In the early 2000s, I worked as a childhood development worker/early interventionist for an agency that served families of special needs’ children from birth to six years of age.
I remember each family, but one in particular, stands out in my memory — a single mother and her six children living in extreme conditions. The fathers of the children contributed nothing, financially or otherwise. The only source of income was the Canada Child Tax Benefit. They lived in a constant state of crisis.
The oldest child in the family completed high school and had started college. The remaining children had a variety of diagnoses. One had Asperger’s . Another had a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) and was sent home from school frequently. I was in the home the day the school called for the children to be picked up because of the smell of their clothing.
Providing the bare necessities of food, clothing and shelter was a daily challenge for the mother. The house they rented should have been bulldozed years ago. Slum landlords take advantage of desperate families.
“A slumlord (or slum landlord) is a derogatory term for a landlord, generally an absentee landlord with more than one property, who attempts to maximize profit by minimizing spending on property maintenance, often in deteriorating neighborhoods, and to tenants that they can intimidate.”
As soon as I entered the home, the stench of rotting garbage met my nostrils. I could barely keep from vomiting. I discovered garbage bags piled in the front porch in the heat of summer? Garbage bag tags cost $2 each, an extra expense for a struggling family.
The child I was working with had head lice and had been sent home from school…again. In order to rid a home of lice, the stuffed animals should have been thrown out and everything, especially the bedding and pillows, should be washed in hot water and dried on the hottest setting. This poses a challenge for a poor family because it costs extra money to wash in hot water and even more for drying. Is this even possible for a family only a breath away from having their electricity cut off? Lice shampoo treatments are expensive and often need to be used more than once . In the end, the mother cut the little girl’s hair as short as possible and used a DIY vinegar solution and a fine-toothed comb to deal with the nits. Unfortunately, the child stood out even more.
- What happens to the child sent home with lice?
- What happens to the child with unpleasant odor?
- What happens to the child wearing faded, ill-fitting hand-me-downs?
- What happens to the child without money for pizza day, book fairs and other special events?
THE ANSWER IS SIMPLE AND SAD
- Classmates exclude the child from playground activities.
- The child does not receive invitations to birthday parties and sleepovers.
- No one wants to sit beside him or her at circle time.
In time, the child does not want to go to school and is at great risk of dropping out.
I spent one hour each week with the 4 year-old child. We read storybooks, did puzzles, made crafts, played games, enjoyed music and worked on kindergarten skills.
ONE HOUR! WHAT GOOD IS THAT?
All I can say is that for one hour each week, the child received my undivided attention. Did my intervention transform this family and lift them out of poverty? Of course not, but I believe my presence had great value. Many years have passed and I have no way of knowing whatever became of this child who should have graduated from high school by now.
- I hope she encountered a teacher who felt compassion for her and offered extra TLC.
- I hope the school system did everything in its power to make sure the child could succeed.
- I hope with all my heart that this child defied the odds because someone believed she could.
“Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.”