Preventing Abuse: Children Came After Animals

IMG_E4291History is instructive. This past week, while reading Jacob Riis’ 1902 book The Children of the Poor, I came across his chapter titled “Little Mary Ellen’s Legacy.” Riis tells the story of Mary Ellen, a child of eight in 1874, who was daily beaten by her stepmother and locked in a closet in a tenement house in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City. A kindly Methodist missionary woman was told of Mary Ellen’s plight by a woman dying of tuberculosis who lived next door to the little girl and could hear her screams. The missionary, Etta Angell Wheeler, did home visits and social services and she promised the dying woman that she would do something to stop the child abuse.

But when Wheeler contacted various city benevolent societies and the police about the case, she was rebuffed and told that parents are the best guardians of their children and that it was dangerous to try and interfere. In desperation, Wheeler turned to Henry Burgh, who in 1866 had established our country’s first animal abuse association, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As reported by Riis, Burgh responded to Wheeler’s plea for help by stating, “The child is an animal, if there is no justice for it as a human being, it shall at least have the rights of the stray cur in the street. It shall not be abused.” (p. 143) He called on his lawyers who intervened in the case. The judge at the trial had Mary Ellen removed from the home and she was subsequently adopted and raised by Wheeler’s sister. The step-mother received a year in jail. And as a result of the case of Mary Ellen, Henry Bergh along with co-founder Elbridge Thomas Gerry, in 1874 established the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the first such child abuse prevention society in the world.

I imagine that my social work colleagues are taught this history lesson—that animal abuse prevention and protection was established before any such prevention and protection for children—but I have never run across this fact in nursing education. Howard Markel, MD, professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, and the history of medicine at the University of Michigan wrote about this case in his NYT article, “Case Shined Light on Abuse of Children” (December 14, 2009). He concludes his article with the poignant reminder:

“Gone are the days when beasts of burden enjoyed more legal protection than children. In recent years, a broad spectrum of programs, diagnostic and reporting protocols, safe houses and legal protections have been developed to protect physically or sexually abused children.

But every day, at least three children die in the United States as a result of parental mistreatment. Many more remain out of sight and in harm’s way. Mary Ellen’s story reminds us of a simple equation: How much our society values its children can be measured by how well they are treated and protected.”

Homestead: The Past is Present

IMG_2602Westward, ho! To the land where the past is present.

The Homestead Act of 1862 may seem like ancient history, but it is not. For a quick American history review of relevance here: the Homestead Act became federal law under President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War when eleven (mostly Southern slave-holding states) had seceded from the Union. Of the vast area we now consider the American West, only Oregon and California had achieved statehood. The remaining land area was composed of various territories, including Washington Territory. The Homestead Act was part of Lincoln’s plan to claim the West for the Union and to keep the future states free of slavery.

The Washington State version of the Homestead Act was brought into play this month in my hometown of Seattle— in the case of a 58-year-old homeless man, Steven Long, and the city’s seizure of his GMC truck that was parked too long on a downtown Seattle street. As stated by Vianna Davila in a March 3, 2018 Seattle Times article “Judge rules Seattle homeless man’s truck is a home”: “King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer ruled that the city’s impoundment of Long’s truck violated the state’s homestead act—a frontier era law that protects properties from forced sale—because he was using it as a home.”

Here is the specific language of the Washington State Legislature’s Revised Code of Washington (Chapter 6.13.010) definition of homestead:

“(1) The homestead consists of real or personal property that the owner uses as a residence. In the case of a dwelling house or mobile home, the homestead consists of the dwelling house or the mobile home in which the owner resides or intends to reside, with appurtenant buildings, and the land on which the same are situated and by which the same are surrounded, or improved or unimproved land owned with the intention of placing a house or mobile home thereon and residing thereon. A mobile home may be exempted under this chapter whether or not it is permanently affixed to the underlying land and whether or not the mobile home is placed upon a lot owned by the mobile home owner. Property included in the homestead must be actually intended or used as the principal home for the owner.”

