Do-gooders came out of the woodwork in the Akron, OH, area recently when a local TV station aired a series of stories about a teen girl living in the woods trying to graduate from high school. Neeha Curtis, news anchor on Cleveland’s 19 News, shielded the girl’s identity and exhibited uncommon emotion about this incident which could elicit a ho-hum from a less compassionate reporter. This story generated an outpouring of assistance, over $10,000 in donations and housing.
I reached out to this reporter, first to commend her on her humanity, then to offer an ear if she needed to talk over this unfolding saga. I’m not a mental health professional, but I’ve encountered similarly tragic stories in my 15 years on the road chronicling family and youth homelessness under my HEAR US Inc. nonprofit. I know the gut-punch feeling as these stories swirl in my head.
We did talk, and it was helpful. Neeha didn’t stop when the going got tough. She has done follow-up stories, but has learned of dismazing turns from some of the “helpers.” She doesn’t want to stop now. She shared with me the latest aspects that could make the girl look “bad” to viewers, alleged problems that occurred when a local woman “gave” the teen a place to live and things went south.
I cringed as Neeha started sharing the backstory, having heard plenty of tales of woe when a do-gooder does what she/he thinks is the right thing. Often this can make things worse for all involved. The person who received help messes up, and the discouraged helpers walk away saying, “we tried to help, but….”
But…let’s take a look at what might be behind an 18-year-old girl making “bad choices.”
First, what 18-year-old makes all the right choices? This young woman has endured a lifetime of trauma — deserted by her mother at 3, at the make-or-break point in her development that will impact her entire life.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and professor at Michigan State University, recently wrote a spot-on op-ed piece about child resilience for the New York Times, stating:
Science tells us that children exposed to multiple adversities, both in their home and in their neighborhood, have a far greater likelihood of challenges later in life. From addiction to eviction, these constant pressures change a child on a molecular, cellular and behavioral level — and make them sick.
This teen’s experience of her mother’s desertion, followed by multiple foster care placements, living in an encampment of people struggling to survive, being raped, physically and mentally abused; it’s a given she’s experienced severe trauma. Trauma affects our judgement in countless ways.
Help Needed, But Not Available
She still needs help, now more than ever, not just because she’s also pregnant. The most helpful intervention might be having her physical needs met with quality mental health services to help her process the turmoil in her life. Sadly, those services are in short supply nationwide, including North Carolina, where:
But none of the specialized support staffing levels in North Carolina meet nationally recommended student-to-staff ratios.…For school social workers, the recommended ratio is one social worker for every 250 students. North Carolina has one for every 1,289 students.
The recommended ratio for school psychologists is one-to-500–700 students. In North Carolina it’s one-to-roughly-1,800.
For school counselors, the recommended ratio is one counselor to 250 students. North Carolina’s is one-to-353-students.
Trauma is not just a throw-away term to excuse a person’s misbehavior.
Trauma is a medically-proven cause of physical and mental health issues that require attention. In an article posted on Aces Too High News, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology and How You Can Heal, pointed out:
Statistics tell us that two-thirds of Americans reading these words, including physicians, will recognize that experiences in their childhood still trail after them today, like small ghosts. Fortunately, medical science now recognizes many proven interventions for recovering from trauma, even decades after events have occurred.
When we “discard” people who mess up after they receive and allegedly misuse help, we pile on the hurt. I’m not saying we need to just pat them on the back and ignore the problems, but tossing someone to the streets is not a solution. Our country has (pre-covid) over 6 million infants, children and youth experiencing homelessness. That’s a lot of young ones to throw away.
From my 3 decades of working in the homelessness world, I’ve met countless people who’ve had horrific childhoods. I just learned of one young woman who was a kid in the shelter I ran in Aurora, IL. She just graduated as a nurse. I won’t claim any credit. Her mom’s unconditional love is a key element in her daughter’s accomplishment. I could share many more such stories. Not all will have happy endings, as I know personally from loved ones who have died struggling with trauma.
10 years ago my video partner, Professor Laura Vazquez, and I released “on the edge: Family Homelessness in America,” an hour-long documentary depicting 7 courageous women sharing their stories of homelessness. I’ve tried to keep up with these women over the years. They all have their struggles — as we all do, though 4 have crawled out of the hole of homelessness. One has died. I’ve not located 2 others. Trauma certainly has impacted them, and their children. Good people in their lives offering unconditional love and support, combined with the women’s incredible resilience, also helped, a bunch.
What I’d say to the do-gooders in Akron:
Thanks for at least trying to help. Offering a place to live is extremely kind. But realize that this teen has some terrible scarring, and might struggle with your generosity and expectations just as if she had 2 broken legs and couldn’t get up the front stairs to the house you provided. Don’t condemn her for “taking advantage” of you. She’s doing the best she can do. If you’re going to help someone again, locate appropriate and available services or a qualified mentor to help with the transition from homelessness.
To the rest of us:
Get ready for a tsunami of homelessness of families, youth and adults. This pandemic is kicking our nation’s collective butt. I want to be wrong, but all signs point to the contrary. Former NYC Council President Christine Quinn, now the head of WIN, the largest provider of services and shelter for families in NYC, has a plan. Best we get going on it.
If we don’t, we won’t have enough dedicated reporters like Neeha to report abuse and trauma stories.