ANTHONY AND A FRIEND
Astoria Pool, Astoria, Queens, 1993.
Henry will not face me. We sit close together on small plastic chairs in a classroom at P.S. 314, an elementary school in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, where he works with small children in a summer camp.
Our knees, drawn high because we are sitting on the lawn chairs, almost touch. Still, Henry angles his body so that he shows me only his profile. If he turns toward me briefly and catches my eye, he immediately turns away again and gazes out the large schoolroom window at kids on a stoop across the street.
His neighborhood, Sunset Park, consists of approximately 110,000 people, most of them poor, with a per capita income of $11,115. A quarter of the residents have incomes below the poverty line. They represent a variety of backgrounds - Puerto Rican, African-American, Dominican, Mexican, Jordanian, Pakistani, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. These groups are the latest to populate Sunset Park. They follow the Irish, Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Poles and Italians of the late 19th century, and the Greeks, Russians and Jews of the early 20th. The first area residents were the Dutch and the English, who established farms where the Canarsie Indians had lived.
A little over a mile wide and 2.6 miles long, the area lies between middle-class Bay Ridge to the south and gentrified Park Slope to the north. The rectangle of the neighborhood slopes down from the high ridge at Eighth Avenue to the east to Upper New York Bay, where the Statue of Liberty rises. At the top of the ridge is Sunset Park itself - an 18-acre public park with old trees and a W.P.A. swimming pool. On the grid of narrow streets and wide avenues between the ridge and the bay the two- and three-story brownstones with attractive cornices; brick-and-masonry houses with little gardens in the front, where corn is sometimes grown, and many rows of drab no-color tenements. Henry lives in one of these. His home is near Third Avenue, which is close to the water, and is shadowed by the Gowanus Expressway, one of the highways built by Robert Moses to carry white people away from places like Sunset Park.
Henry is 16, tall for his age at about 6 foot 1. His skin is a dull, dark brown; antiperspirant under his arms foams white against it. His hair is spun into curlicues. He rarely smiles, though when he does, he looks warm and welcoming - in contrast to his usual self-concealing blankness. He is sleepy this morning. He yawns frequently, and fully, his mouth wide open like a baby's.
“What else have you seen?" I ask him. He is talking about life on the streets.
"I saw a man throw a telephone out the window," he says. "It hit a baby in a carriage. It nearly killed her. So her father ran up the stairs, and he grabbed the man who threw the phone, and he cut him." He traces a line across his throat with his index finger. "He lived, but he's got this necklace now."
"Did you know the men involved?" I ask him.
"I knew the man who threw the phone," he says. "He's my mother's boyfriend."
'Why did he do that?"
"He was drunk, crazy." He shrugs to indicate that the behavior is normal for his mother's boyfriend.
'What did you do when the baby's father slit his throat?" I ask.
"I was happy," Henry. says. "I laughed when he did it. I even testified against the boyfriend in court. My mother was mad. She's always mad at me." He gives me a glance, then turns his head to the side. "That was when things really blew up at home. So I went to the Center for Family Life and told Jennifer. She's been everything to me." He says this without emotion. "She makes me think about what I do."
'What about your mother?"
"She screams. Says I'm the Devil. Calls me stupid and retarded. She says I'm bad. I am bad." He holds his head down. "I hang out. I write up - you know? - do graffiti. I fight, maybe less now, but I used to fight all the time. When I start fighting, it's like seek and destroy. You start with me and you're the enemy. Nobody else in sight. You my spotlight, my way out. You the exit door."
"The exit door from what?" He does not answer. "Are other grown-ups in your life good to you? Teachers?"
"Some are O.K.," he says. "I had a teacher tell me: 'I don't care if you come to class or not. I get paid anyway."
"When I got arrested for writing up, a woman cop told me she hopes they send me to jail."
"Ministers? Priests?" I ask.
He shakes his head. "I don't have religion."
"The Mayor? The Governor? The President?" I am speaking a foreign language. "Are there any grown-ups who help you?"
I ask him: "Henry, do you think that your mother loves you?"
“She pretends to love me,” he says.
Suffolk HELP Shelter, Bellport, L.I., 1993.
