The news that ‘only’ 14,700,000 American children are now living in poverty  prompted this look back at my reporting for NPR about the emotional development of children, an important but often unrecognized aspect of life for some children growing up in poverty. Food, healthcare, shelter and education matter, but love and affection are vital if a child is to have a decent chance of becoming a functioning adult .
Here, briefly, are the stories of Lisa, Roy and Mary, three young people who, for a host of reasons, were growing up without the emotional supports they needed.
Merrow: “OK, let me give you a spelling test. How do you spell ‘cereal’?
She told me that she had lived in ‘13 or 16’ foster homes. Lisa was 9 years old when, at the end of a long conversation, I gave her an impromptu spelling test..
Merrow: How do you spell ‘sugar’?
Lisa: Sugar. S-H-U-G-E-R.
At the time, Lisa was living in a Texas mental institution for children.
Merrow: How do you spell ‘couch’?
Lisa: Ooo! Couch. C- No. K-A-O-W-C-H.
Merrow: How do you spell ‘soda’?
Lisa was a charmer. At one point she asked me what I was going to do with the recording. When I told her it was for a radio program, she exclaimed, “Oh, yuk.” She paused and then added, “Don’t put it on AM. Put it on FM.”
I took the bait. “Why,” I asked?
You can hear the laughter in her voice. “Because we usually don’t even listen to FM. We only listen to AM .”
Her doctor said that Lisa had been abandoned at age two by her natural parents. They left her with some relatives, who in turn gave her to other friends, who then left her on someone’s doorstep; those people eventually brought her to the Department of Human Resources.
At the end of the conversation, Lisa asked me if I liked her. I said yes, of course. Then she asked me if I really liked her…and pulled her dress up over her head, an incident I wrote about recently.
Sexual behavior like that was also part of her sad history, a ‘survival’ tactic she had apparently learned early. Her doctor told me that she would go to school without any underwear and would do cartwheels in the playground. She was, he said, looking for affection–albeit in the most inappropriate way.
Roy: I smoke, and I’m 18. Can’t read. Can’t read or write
Merrow: Not at all?
Roy: No, I can’t read or write at all.
At the time of this conversation, Roy was an involuntary patient at a Texas mental hospital for adolescents .
Merrow: How about those words up there on the board? Can you read any of those?
Roy: No, Just too hard for me. Really, I can’t read those.
Merrow: There’s a word up there. Can you read that one?
Merrow: Yeah, what does that say?
Merrow: That’s right. How about the word that comes before it, T-O?
Roy: T-O? To? I think it’s ‘TO.’ Yeah. (laughs)
A few years earlier Roy had been arrested and jailed in Austin for a minor offense. In jail he attempted suicide. Later, when the police found him living in a park (‘like an animal,’ his doctor said), he was confined to the mental hospital, where he had not caused any problems..
Merrow: How about the word that comes before that, H-O-W?
Merrow: No, it’s an H
Roy: ‘WHO’? I don’t know. I can’t really do it right. I ain’t much in reading.
Merrow: How about O-W? O-W is what you say when somebody punches you.
Roy: “OW” (laughs)
Merrow: So, now put the H in front of it. What have you got?
Roy: Um, ‘HOW’? HOW!
Psychotropic drugs like Thorazine, Mellaril, Prolixin, Haldol and Moban (and sometimes electroshock ) were the normal treatments in Roy’s institution and in most public mental health facilities. He was taking a daily dose 800 mg of Thorazine when I met him.
Merrow: Yes. You could read those three words in a row. Go ahead.
Roy: Uh, ‘How to be.’
Early in our conversation Roy yawned and asked me, ‘How long will you keep talking?’
Merrow: Ready to stop?
Roy: Yeah, I think I am.
Merrow: Okay, thanks a lot.
He paused, and I waited. After a short time, he began again; the words spilled out.
Roy: I mean, I didn’t tell you the whole story. Um, when I was nine years old, my step-dad and my mom met each other and, well, they used to knock me around all the time, my step-dad did.
When Roy was 14, he finally felt big and strong enough to turn on his abusive stepfather. He defended himself with a baseball bat…and he ended up in a juvenile institution, based, he said, on the testimony of his stepfather.
Sometimes I feel so down at heart
I feel like I might fall apart
But then these words come back to me,
‘Just take your time, and you’ll be free.’
