by CAMBRIA ROTH
I had been volunteering with Pathfinders Children’s Ministry for a few months when I first met Alyssa Koster. (Like the other children in this story, her name has been changed.) We were at a Christmas festival a church in Truckee had organized for children who come from foster care, motels, homeless shelters and subsidized housing. It was an unknown place with new people, and it was her younger sister’s first time attending an event.
Alyssa was standing to the side holding her sister Jules’ hand. Jules was crying. Jules was scared, and I could see the fear in her big eyes. Alyssa was staring longingly at all the other children who were being dressed up. She knew her responsibility was to take care of her sister, but it was obvious she wanted so badly to be a kid like everyone else. When I offered to take care of Jules, she smiled and ran to be dressed.
To put it lightly, Alyssa is a fourth-grade, 9-year-old mother to her three siblings.
“One time I had to change my brother’s diaper when I was in second grade because my mom fell asleep,” she said.
Each sibling has a face full of freckles and bright blue eyes, but Alyssa stands out with her bright red hair. Every Friday I look forward to her running to me, arms outstretched as she screams “Cambria!”
The Kosters grew up with two parents—a dad who couldn’t keep a job and a mom who tried, but who couldn’t make ends meet. The family, with four kids under the age of 8, moved from motel to motel in downtown Reno before social services stepped in and removed the children.
Alyssa updates me each week as to when she will see her parents next. Sometimes she is happy and excited, but other times she is withdrawn as she says, “They messed up again.”
Today, Alyssa pulls a picture of her parents out of her pocket and hands it to me.
“Look, these are my parents,” She said. “I keep this picture with me everywhere I go, every day, and I look at it when I miss them.”
The Poverty Language
Washoe County Department of Social Services says its first goals are to put children back with their parents and to intervene with unstable families.
“Once kids are in our system, we look at issues around well-being and then provide services to the families to meet the child’s needs, keep them safe and try to make it so they can parent their children,” said Stacey Jones, supervisor of Child Care Services.
While kids are waiting to be placed in an appropriate foster home, they live in Kids Kottage, which is an emergency shelter for children over 6 years old. There are anywhere from 50 to 60 children at the shelter at any given time, and bumping up against capacity isn’t rare.
Alyssa lived here before she was placed in a foster home with her two sisters, but her brother was separated because of anger issues.
“Children in poverty are more inclined to use aggression to solve problems,” said James Carter-Hargrove, a therapist for Kids Kottage. “Kids raised in poverty are spoken to 650 words less an hour than middle class kids, and that ends up being millions of fewer words by the time they hit kindergarten. This means these kids aren’t able to use language to mediate their experience. When you come in devoid of a robust vocabulary, you can’t use words to solve problems so you use more primitive ways like pushing, shoving and yelling.”
This lack of a vocabulary is one characteristic of the poverty culture. As crazy as it sounds, many of these children speak a different language.
Chuck Grimm is the executive director of Pathfinders Children’s Ministry. This organization in Reno has about 170 children in grades K-12 who attend every Friday night. They are fed a meal, play games, sing, do a Bible study and build personal relationships with volunteers. In his volunteering, Grimm has seen the many effects poverty has on a child.
“You and I are speaking in an informal register, but they speak in a casual register,” Grimm said. “One example is in storytelling. If I were to tell you the story of Little Red Riding Hood, I would begin at the beginning and tell it until the end, but these kids start anywhere—the middle, highlights, and they jump all over the place.”
In informal register, a person will speak anywhere from 1,200 to 1,800 words. However, a child speaking in a casual register will use only 400 to 800 words.
Grimm said intelligence can’t be equated with living in the poverty culture.
“Some of these kids are very bright, but they are stuck in this situation, and they have no control over it,” he said.
The cycle begins
The Washoe County School District’s Children in Transition program reported there has been a 20 to 30 percent increase in homeless children since 2010. Last year, the program served 2,885 children in the school district, and those rates are expected to increase to about 3,000 this school year.
“We work with children experiencing homelessness whether they’re living in a shelter, doubled up with another family, or motels,” said program coordinator Katie Morales. “We want to make sure there aren’t any barriers to their education.”
This program provides children with financial assistance in school settings through immunizations, school supplies and transportation.
Morales said that 75 percent of homeless children under the age of 5 have at least one developmental delay. It may be from living in a motel and being confined to a car seat, which inhibits motor skills, or constantly changing schools in the district.
