Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Four decades: Children of Poverty, a five-part series

Why this post? Marking four decades in journalism, and you can read about that here. 

From August 28, 2018, through August 27, 2019, I will periodically post -- in no particular order and with no set number in mind (think: whimsy) -- some of my stories during my four decades as a journalist at three newspapers: The Transcript, in North Adams, Mass, now defunct; The Cape Cod Times, in Hyannis, Mass.; and since 1981 at The Providence Journal.

Today: Opening day of "Children of Poverty," a five-part series published in 1989, as I continued to explore social justice and disparities, issues about which I continue to write today.

CHILDREN of POVERTY: Behind from the start. Poor children, a vicious circle

Publication Date: November 26, 1989  Page: A-01  Section: NEWS  Edition: ALL

Part one of five parts.

Related stories on pages A-08, A-10 and A-11.

May 25, 1989.

Terrance Andre Smith has come into the world. He's a beautiful baby, healthy and normal, all dimples and flawless ebony skin. The joy of motherhood lights up Cheryl Smith as she cradles her third son, the very image of her, in their room at Providence's Women & Infants Hospital.

It is a universal moment.

Poignant, especially in light of the road that brought them here.

Since her own birth 28 years ago, the odds have been stacked against Cheryl. Given up by a sickly mother, she spent her childhood being shuffled from foster care to orphanage to reform school. She never met her dad. The one constant has been poverty. Cheryl Smith has hardly ever had a dollar to call her own.

Even against that background, this pregnancy defied the odds. As bad as things had always been for her, in 1988 they'd gotten worse.

In May of that year, her first four children were taken by the state, in large part because the Smiths - again - had found themselves homeless. Before Cheryl could find another apartment, a precondition of getting her children back, she was arrested on bogus car-theft charges. Unable to raise $250 for bail, she spent 16 days in jail, until a judge threw the case out.

It was mid-August. For a spell, she lived with Terrance's father, an occasional carnival worker who drifts in and out of her life, in an abandoned South Providence building that its 20 or so residents nicknamed The Dewdrop Inn. When that burned, taking with it the few items of clothing Cheryl owned, she moved into a 1977 AMC Matador that had no brakes but a good heater.

In November, when even a good heater couldn't ward off approaching winter, a doctor confirmed it: Cheryl was going to be a mother again.

By the first of the year, circumstances had improved, however marginally. Using donations begged from charitable organizations, she scraped together enough cash for an apartment. But the pleasure of having her own place, however ramshackle, was soon overshadowed by the realities of keeping it. Her rent - $400 a month, utilities not included - was $94 more than her monthly welfare payments.

Unable to afford oil, she heated with the three working burners of a gas stove. She had no refrigerator, no car, no money for baby clothes or crib. Using the bathroom after dark presented this choice: leaving the door open so light from the kitchen fluorescent fixture reached inside, or unscrewing the apartment's lone bulb from a living room lamp and carrying it in.

Medically, Cheryl was on shaky ground. A cigarette smoker and cocaine user who suffers from high blood pressure, her diet was too heavy on carbohydrates, too sparse on fresh vegetables and fruits. Anemia was diagnosed at a prenatal clinic for the poor, but it was weeks before she got a corrective prescription filled.

Somehow, she and Terrance made it.

As she smothers her newborn with kisses, as she whispers into his perfect little ears, Cheryl can be forgiven a burst of pride at what she has created.

"All I went through with him," she says. "In the streets, out of the streets, up, down . . . this baby's already been through everything. And to have him come healthy - hallelujah]"

An optimistic moment.

It won't last. Like an estimated 3,000 Rhode Islanders born every year - 1 in 4 - and hundreds of thousands nationwide, Cheryl Smith's baby will not have the same chances for a healthy, productive life as a baby born into a more affluent community.

Terrance was born poor.

In a couple of days, Cheryl plans to take him home to her apartment on Wendell Street, in Providence's West End. Like many poor neighborhoods, the culture is one where hope often is an illusion, frustration and despair the emotional landscape, drugs the temptation that doesn't go away.

Compared to, say, a typical Barrington baby, Terrance - not only poor, but black - is more likely to:

* Be homeless.

* Drop out of school.

* Fall victim to violent crime.

* Wind up behind bars.

* Contract AIDS.

* Remain underskilled and unemployed.

* Spend a lifetime in poverty.

* Father children out of wedlock, a situation likely to begin the cycle anew.

That's if Terrance survives childhood intact.

Chances are he - and the 12.6 million, or 1 in 5, American children who also are poor - won't. Because of his economic status, before Terrance reaches 18 he is more likely than his middle-class contemporary to be burned, poisoned, injured or abused. His overall health is more likely to be bad. His female counterparts are more likely to become pregnant while unmarried. Many of both sexes will give in to the instant gratification of crack and other drugs, modern America's scourge.