The city of Seattle is appealing Judge Shaffer’s ruling (source: “Seattle will appeal ruling that man living inside his truck should not have had to pay high fines after vehicle was towed” Vianna Davila Seattle Times, March 7, 2018). Although homeless tent encampments (both unsanctioned and sanctioned) are now a well-established part of the Seattle landscape, more people are homeless/displaced in their cars, trucks, and RVs. The latest estimate (January 2017 Count Us In Report) found that 2,300 people were homeless in their vehicles in King County. And having helped with the 2018 count, I can attest to the difficulty of deciphering whether or not people are sleeping inside a vehicle along our city streets. In an odd twist (or not), I discovered many men having slept in their cars and trucks overnight in the University District, waking up at 4:30am, donning their hardhats and high visibility vests and walking to their nearby construction jobs—construction of high-rise, high rent apartment and condo buildings that are displacing yet more low-income people into a life of homelessness. Isn’t that ironic?

The Things They Carry: Trauma and Homelessness

Detail from “Escape III” by M. Ensign Johnson 2012.

It is a well-established fact that trauma both precedes and accompanies homelessness. And especially for women (although, of course, not exclusively women), histories of childhood sexual abuse often contribute to homelessness and to mental health issues, including schizophrenia.*

Today’s NYT article serves as a case study of sorts for this connection. In his poignant in-depth article, “A ‘Bright Light,’ Dimmed in the Shadows of Homelessness,” Benjamin Weiser writes of the life—and death— of the Williams College graduate, Nakesha Williams.  Ms. Williams was, by all accounts, a brilliant, talented, articulate, well-read, and highly educated woman who was loved and supported by many relatives, friends, and even strangers who got to know her as she spiraled into homelessness and ultimately an untimely death on the streets of New York City. It is telling that the vast majority of the (as of this writing) 535 reader comments run along the lines of “the lump in my throat and the salt in my coffee from the tears streaming down my face,” as well as “if it (homelessness) could happen to her, it can happen to any of us.” There are, of course, the occasional comments such as “she refused help all along the way so what can we do?” and “she died with her individual choice and dignity intact” (I paraphrase here). But, hello dear reading public! Didn’t anyone pick up on the fact that a de-facto step-father of Nakesha was, in Weiser’s words, “an abusive man who repeatedly molested Nakesha when she was just a child” ?

Especially in this somewhat more “woke” era of the #MeToo era, I find it dismaying that as society—and as a supposedly socially progressive and educated readership of a national newspaper such as the NYT—people still do make this connection. If we do not connect these important dots in the cause and effect scheme of things, how can we have any hope of improving the life trajectories of all the amazing people like Nakesha Williams?

“Childhood trauma, PTSD, and psychosis: Findings from a highly traumatized, minority sample” Abigail Powers, et al in Child Abuse and Neglect, August 2016, 58: 111-118.

“Trauma and the psychosis spectrum: A review and explanatory mechanisms” Lauren E. Gibson, et al in Clinical Psychology Review, November 2016, 49:92-105.

And from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council there are these excellent resources on trauma and homelessness. 

Also, I highly recommend the article, “Shelter from the Storm: Trauma-Informed Care in Homelessness Service Settings” by Elizabeth K. Hopper, Ellen L. Bassuk, and Jeffrey Olivet in The Open Health Services and Policy Journal, 2010, 3:80-100.

History—Not Was, But Is

DSC00528History is not was, it is. This pithy and prophetic statement is attributed to the quintessential white Southern writer, William Faulkner. Having read most all of his novels and short stories, this sounds like something he would say. And I label the statement prophetic because to not understand and heed these wise words—which he had to have said pre Civil Rights era—contributes to the problems that plague our country today.

