replied. “Nothing else?” I inquired. Then Alonzo said, “My mom wanted me to put down that I had worked for her in her cleaning business. That would have made it sound a little better but”….he hesitated. “So why didn’t you?” “Because it wasn’t true.” “In other words, it would have been a lie?” “Yep,”he answered.

We rode in silence for a while. Then, Alonzo glanced at me. “Did I do the right thing?” “Alonzo, what do you think?” “Yes, I feel that I did.” he reflected. “Maybe nobody else would have found out I lied but I would have known.”

Wow! Was I hearing things? Here is a kid who respected his word, a word, I might add, that did not from the mouth of an altar boy from an intact family but from a kid who had been around the block a few times. Alonzo is the progeny of a run away dad and an abusive mom. He was raised in a series of group homes and foster homes. He never even knew who his bio mom was until he was nearly fifteen years of age, only to find out that she is an addict and a drug dealer.

So how do you explain the honesty, the integrity of a kid like Alonzo? We think we know people but we don’t. Somewhere, deep within the soul of this youth was a sense of character that I could not begin to explain. He didn’t cheat, not because he was afraid to be caught but because he would not be true to himself. This young kid discovered something about life that manages to elude so many in our culture. When we lie, when we pretend to be someone we are not, we diminish ourselves.

I felt humbled to be in the presence of a young man like Alonzo. I thought to myself how many privileged kids would have hesitated to tell a little lie to get ahead? When you get down to it, we are all getting pretty dam blasé about telling the truth aren’t we? We may not admit we lie. We say we MISSPOKE, as though that’s any different.

Our heroes betray us, whether John Edwards or Tiger Woods or hundreds like them, but a black teenage kid from a dysfunctional family stood head and shoulders above them all. “If I had lied no one else might have known but I would have known.” Words like these are not the words of a boy but a man, a real man.

The Hunger games, a parable for our times

Hunger Games is a parable for our times

In the “Hunger Games” children are selected to kill other children in a gruesome real-life survivor games spectacle. The annual televised “entertainment” is intended to keep the citizens from any thoughts of protesting their impoverished existence under a despotic government.

It is not by chance that the evil empire should choose youth 18-24 years old as the sacrificial victims of their games. Young people are the energy that drives a nation. They are our hope, our passion, our future. Kill off the youth and you have killed any chance to bring about change in society.

Is it farfetched to see a hidden, albeit softened version of the “Hunger Games” being played out in our midst? Isn’t there an eerie similarity in the way we send hundreds of thousands of our youth to places like Iraq and Afghanistan to be killed or disabled for life?

Isn’t it awkward, at the very least, that, in California, we spend more money to build prisons to warehouse young offenders, (most of whom are being imprisoned for victimless crimes,) than we do to build more colleges and universities?

Given our massive drug problem in this country, why can we never seem to find enough money to fund drug rehabilitation services for our youth and follow-up programs for those leaving prison? Maybe we are not directly killing off our youth but we sure are wasting any potential they may have to turn their lives around. Aren’t we?

Did you notice that we hardly ever speak of “broken families” anymore? We don’t want to face the fact that our easy road to divorce is deeply affecting the lives of our children. Couples split, rationalizing that they don’t love one another anymore. Nobody is hurt, right? Nobody but the kids they left behind.

Too often children from dysfunctional families find themselves being sent to a foster care system on overwhelm. Siblings are separated from one another; kids are bounced from one foster placement to another. Woefully underpaid child-care staff are left without adequate resources to care for the victims of abuse and neglect. With as many as 70% of prison inmates having spent time in foster care, is it any wonder that the system is often referred to as a “pipeline” to prison.

If the national character is judged by the way it treats its children, we aren’t doing very well. Our youth need us to raise a little hell on their behalf. They deserve better health care (40 million uninsured children is not acceptable.) They have a right to the opportunity for a good education; for the chance to grow up in an intact family and to be valued as the future of our country.

Unlike the Hunger Games, we have not planned this giant conspiracy to diss our children. Most of us love our children and are willing to sacrifice for them. But folks, we have to do better.