The fact that Henry is poor and black, and that he lives in violent circumstances, makes him an unusually dramatic and sadly familiar example of the mistreatment of American children. But, for what he represents, he could be any child, anywhere in the country. I could have the wrong Henry. Henry is not a kid from Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He is a rich, white, 16-year-old senior at Groton, who has just cheated on his Greek exam because his father, a true-blue Yalie, yells at him constantly for being stupid and retarded and for not being good enough to get into Yale.
No, that isn't Henry, either. Henry is a 12-year-old girl from Corpus Christi, Tex., who is trying to get pregnant "to have love in my life." Or the boy whose father set him on fire to strike back at his wife in a custody case. Or those teen-agers who made a suicide pact in New Jersey. Henry is a 14-year-old girl from Aspen, Colo., who wears all that oversize clothing and who heads for the ladies' room immediately after meals. He is the toddler in Los Angeles whose grandmother punished him by holding a pillow over his head and squeezing him between a table and a sofa. His last words were "Me no breathe."
Here's Henry now. That's his key in the door. His folks are both at work and will be out till midnight. He has the house to himself. He pours himself a Coors, calls his girlfriend to come over and plunks down in front of the TV to watch the Jenny Jones show bring him a picture of America.
Actually, the Henry of Sunset Park is a bit luckier than the tens of millions of American children, of all economic classes, races and regions, whom the country pretends to love. At least this Henry has an effective local social service agency - the Center for Family Life to which he referred - that is devoted to his well-being.
In 1993, according to several child interest groups like the Children's Defense Fund, an estimated three million children were reported to public social service agencies to be suffering from abuse or neglect. Some 1,300 of them died. Approximately half a million children are in foster care or similar substitute homes, an increase of 250,000 since 1986. About 14 million live in poverty. About 100,000 children are homeless. The welfare bill passed overwhelmingly by the Senate last month, ending guaranteed assistance to poor families, should add significantly to the number of children in need.
The American Humane Association reports that since 1988 American teen-age boys are more likely to die from gunshot wounds than from all natural causes combined. Studies of teen-age pregnancy in Seattle and Chicago show that two-thirds of teen-age mothers reported having been sexually abused. Figures on sexual abuse have been disputed as being too high, but even if the true figures are only half of those reported, they are still considerable.
KAREN, Minneapolis, Minn., 1994
While poor children, black and white, suffer a disproportionate share of ills, the increasing affliction of the American child occurs in rural regions as well as in the cities, and among the middle and upper classes, too. Responses to a survey of girls in grades 6 through 12 in mainly Midwestern states, in 111 communities with populations under 100,000, indicated that by grade nine, one in five girls had been sexually abused. By grade 10, the number was still one in five, but one in three girls had been abused physically, sexually or both. The survey defined physical abuse as an adult causing a scar, bruises, welts, bleeding or a broken bone and sexual abuse as a family member or "someone else" imposing sexual behavior on the child. In 1993, there were 19,466 incidents of child abuse reported to the Iowa Department of Human Services. The advocacy organization, Girls Inc. in Omaha, states that sexual abuse of girls reported in Nebraska (3 in a class of 25) is that of the national average. The abuse of boys is more rarely reported, so the numbers are probably comparable.
Statistics on poor families, like Henry's, are more available than those on better-off families; welfare agencies rarely invade the homes of the rich. But the mistreatment of children is also a middle-class problem. A random sampling of adolescents in Minnesota found that 6 percent of middle- or middle-to-high-income families had at least one child in alcohol or drug treatment programs by ages 14 to 17. Adolescents in an additional 5 percent of families were using as much alcohol and drugs as the kids who were in treatment.
Middle-class whites like to think that kids with guns are a black or Latino inner-city menace exclusively. But William C. Haynes, juvenile justice director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, reports that groups of middle-class white kids in Antioch had a gunfight armed with 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistols. Richard Louv, the author of "Childhood's Future," notes that the shooting programs of the 4-H Clubs drew at least 100,000 kids at the end of the 1980's, a tenfold increase since the mid-1980's.
Two middle-class parents who work full time will, naturally, spend less time with their children. In 1976, according to the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of “When the Bough Breaks," 11 percent of children under the age of 1 year had mothers in the work force. By 1994, the number had risen to 54.5 percent. Another economist, Victor Fuchs, contends that children have lost 10 to 12 hours a week of parental time since 1960 because of the added number of hours that both parents work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average work week was 43.3 hours in 1994, with professional people working an average of 43.8.