I have written extensively about my own upbringing and deep roots in the American South, including being raised at the South’s first racially integrated children’s summer camp in KKK country, on land scarred by slavery and the Cold Harbor, Virginia battles of the Civil War. On my father’s side, I am related by blood to Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy, wife of Jefferson Davis, who was President of the Confederate States of America. I went to Battlefield Park Elementary School, Stonewall Jackson Junior High School, and Lee Davis High School (The Rebels as school mascot) and I was fed a continuous stream of misinformation and historical revisionism at this string of public schools. A high school classmate was the son of the Grand Dragon of the regional KKK and I received assault/death threats from him (conveyed through my Biology teacher to my parents) when I campaigned for Jimmy Carter. I knew that the Civil War was very much alive and unwell.

It still is. And not just in the American South. White supremacist hate groups exist throughout the U.S. and have grown in strength and number and venom. They are invited by Republican student groups to our college campuses. They actively recruit on and around college campuses and high schools, as well as through social media. For a deeply disturbing and important recent Propublica video report on this see “Inside the Secret Chat Logs of American Nazis.”  The Seattle Times recently published an article by Jim Brunner, “Report: Washington State home to one of the largest cells of notorious white supremacist group” (February 23, 2018). Resistance to hate is not passive, it is active.

In the words of Barbara J. Fields, professor of American History at Columbia University:

“I think what we need to remember most of all is that the Civil War is not over until we today have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner once said that history is, not was—it’s is and what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is in the present as well as in the past. The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes and lost futures, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work.

You can say that there is no such thing as slavery anymore—we’re all citizens–but if we’re all citizens then we have a task to do to make sure that it is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, then the Civil War is still going on, it is still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.” (From the Ken Burns PBS series The Civil War, episode nine.)

Teaching in a Time of Hate and Violence

IMG_3810The First and Second Amendments of the United States Constitution, along with their current legal interpretations and applications as they relate to our public schools and universities, weigh heavily on my mind—especially this week in the wake of the latest in the string of school mass murder shootings and in the wake of the latest in the string of “public square” free speech debates at the University of Washington where I teach.

The Second Amendment right of citizens to bear arms should not include the right of angry, violence-loving individuals to own and use assault weapons on our school children as has happened in rapid-fire, soul-numbing fashion in our country. It should not include the right to bring—and use—firearms to the public squares of our universities (as happened at my own university last January during a “free-hate speech” protest/counter-protest on Red Square, pictured above with our grand Suzzallo Library in the background. See the Seattle Times article “Couple charged with assault in shooting, melee during UW speech by Milo Yiannopulos” by Mike Carter and Steve Miletich, April 24, 2017) Of course, we need better mental health services throughout our country, but this is not about mental health, it is about saner gun safety regulations.

Gun-related violence in our country is a major public health issue. Although hampered by the successful lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association to curtail public health research since 1996 (see: The Atlantic article “Why Can’t the U.S. Treat Guns as a Public-Health Problem? by Sarah Zhang, April 15, 2018), we do have sufficient evidence to start making positive changes. Nicholas Kristof’s NYT article with amazing graphics, “How to Reduce Shootings” (February 15, 2018) illustrates some of these options. I do take issue though with his point that gun-violence deaths at our schools pale represent just a small fraction of the total number of gun-related fatalities (including suicides) in our country. That does not take into account the detrimental health effects of the daily very real threat of school shootings on the millions of students, teachers, coaches, and administrative staff members at all of our schools, colleges, and universities.

And as to the First Amendment right to free speech that includes hate speech—because one person’s hate is another person’s love or something along those lines? Having grown up during the Civil Rights era and personally benefiting from the rights to both free speech and academic freedom, I do understand (even if I don’t like) the fact that a known White Nationalist group (sponsored by the UW student club College Republicans) was allowed to speak at the University of Washington campus last Saturday. What I do not understand and do not agree with was the fact that other legitimate UW scheduled events that day—as well as the two UW libraries on Red Square—were forced to close/be cancelled because of the credible threat of violence incited by this event. A white nationalist hate group, in effect, closed the major libraries of our public university for an entire day, and in the name of free speech? Our library’s mission statement includes: “advances intellectual discovery and enriches the quality of life by connecting people with knowledge.” Our libraries are core elements of the teaching, research, and service mission of our public university. Their work cannot be allowed to be curtailed by hate and violence.