“By the time these kids are in the second grade they have been to eight different schools,” Morales said. “If they had been in one school for two years like their peers, they would be at the same level, but they get behind because every time a child switches schools they lose six months of learning.”
Grimm said many of the parents have figured out the school system. The school district is alerted only when a child doesn’t come to school for 10 consecutive days. They will keep the child home for nine days, take them to school for one and then begin the cycle over again.
“There is no real attention given to education because it is an abstract term for the parent so the kids suffer,” Grimm said. “I’ve seen instances where the parent wants the kid to stay home to keep them company or watch their younger siblings and missing school doesn’t matter.”
Carter-Hargrove said another barrier is verbal skill acquisition. As a result of how little these children are spoken to, they are a couple of years behind other kids so it gives them a rocky start in an educational setting. These difficulties carry on throughout their schooling and future careers.
“If every day you go to school, and it is an unpleasant experience, you start looking for things at school that make the experience nicer,” Carter-Hargrove said. “You might stop focusing on academics and focus on things that will get you noticed socially, like being the tough aggressive kid.”
Carter-Hargrove has seen kids as young as 8 years old smoking marijuana, using regularly by the age of 10 and then daily by 13. When they enter a peer group engaged in those behaviors, they can become engrossed in sexual behaviors that make them feel like someone wants them.
“That creates another generation of poverty,” Carter-Hargrove said. “It is a group of people who do things to feel good, but don’t know how and have no interest in building a stable life.”
Impoverished parents stop fighting
The first time Mary ran away, her parents called Grimm to help find her. They were convinced the 16-year-old had been taken by a pimp and was being prostituted. She eventually returned to their motel, sat down and cried on Grimm’s shoulder as she said, “Chuck, I just can’t live this way anymore.”
She has no clothes, isn’t able to go to school on a regular basis and is a virtual prisoner in her home.
“Her parents have an unnatural obsession that she will get tied up with a guy and become pregnant,” Grimm said. “They won’t allow her to leave at all other than to go to school, and when she returns home she isn’t allowed out of her room.”
Mary is ordered to take care of her 12-year-old brother. She is failing her first two periods in school because she walks him to school, and it makes her late. The second time she ran away Grimm suspects it was to be with a boyfriend. When she returned two weeks later it was only to take care of her brother because she knew her parents wouldn’t.
Grimm said Child Protective Services (CPS) has been involved, but most parents in poverty are masters at dealing with the system.
“Unless CPS witnesses something they can’t do very much,” Grimm said. “Mary has figured out she is being screwed by her parents, the system, by everything and at some point I think she is going to bolt and not go back.”
Social Services said it aims to sit down with these types of families, make a case plan, provide services to mitigate the reasons behind a child being in care and eventually put the child back with the parent.
“I would say most parents really do want their kids back,” Jones said. “I believe they do love their children, want their children, but they don’t know how to keep them safe.”
Carter-Hargrove pointed out that parents focus on things that give them joy like drugs or alcohol, but become myopic and short-sighted about what may be contributing to their child’s suffering.
“One thing that amazes me is that parents lose their kids, start to fight to get them back, but get discouraged and tired, and feel as though social services doesn’t understand how hard their life is,” Carter-Hargrove said. “So they start rationalizing that they need to let go because their kids are better off, and step away as a way of resolving all of their dissidence internally.”
A parent might justify why they need to stop fighting for a child, but often the child will never stop fighting for a parent. Children put in a foster home might thrive, and they might love their foster parents and respect them, but their true parents will always come first.
“They will go back to them in a heartbeat and give up everything,” Grimm said. “There is a magnetism and attraction that defies description.”
’Tomorrow’ isn’t in their vocabulary
The poverty cycle consists of two types—situational and generational. Situational includes those families who are down on their luck with one parent or both losing a job. This type of poverty isn’t as common because these kids don’t discuss it in hopes it will get better.
Generational is two or more generations that have been in poverty, and Grimm said there is a different attitude—a sense of entitlement.
“A lot of these parents have a ’you owe us’ mentality because they believe they have been duped by the system,” Grimm said. “They stay in poverty because they don’t know how to get out, and there is no incentive from their perspective. They don’t think about tomorrow, they only think about today and are in survival mode.”