At an exhibit of children's artwork at Christie's in New York City last year, paintings were displayed depicting "Images of Mothers and Fathers." One, showing a man with his hands held up in surrender and surrounded by clocks, carried the caption: "This is my father." A ninth grader drew a picture of her mother as a clock.
Neglect is a varied form of abuse and is difficult to pin down. Martha Farrell Erickson of the Children, Youth and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota reports that 45 percent of child-abuse cases are officially cited as neglect, but "it seems likely that the actual incidence is much higher." Erickson also notes that many neglected children are infants: "Given that neglect is often chronic rather than episodic, these children may grow up thinking this is the way life is."
Violent and destructive behavior by middle-class and upper-middle-class kids - generally considered to be a consequence of neglect - is a daily news story. In the placid seaport town of Dartmouth, Mass., in 1993, three teen-agers burst into a high-school classroom, beat a freshman over the head with a baseball bat and stabbed him to death. In Williamson County, Tenn., the richest county in the state, a boy driving the new car that his parents had just bought him shot and killed a horse in a field for the fun of it. High-school kids go on destructive binges in Montana and Vermont. In 1989, ABC's television news program, "20/ 20," ran a piece on high-living teen-agers in wealthy Pacific Palisades, Calif., who were lost to drugs and drink. Last year, the network news shows broadcast a video of middle-class teen-agers in Florida on a rampage. They tore apart elegant homes, tortured a dog and cooked a goldfish in the microwave. The teenagers made the video themselves.
Divorce is not always a destructive event in a child's life, but it is more often so than the divorcing parents care to admit. Fully 40 percent of children living with their mothers do not see their fathers after the breakup. Of the 58 percent of divorced fathers ordered to pay child support, less than two-thirds actually pay in full. One father explained that he could not pay child support because he needed the money to board his two Doberman pinschers. Even when both parents maintain contact with the children, the children can pay penalties. The headmaster of one of New York's distinguished private schools tells of an afternoon when he was summoned to the school lobby, where two parents were shouting and fighting. Each had thought that the coming weekend was the one in which he or she was to take their child. When the headmaster arrived on the scene, the parents were yanking at the child's arms, stretching him between them.
If some wealthier parents are not looking out for their children, they are looking out for themselves. Many young couples simply do not have children, even if they are able to, because a child will cut into their income and their time for self-interested pursuits. Many who do have kids did not really want the responsibility of rearing a human being; they wanted another witty, charming, urbane adult in the house. So neglect was built into their vision of the child in the first place. And, of course, when the child turned out not to be the delightful companion the parents originally had in mind, they abandoned it to "independence."
In "Habits of the Heart," Robert Bellah points out that since 1965, Americans have been hooked on the therapeutic mentality. The social critic Christopher Lasch also concluded that therapy has replaced religion in American adult lives. A guidance counselor in Alabama tells me that a reason many parents do not come home at nights to their children is that they are taking therapy classes to help them be better parents.
The neglect and abuse of children is hardly new in American history. One may go back through the 350 years represented by the different inhabitants of Sunset Park alone, starting with the Puritans, and discover an unbroken pattern of beating children, psychologically tormenting children, imposing one or another form of miseducation on them, forcing them into labor, giving them too little freedom, or giving them too much. Every major intellectual influence on American children, from Locke to Spock, has wound up distorting their lives. In 1646, "stubborn child laws" were enacted (though never enforced) in Massachusetts, which provided the death penalty for a rebellious son. In the 1850's, the Rev. Samuel Arnold of Ossippee, N.H., nearly beat his adopted son to death because the boy failed to pronounce the words "utter" and "gutter" to the reverend's satisfaction. In 1985, a Sunset Park father, who wanted to show off how smart his 6-year-old son was, forced him to stand and read aloud from a book. When the boy mispronounced the word "bite" as "bit," his father slammed his fist on the kitchen table and made him read the book from the beginning.
KENYA AND HER SISTER, PRECIOUS
Suffolk HELP Shelter, Bellport, L.I., 1993.
The difference between past and present abuses is that today's children are not assaulted by one or two destructive forces. They are assaulted by everything, all at once. Individual parents may love their kids, but the society seems to wish the children disappeared. It is as if children are seen as interfering with life rather than as contributing to it or perpetuating it. Modern living is too difficult, too much to handle or to bear. Children get in the way of one's pleasure or of one's survival. They compete for one's money, resources and affections. Worse, like Henry, they remind adults of their incapacity to love them.