#enough  of all of that.

Service-Learning Changed My Life

Version 2I am forever grateful for the liberal arts education that included meaningful community-engaged service-learning. (Thank you Oberlin College!) I continue to wrestle with ways to bring the humanities and real service-learning* into my own work teaching undergraduate nursing students. The combination of a grounding in the humanities (in my case medical ethics through Biology and Religion majors) and service-learning, changed my life—and my career—for the better.

In my sophomore year at Oberlin, I took a child psychology course with Dr. Friedman that included a service-learning opportunity of working as a Big Sister or Big Brother to a child or young teenager at a children’s group home on the outskirts of town. Starting in that course and continuing until I graduated and left Ohio, I was the Big Sister for a young girl (she was 12 when I started working with her and I was just 18). I took her on weekend outings around the college town, taught her to swim in the college pool (I was a lifeguard and swim instructor), and visited the town’s Santa for a photo that I treasure. At the time I started working with my little sister I was a pre-med Biology major and thought I had my future life and career clearly charted. But that service-learning experience, accompanied by further private reading study on child abuse with Dr. Friedman, led me to medical ethics and on into a career in nursing.

It is instructive to re-read one’s college term papers. I am fortunate that my mother, who was my best proof-reader, kept all of my early writing going back to my age 7 haikus, and she gave them to me in a package before she died. (Thank you Mom!) Here is an excerpt from a term paper titled “Child Abuse: A Wider and Closer Look” that I wrote for Dr. Friedman in 1979:

“Who would contest that poverty creates the most stressful situation imaginable? If we want to truly treat child abuse, we have to face the fact that poverty is a very real influence. How can anyone possibly cure poverty? That question touches a sore spot in all of us comfortably full and well-clothed individuals. We recognize an inconsistency in our moral structure and in our social structure. The harming of children—all of the legislation, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, and self-help groups in the world won’t cure it. The idea of changing our society is radical and frightening because we would have to risk losing what we have and feel safe with. How long will the present interest in child abuse last? Will we take the chance and try to cure child abuse, or will we continue placing Band-Aids on the sore, with our heads turned away from the real problem?”

Indeed, four decades after writing that paper I continue to ask similar questions—and to work towards finding solutions to those big, wicked problems. But it was my foundational liberal arts education combined with service-learning that is what prepared me for my life and my career.

* Real service-learning is (as defined by the University of Washington Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center):

“Service-learning is a learning experience that combines service with the community with structured preparation and reflection opportunities. Service opportunities are tied to academic coursework and address concerns that are identified and articulated by the community.

As students engage in service-learning, they learn about the context in which service is provided, the connection between their service and their academic coursework, and their roles as community members.”

Listening to Skid Road

IMG_4007Listening to Skid Road: Join us for a lunchtime panel discussion on the intersections of health, homelessness, and racism in King County, as well as explorations of the moral responsibilities of the University of Washington in addressing these issues. Hear from panelists who participated in the oral history collection for the Skid Road project, currently on display in the University of Washington Odegaard Library. Panelists include Krystal Koop, MSW; Nancy Amidei, MSW; Sinan Demirel, PhD; Rebekah Demirel (author of the memoir Nothing’s for Nothing: Transformation through Trauma) and Eric Seitz, RN; with Josephine Ensign (PI of the Skid Road project) as moderator.

Date: Tuesday February 6, 2018
Time: 11:30am-1:30pm
Place: University of Washington Odegaard Library, Room 220
Light lunch and beverages provided
Open to the Public

4culture_colorSpecial thanks to public historian Lorraine McConaghy, PhD for her support and mentorship throughout this project.

This project was supported, in part, by an award from 4Culture. Additional support for the audio portion of the DS videos comes from Jack Straw Cultural Center. My Skid Road project was also funded, in part, by the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities, the University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Humanities Washington.