Grimm points to the concept of found money, which is something he often experiences. In this concept, if a person in the poverty culture is walking down the street, finds an envelope with $1,000, and it is the 30th of the month, they won’t take care of rent.
“They will panic when rent is due and call around trying to get money,” Grimm said. “Part of it is how they were raised, where tomorrow isn’t on their radar screen because it is all about today.”
Carter-Hargrove said parents spend a lot of time seeking out a living, and when they receive extra cash they believe their life is so hard they want to escape it by using that money to alter their awareness.
“This keeps the cycle going because they live life from crisis to crisis,” Carter-Hargrove said.
This translates into how the child in poverty thinks. Grimm said they think day-to-day because they don’t know where they will be next week, or even tomorrow. He personally verified this mentality when he did an experiment with fifth and sixth graders. He offered a candy bar to each child in his class, but said they could only have one if they took it in the present moment. However, if they waited until next week, they would receive four candy bars.
“Only one child out of the 25 waited until the next week,” Grimm said. “What was going through their mind? I’m guessing it was ’I might not be here next week,’ or ’he might not keep his promise, so I better grab it while I can get it.’”
Children in poverty have no control over their situation. They are often the parent to not only their siblings, but they parent the parent who might be using drugs or alcohol. They live a life of instability, and they often don’t know where they will be living next, what they will eat or wear.
Grimm said he and his wife would buy one young girl new outfits, and she would wear the outfit every day for 10 days to two weeks.
“All of a sudden the outfit would disappear, and we would never see it again,” Grimm said. “It took us about a year to see the pattern, and she would always make up excuses.”
It wasn’t until he went to help her family move out of their motel room that he saw dirty clothing crammed under beds and filling the entire closet.
“The reasoning is, ’Why would I spend money on a Laundromat when I could use those quarters for a slot machine and get money back? If I put it in a washing machine, I won’t get anything,”” Grimm said. “It makes sense to them. Clothing in this culture is disposable, you wear it until you can’t anymore and then put it aside and go for something else.”
Can these kids beat the odds?
Allie grew up moving from homeless shelter to homeless shelter as her family made their way from California to Utah, and ended up stuck in Nevada. She has lived in almost every motel in Reno and Sparks, and her mother is addicted to meth.
Allie met Grimm as an angry, lost 13-year-old. After she began fighting another girl at Pathfinders, and police were called, Grimm asked that she be permanently thrown out of the organization.
“About a week later, I was in bed one night, and I had this overwhelming sense that I needed to pray for her,” Grimm said. “I prayed for her every night, and I never saw her.”
Two years later, Allie and her younger siblings were removed from their mother for the third time. Grimm was asked to help the family and five minutes later, Allie walked into the room.
“Her face was bright red, and her fists were clenched to the point where they were white down at her side,” Grimm said. “I recognized her instantly and I said, ’Allie, do you know who I am?’ and she said, ’Yeah, you are Chuck from Pathfinders,’ and I said, ’Allie, there are two things you don’t know: First, I was responsible for having you thrown out of Pathfinders, and the second thing you don’t know is that I’ve been praying for you every night for two years.’”
He said at that moment it was like sticking a pin in a balloon as she deflated, fell on him and cried. Chuck visited her at Kids Kottage three times a week before she was put in foster care.
He watched as she was transformed from someone who hated school and rarely attended, to a student who made up three years of high school in a year and a half. Allie now has a 3.5 grade point average, has been pre-admitted to the University of Nevada, Reno with scholarships and will pursue a career as a pediatrician next year.
“The way I grew up is not the way I want my kids to grow up,” Allie said. “When I do have kids, I don’t want them to ever have to see the things I’ve seen. I don’t want them to have to worry all the time about making rent or having money for food.”
Carter-Hargrove said it takes a lot of external support for a child to break the cycle of poverty.
“The ideal way to do it is to work at strengthening the family by helping the adults gain skills they don’t have and working at building housing stability, then shifting their focus to helping their children prepare to live their life properly,” Carter-Hargrove said.
For Allie, all of her bad experiences have shaped her. She raised her sisters, watched her mother go in motel room bathrooms to do meth, and has spent many nights on a roll away bed in the living room of Kids Kottage.
She said everything she has experienced has given her a headstrong attitude and has pushed her to never end up in a poverty lifestyle.
“We have a whole community of what I call invisible children out there, and somebody has got to love these kids, be there to help them, and try to reach them,” Grimm said.