"WHAT IS TO BE DONE?" I ask Mary Paul and Geraldine, the two Sisters of the Good Shepherd who founded the Center for Family Life 17 years ago. The center, which is a lay institution, addresses all sources of difficulty for children, works with the family members involved, and embraces every facet of life in the neighborhood. Besides counseling, it provides an employment agency, an emergency food program, advocacy and legal services, a theater program, a literacy program, summer camps like the one in which Henry works, day care for school-age children and a neighborhood foster-care program. The foster-families are selected within the community of the original family, so that the children do not lose touch with their homes.
"Better ask what is not to be done" Mary Paul says. 'People do have positive goals in regard to children. But somehow these goals become subverted because, paradoxically, they become ovërcommitted to whatever they are doing. Life ceases to be an adaptation and an exchange with an outside environment. We become mere doers. We do and we do and we do, and we grow to be more narrowly focused and more narrowly driven. Soon we lose energy and we fail. It's the law of entropy."
"Does that happen in education?" I ask.
"Absolutely," she says. "A few years ago, schools in places like New York started out being attentive to the needs of children in a multicultural environment. Perfectly sensible, given all the new immigrant groups who were coming in. Then people became overcommitted to that one goal of multiculturalism. They forgot about what else was worthwhile in education. They thought that education was about self-esteem. They came up with the idea of teaching bilingualism, which serves no useful purpose at all for children trying to make it in American society. In Sunset Park, bilingualism is promoted solely to get patronage jobs for Spanish teachers."
“The reason we instituted neighborhood foster care," says Geraldine, "is that child welfare in this county - the Child Welfare Administration in particular - focuses only on the well-being of the child."
“The aim is to remove the child from the original family as far away as possible," Mary Paul says. "Often the taking of children is done abruptly. The C.W.A. will take a child from school because it's easier than confronting the mother. Sometimes children are removed in the middle of the night, with the police in attendance. They'll use even more coercive methods. I cannot stand the violence of it."
Geraldine breaks in. 'Thisis why we began neighborhood foster care in Sunset Park. We've been doing this seven years now, and sometimes we succeed and sometimes not. But even the failures can be a partial success. A child whom we placed in foster care here has a mother who is seriously mentally ill. The woman will stand in the street and scream up at the windows of the little girl's foster parents' house. She will sit in the hallway and bang on the door with her fists all night. And she will not go for treatment. And still the little girl -'because she has been allowed to remain close to her mother - sees the disease for what it is. She understands. It doesn't make the mother well, but it helps the girl."
"Everyone suffers from tunnel vision," says Mary Paul. 'We are in an economic depression right now. All one reads is how strapped city, state and Federal budgets are. Politicians win points by coming up with ways to save the country money. We have to reduce the deficit. We have to reduce the national debt.' For whose benefit should we rescue the economy? It is always the children and the grandchildren. Yet how should we save the economy?"
“Take money away from children," Geraldine offers, and laughs.
"Exactly," says Mary Paul. “Take the money from the children even though you are focusing on the children as the reason for rescuing the economy. By this logic, you will amass a fortune as a legacy and, at the same time, kill off the legatees."
“When parents fail their children," says Geraldine, "it is almost always because of an excessive commitment to one or another pursuit. Henry's mother yells at him and degrades him because she thinks that's how to make him toe the mark. And naturally, Henry is angry at her. He's in a constant rage. And he takes out his rage in street fights."
"This is a poor neighborhood," says Mary Paul. "Money drives much of people's behavior. The rage of parents who have sacrificed so much and invested so much and then nothing works ... they begin to see the child as a repudiation of their capacity for giving."
“What happens when a parent assaults or kills a child?" I ask.
"You know," Mary Paul says, "the feeling that one has to love a child can be overwhelming, especially for those - and there are many - who do not. And then the child reminds you every day of your inability to build a world for it. It calls forth something that the parent cannot give.
"A Mexican mother in this neighborhood killed her child by repeated beatings. It said in the papers that the family 'somehow made its way from Mexico to Sunset Park.' Somehow made its way! Can you imagine what commitment it took to get from Mexico to here, what ambitions for a new life they had? They wind up in a situation where all forms of love and rationality are abandoned to that dream, which had at its center the children, after all. And then one day the child becomes a noise. And the noise has to be stilled.
