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Rochelle Riley- Children are not problems; they need solutions

Author: Rochelle Riley

Read our entire Our children: Searching for Solutions project here.

Imagine growing up in a neighborhood where you don't feel safe, where you can’t sleep and where you worry all the time that something might happen to you.

(L to R) Ette

Imagine shootings and stabbings and robberies that aren't just on TV, but happen down your street.

Imagine overwhelming distress that keeps your brain from being able to focus on learning. No third-grade reading program such as the one the state Legislature just approved is going to break through all that without help.

This is what life is like for many children in Michigan’s largest city.

At some point, when we look at what must be done to ensure that children learn, we must deal with the emotional barriers that block their success.

Those obstacles are real. And it’s worse than we thought.

For the first time, a Michigan agency has been assessing children in Wayne County to measure trauma and its impact. And the news isn’t good: More than 70% of children seen by Community Mental Health officials in Wayne County have experienced at least three potentially traumatic events that could change how they think and learn.

Most of those children are from Detroit, said Jim Henry, a professor of social work at Western Michigan University and director of the Children’s Trauma Assessment Center, which is analyzing the assessments.

Screeners look for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or complex trauma, the condition that occurs when a child suffers multiple traumatic events, he said. The center’s mission, Henry said, is to determine the impact of trauma, stress and abuse on a child’s neurodevelopment and how those things affect thinking and learning.

“We know that there is chronic trauma, or complex trauma, where a child is constantly exposed to traumatic events, in their home or neighborhood, overwhelming events that create powerlessness and an ongoing sense of danger,” Henry said. “Children’s brains literally are changed into a continually triggering fight, flight or freeze mode within the brain. So the stress-response system that we all have is on hyper alert.

“So kids are continually perceiving danger when danger might not be there because of their chronic exposure,” he said. “That impacts the emotional system of the brain and compromises their ability to access their thinking center of the brain. Your emotional system becomes overdeveloped because you’re in constant fight, flight or freeze, and your ability to think is compromised, which is very significant in terms of your ability to learn."

So what are we going to do about it? Children are not problems to be solved; the challenges in their environment are. If we don’t take it seriously, then we risk losing our next generation of leaders, taxpayers, teachers and responsible parents. But solving their circumstances requires not only innovation, but a willingness to expand our horizons to create or find solutions.

Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom believes in making things happen, as well as seeking out successful strategies away from home to try at home.

Wisdom, the former Michigan surgeon general and current senior vice president at Henry Ford Health System, traveled to England, where she studied a program that trained mail carriers to check on elderly residents on their routes. Wisdom wants Henry Ford to pilot the program in Detroit, where older residents suffer more illnesses and die younger than everywhere else in the state, according to an Area Agency on Aging report. The program calls for postal workers to ask a few health-related questions, pass along reminders of doctor's appointments and chat.

My first thought? Is there a way to translate that kind of program to one where mail carriers can check on children — something that could improve vigilance for our most vulnerable and save the declining U.S. Postal Service in the process?

If Detroit’s finest health professionals look to other places to find possibilities for Detroit’s challenges, why shouldn’t the Free Press?

So we did, sending a team of reporters out to look at programs across America. To better examine the challenges and potential solutions, we looked at five vital areas that cause children stress: poor parenting, poor schools, excessive violence, emotional stress and a lack of opportunity (joblessness, unemployment and a need for mentoring).

In a city where children in some neighborhoods see or experience violence, stress or the effects of poor parenting every day, we must decide that we want them to have different lives.

One child's story

One would think seeing shocking statistics every year would be enough to make us do something.

But perhaps it takes more than numbers. Perhaps it takes hearing it directly from children like 10-year-old LaMia Garth. Her father, Lafayette, was murdered just after Christmas last year, right after he cashed a $5,000 lottery ticket at a neighborhood store.

"I was only 9 when it happened," the fifth-grader said in an interview monitored by her father's sister, Ette Garth, who adopted her after her mother lost custody because of drug abuse. "... That kind of hurt me that someone would want to kill someone, not thinking whose dad or uncle it was.

The event changed how she lived.

"When I'm over at my aunt's house, there’s a park right across the street, and sometimes I've been told not to go over there in case something bad happens. And when my aunt goes to the store where my dad was shot and killed, I’m told not to come in, just in case.

"My dad was a very careful person, so I do believe that if they had asked for the money, I believe my dad would have given it to him. I watched him give money to strangers that he didn’t even know."

Death, distress, struggle and strife are a part of daily life for many Detroit children. Some of it affects their families, like LaMia's father.

Some affects them directly.

Nearly two-thirds of fourth-graders in the Detroit public school system cannot read “James and the Giant Peach,” one of the most popular books for their age group.

More than a third live in households with one parent or unmarried parents, whose care for their children in many cases involves struggle and requires state help.