19-year-old Mary wrote that song, which she sang for my tape recorder. Like Roy, she was confined to a Texas state mental hospital, but this was her third confinement. She talked about wanting to escape and hitchhike home to Houston, even though her previous hitchhiking trips had ended badly, one in a multiple rape. (It was that story that got my program banished from the airwaves in Texas.)
She told me that she had not told her doctors about being raped, but he was aware of her sexual activity. “I know that she has had some–she’s quite flirtatious with some of the guys back on the ward. I don’t have any personal knowledge of her having had sexual activity with anybody around here, while she’s here. But it might have happened,” the doctor said.
At one point Mary said someone–meaning me–needed to massage her ‘sore’ shoulder. Later she asked me to come closer to tell her if she had ‘sleep in her eyes.’ I declined both invitations.
Music mattered very much to Mary, who broke into song during our conversation, including this song she made up on the spot to end the interview.
This is the last song I’ll ever sing for you.
It’s the last time I’ll tell you
Just how much I really care.
This is the last song–
But I’ll sing more later on.
Right now it’s time for lunch
And I think I’m gonna be gone.
One was nine, one 18 and the other 19, but the conversations–not just the spelling tests–are eerily and sadly similar. If you listen to them in their entirety, you will discover even more connections: their strong need to be heard, to feel a connection, to matter–and their shocking histories of mistreatment by those closest to them. Sexual and physical abuse is another tie that binds them.
Roy and Mary told me stories they said they had not told their doctors. My heart went out to all three, but especially to young Lisa, who seemed destined to travel the awful road that Mary was on.
When we said goodbye, Roy assured me that he wasn’t going to attempt suicide again.
Roy: I think I can make it.
Merrow: Want to shake on that?
Roy (laughs): Yes
Roy: I guess that’s all I can say now. Bye.
I met them 36 years ago. Today Lisa would be 45, Roy 54 and Mary 55. I hope they made it somehow. At the time, we asked the hospitals to keep us informed, but that did not happen.
The doctors treating Lisa, Roy and Mary were not optimistic about their patients. Lisa’s doctor feared she would end up as a prostitute or in serial, abusive marriages. Roy’s best bet, his doctor said, was vocational remedial education and, perhaps, a job as a janitor or greenhouse worker. Mary’s future was even darker because of her apparent addiction to street drugs.
I would not be allowed such access today, but I am virtually certain that, if I were, I would meet today’s versions of Lisa, Mary and Roy in every public mental health facility.
Our world has gotten better in many ways, but, when it comes to caring for children and the least fortunate among us, we have such a long way to go. Some people seem to think that some combination of dedicated teachers, ‘no excuses’ schools and more tests will pull these children through. Perhaps those folks should have been watching Ken Burns’s film, “The Roosevelts,” for a better understanding of what government can accomplish in times of crisis.
- 1. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/17/us/politics/census-report-poverty-income.html?_r=0 The poverty rate for children under 18 declined last year for the first time since 2000, the census bureau said, and the number of children in poverty fell by 1.4 million, to 14.7 million.↵
- Children growing up in affluence or middle-class comfort are not exempt from emotional deprivation and neglect, of course. Poverty makes it tougher for well-meaning adults to care for their young, but certainly not impossible.↵
- I think Lisa had somehow figured out that NPR was ONLY on FM. Maybe she couldn’t spell, but she was clever and smart.↵
- 4. Austin State Hospital was the first state facility of its kind built west of the Mississippi. In 1856, the governor of Texas signed a bill providing for the establishment of the Texas State Lunatic Asylum. Construction started in 1857, and the first patients were admitted in 1861. The facility was renamed the Austin State Hospital (ASH) in 1925.
Today, the original building serves as the administration building for a modern, innovative facility providing psychiatric care to a 38-county region in Central Texas. ASH admits over 4000 patients in a fiscal year, with about the same number of discharges, and has an average daily patient census of 292. The focus of recovery is stabilization for people with acute psychiatric illness and support of their return to the community. ASH provides care through three large services – Adult Psychiatric Services, Specialty Adult Services, and Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services. … Child and adolescent programs offer services to children to the age of 12, an adolescent girls unit, and an adolescent boys unit.↵
- 5. Two percent of the cases, the director of that hospital told me.↵