Every 29 seconds, a child is born into poverty in America. Every 29 seconds. One hundred and twenty-four children every hour. Children like 10-year-old Tyler, five-year-old Keiris, and four-year-old Jerimiah, who live with their mother, Christina Wyatt, 24, in Middletown, Ohio. In the summer of 2011 the family moved into the Center of Hope for Women and Children, a homeless shelter, after their apartment was robbed and they were evicted. Their only income at that point was a Social Security disability check for Tyler, who has Down syndrome. “I had to, really,” Christina said about moving into the shelter. “We didn’t have anywhere to go.”
When Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Cass met the family there while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund, Christina’s voice broke as she described her determination to “get it back together” and build a life for her children different from her own: “I don’t want them to experience even a little bit of what I did. I want to give them the childhood I never had.”
Christina’s own childhood in the Cincinnati area included a mother who didn’t seem to want her, a father who didn’t take good care of her, and occasional stays in foster homes. “I sort of took care of myself from about 12,” Christina said. She went to school and made money babysitting. But when she was 14 the father of two girls she babysat for raped her. “I was really scared,” she said. “I didn’t tell anyone. Then I got sick and found out I was pregnant.”
She continued to go to school for a while but quit because she was “harassed by other kids at the school who really didn’t understand my situation.” When she found out the baby had Down syndrome she considered giving him up for adoption but “something told me to keep him. He was a gift from God.” As she spoke, Tyler bounded into the family’s spartan room at the shelter, smiled broadly and clowned around, demonstrating his ability to do the Michael Jackson moonwalk. He goes to a regular school but is taken out for speech and physical therapy. “Tyler is actually a very intelligent young man,” Christina said. “He has trouble speaking clearly but he gets his point across.” She said that his teachers and “everybody he meets” love him. “He’s got that joy,” she said. “He’s very special.”
She had to fight to keep him. After he was born, they both lived in a special foster home for teenage mothers and their babies, where Christina noticed a pattern: “After a couple months, the girls lost custody of their children.” Out of fear of losing Tyler to strangers, she asked her mother to take temporary custody of him. At 17, the foster care system set Christina up in an apartment, paid her expenses, and gave her allowance, but at 18 she was “emancipated” from foster care and on her own. She got custody of Tyler back. Soon after, she moved in with the man who is Keiris and Jerimiah’s father, but “he wasn’t a good person.” Christina paused and declared in a strong voice, “Everything I’ve been through I learned from. I would never put up with anything like that again. I know I’m more than somebody’s punching bag.”
For most of her children’s lives Christina has supported the family with food stamps and minimum wage jobs – McDonald’s, Subway, a factory that produced products for Procter and Gamble, waitressing at the country club – and with cash assistance (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) between jobs. Christina moved to Middletown, where her mother lives, two years ago. She got an apartment and a job at a gas station and made a deal with her former stepfather, a recovering alcoholic: he could live in the apartment in exchange for helping out a little bit financially and babysitting the children while she worked. But that ended when he moved to Florida. Then Christina got sick, lost her job, and fell behind in the rent. During the same tough times the apartment was robbed.
Christina also lost the Medicaid and food stamps she and the children had been receiving. The system in Middletown now involves a telephone interview rather than a personal one, but Christina said she didn’t get the notice about the phone appointment, and in any case, she had no phone. Finally, they got evicted. That’s when she asked her mother to drive her and the children to the Center of Hope with a backpack of their clothes and a book bag filled with a few toys.
Christina also brought along some hopes of her own: She deeply wants to get her GED and then go to college—not a vocational/technical school or online school but a real college. She can’t explain why, but she wants to be a lawyer. She also has a passion for writing: “I feel like I can do better than a minimum wage job. I’d be a lot happier if I were in school and moving forward to something better. That is the only answer, in my eyes, for us to have any kind of life.” Christina is still determined to give her children a better childhood than she had, and though her own childhood gave her few road maps, she wants to find a way to keep moving forward. I truly hope she succeeds.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.