And every day, 14 children in the city are victims of crime (about 43% of them victims of either homicide, sexual assault, aggravated assault or robbery).

Garth, a 44-year-old instructional specialist, said she immediately got LaMia into counseling after adopting her. But after three sessions, the counselor said that LaMia, an intuitive, well-spoken little girl who plays soccer in a field near her house for fun and sometimes wears her shoulder-length braids in a bun, didn’t need any more.

Garth said she hates that children in Detroit grow up with such violence and stress in their lives.

"It makes me very upset, very angry, that they have to live with what's going on," she said. "My 27-year-old, when she was 10, loved watching the news. But it got depressing for her. The first 20 minutes was about how many people got killed, and then they tell you the real news. Lamia doesn't watch the news. I have her read the newspaper. But the news gets you down. It's very disheartening to have to see her go through that."

Garth said, however, that she also is proactive about teaching LaMia not to be a victim.

"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," she said. "There's things that you do and don't every day. You don't set yourself up to get hurt. At school, if somebody is bothering you, tell somebody. She's never had a fight in her life. You disengage and learn how to talk your way out of things. You don't have to be violent."

Detroit children don't face problems with just violence; they also suffer in some cases from the stress of inattentiveness, a lack of interest in their education and poor parenting — all things that guide Garth in raising LaMia.

She and LaMia have a weekly routine: Mondays they go to a restaurant. Tuesdays, they see a movie or a play. Wednesdays, they go to the library. But Thursdays are the night that LaMia cooks. And last Thursday, LaMia was eager to get home from school.

"I'm making mushroom chicken," she said.

Teaching mothers

That kind of nurture — whether trauma is involved or not — is what all children need. But children under stress need it more. Few people know more about it than Wisdom, who created a program to make better mothers of girls too young to be effective without training.

The program, WIN Detroit, was actually a response to how quickly babies were dying in the Motor City.

“Detroit has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world,” Wisdom said. “One hundred and fifty to 200 babies each year die in the city of Detroit, infants that die in his or her first year of life.

“Our numbers, our rates, rival those in Slovenia and developing countries,” she said. “It’s appallingly high.”

WIN Detroit was borne of a 2008 collaboration between four health systems — the Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System, St. John Providence Health System and Oakwood Healthcare System.

Calling itself the Detroit Regional Infant Mortality Reduction Task Force, the team focused on ways to address the unmet needs of young women facing maternal challenges that could be beyond their capabilities. The coalition’s goal is simple: to make sure that all babies born in Detroit reach their first birthday and have better beginnings.

Henry Ford trained more than 400 health care providers “to better understand the health of minority patients” and to create programs to address their specific needs. A community health worker visits each participant and gives her information about transportation (to ensure she and the baby get care), as well as breast-feeding, mental health, health insurance enrollment and family planning.

None of the 200 babies born to mothers in the program since 2011 have died, Wisdom said. And Detroit was among 10 winners recently selected from more than 200 applicants across the country for a $10,000 award to continue the program.

To understand the program’s purpose, one need but look at the life of Tiyansa Pratt. The 25-year-old single mother entered the program when she was 22, after losing her first child and before she had her son, Jayce.

Pratt said the program changed her view of herself and her life. The Detroit native lives with her dad, who worked at Chrysler, and her mother, who is a licensed practical nurse. She said the program gave her a real understanding of the responsibility involved in raising a child.

"It was really helpful for me. It was kind of like a sisterhood," she said. "The program taught you how to keep your body healthy and how to eat healthy and be healthy and think healthy. That makes a healthy environment for the baby."

Almost as important, Pratt said she doesn't plan to have any more children.

Read our entire Our children: Searching for solutions project here.

What’s next

As we try to find ways to boost student achievement and improve the city schools, we also need to be sure that children are emotionally able to learn.

If we won’t pay attention to the statistics or the experts or even the police reports to understand what is happening to our children, perhaps we'll remember LaMia, who is rising above.

"Society needs to work out its differences," she said. "I don’t believe violence is the solution to everything."

The 10-year-old — who makes all A's and B's and was a Girl Scout, cheerleader and member of both the student council and the track team last year — said she was able to discuss her future with her father before he was killed.

"I told my dad that I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up, and he was like, 'Your granddad was a lawyer. Did anybody tell you that?' "

No one had.

But LaMia is now more determined than ever. She said she missed only a week of school after her father's death — but only a week.

"I love my dad, but I won’t let that interfere with my education and what I want to do when I get older," she said. She added that even though her environment limits where she can go, "I feel safe where I live because I’m filled with Jesus, and I know whatever happens, my life will always be in His hands."

That doesn't mean that we adults responsible for all children shouldn't also do our part. Their lives - and futures - are in our hands, too.

Read our entire Our children: Searching for solutions project here.

DMU Timestamp: November 12, 2020 20:50

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