'We have to remind the child that it belongs to a community. We have to do that for adults, too. Adults are yesterday's children."
"A client of ours killed her daughter," says Geraldine. "The girl was about 3 1/2. She had diabetes and she was always thirsty. So she would go to the refrigerator again and again for juice. The mother, who was unaware that the child had diabetes, was very poor. She had so little food. She told the girl not to keep going to the refrigerator, but the girl kept going anyway. So the mother hit her in the head, the child went into a coma and eventually died. The mother did not want to kill her little girl, of course. She was thinking about the juice."
Jennifer, the social worker who has been counseling Henry, says: 'We spend so much time protecting ourselves from the realities because we can't bear to see what we are doing to our kids. How could we live with ourselves if we really knew what we are creating?"
She started working with Henry after the incident involving his mother's boyfriend
friend. She had seen him around the center but had no idea of the trouble in his life until he approached her the day he testified against the boyfriend in court. His mother was shutting him out. "'I need to talk to you,' he told me. "Then he burst into tears.
"The situation was terrible in the beginning. It is getting a bit better now. But with his mother at that time my God! She did not speak to him for three whole months. The afternoon that Geraldine and I first went over to their house, the mother pulled a kitchen knife on Henry. He stood there helplessly, repeating, 'I don't want to hurt you.' And she kept screaming at him.
"Henry has a very tender heart. He is struggling with the question of whether it is possible to feel something without being hurt. Once he came to me and said: 'I saw something in the park today that almost made me tear. A mother and her daughter were sitting on a bench. The mother said, I love you. And the
daughter said, I love you. I thought: Can people really be that way? And then I thought: Nah.'
"He is very gentle. He's wonderful with little kids in the summer camp. He would never harm a smaller child. But if an older person attacks or offends him, he is livid beyond control. He is so deeply hurt that the slightest thing sets him off. Fighting is a power issue for him. He tells me, When I'm in a fight, I think of my mother and it gives me the energy.'
"This graffiti business, this 'writing up.' I've said to him so many times: Please. Explain it to me. I want to understand." Because he keeps getting arrested for these petty offenses, and they're building up to a point where a prosecutor will want to put him away. One time he was arrested for writing up two days in a row. I get a call and I go down to the 68th Precinct, and there he is - no shoes on, handcuffed to the bench. The cop was awful. She said: 'I hope you go to jail because that's where you deserve to be.' So I wind up being on Henry's side, even though I want to confront him for doing the wrong thing.
"And the third day, there is Henry again, down at the station house, handcuffed to the bench. I said to him: 'Look. If you want to spend time with me, just say so. We’ll go do something. You don't need to get arrested to get my attention.' He said, in that glum way of his, 'Very funny, Jennifer.' But on the way out, he leans down and tells me: 'You shouldn't help me. You should help someone else. It's past my time already.' He was 15."
Sitting with Henry in the P.S. 314 classroom, I ask him what he thinks about when he's alone.
"I think about the future, about getting out of here. I'd like to live somewhere else, upstate maybe. I wouldn't want to grow up and have a kid and live in this neighborhood. It's too dangerous.
"A man held a gun to my head one time, 'cause he wanted my fronts." Fronts are gold caps that kids wear on their teeth for show. I said, 'I won't take 'em off for you or anybody.'"
'Why not give him the fronts?" I ask.
"It's the way I am."
"Did you think he would shoot you?" He shrugs. "How would you treat a kid of your own?”
"I wouldn't hit him. I'd never hit him. If you hit a kid, he cries at first. Then he stops crying after a while and he doesn't care. You can hit him forever and it won't matter."
"Have people hit you?" He nods. 'What for?"
'Why do you keep doing it?"
"I don't know," he says. "I know it gets me into trouble, but I just can't stop."
'What do you write?"
"TM1” he says. "Everywhere I see some open space I write it. TM1. In the hailways, on the buildings, I just have to see it."
'What does TM1 mean?"
He looks me in the eye for the first time. "The Magnificent One," he says.
Roger Rosenblatt is a contributing writer for the Magazine. His list article described Richard Snyder's return, to the publishing world.