"A child who doesn't have the memory of a respectable past has no basis for creating a future," Lisbeth B. Schorr, lecturer in social medicine and health policy at Harvard Medical School, says in an interview. Her prescription for change, Within Our Reach, published last year, has been praised by politicians and social scientists alike.

"The Labor Department finds the fastest growing occupational category in this country is that of prison guard," Schorr says.

Unless the situation is turned around, she argues, "we're going to keep investing more in prisons, in building walls between the haves and the have-nots. We're going to have a more polarized society. We're going to have more violence. We're going to have more alienation.

"Absolutely, the future of the country is at stake."

The last thing Cheryl Smith had in mind was another child.

Neither did Cheryl's boyfriend expect a baby, although he hadn't given it much thought one way or the other. Terrance Cannon, 31 - known throughout South Providence as Tank, a nickname that aptly describes his physique - isn't in the habit of looking much past tomorrow.

When a doctor at South Providence's St. Joseph Hospital told Cheryl the bleeding she'd been experiencing was related to pregnancy, she was incredulous. Her next reaction was to get plastered. Sober, she considered abortion.

"If I'd had the money when I found out I was pregnant . . ."

She doesn't finish. "I couldn't have gone through with it," she explains. "I would have had to live with that guilt the rest of my life."

Cheryl pauses. She is not religious, not in the sense of organized worship, but she believes in God, even if she sometimes wonders where He is.

"In the beginning, I wanted this baby dead, dead, dead. But the Good Lord didn't want it to happen. Obviously it was meant to be for some reason. I thought: 'That'll be one more person in the world who will love me - and who I can love. Maybe this baby can teach me something.' "

Poor children have always been with us.

But not, since 1965, in such numbers.

According to the Census Bureau, 27.3 percent of U.S. children (under 18 years old) were poor in 1959, the first year such data was kept. By 1969, when most of former President Johnson's Great Society program was on line, the percentage had been virtually halved, to 14 percent.

Then the climb began, reaching 22.3 percent in 1983 before leveling off in the 20 percent range. Today, 12.6 million U.S. children, or 19.7 percent, live in officially defined poverty - which, for a family of four, was an annual income of $12,091 in 1988, the latest year for which poverty data is available. Since 1975, the poverty rate for children has been higher than for any other age group in the U.S.

Why the increase?

Demographers, economists and politicians cite a variety of factors.

Some point to reduced government aid to the poor, particularly in housing. Some look to changing morals - a legacy of the free-spirited '60s - and to an explosion of single-parent families. Others fault education. Still others see a fundamental shift in the economy from traditional manufacturing to high-tech industries requiring job skills more sophisticated than threading a spindle. Noting that 46 percent of all black children are poor - compared to 16 percent of white youngsters - many blame discrimination.

Yet another explanation is the growing disparity between the poorest and richest families. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group, the wealthiest fifth of the population last year received 44 percent of the nation's total family income - the biggest share ever - while the poorest fifth got less than 5 percent, the lowest percentage in 34 years.

Those traveling the moral high road are alarmed. So are captains of industry, for whom children are tomorrow's labor force.

Their concern is spelled out in the 1987 report, Children of Need, published by the Committee for Economic Development, an economic research group whose board of trustees includes officers from such corporate giants as Exxon, BankAmerica, General Motors and Sears. The report warned that a vital part of America - its economy - is endangered when so many young people are so poor, undereducated and unskilled.

"This nation cannot continue to compete and prosper in the global arena when more than one-fifth of our children live in poverty and a third grow up in ignorance," the report said.

"And if the nation cannot compete, it cannot lead. If we continue to squander the talents of millions of our children, America will become a nation of limited human potential. It would be tragic if we allow this to happen. America must become a land of opportunity - for every child."

Owen B. Butler, retired chairman of Procter & Gamble Co., was on the task force; he has since become CED's chairman. For the last two years, he has been on the lecture circuit, arguing for greater investment in early intervention, targeting children before they start school.

"The economic argument is simple," Butler says. "These children are going to be with us for their lifetimes - although, tragically, some of their lifetimes will be brief. They're going to be in our society as either producers or nonproducers. If they are producers, they will contribute to society. If they're nonproducers, they will detract from it."

There is no typical poor kid.

They live in cities and suburbs, the Grain Belt and industrialized Northeast, in housing projects and tumbledown trailers. Nationally, 7.5 million poor children are white or Hispanic, roughly 4.4 million are black. Some live with both mom and dad; but a greater number, nearly 7 million, live with mom alone.

Millions are the children of welfare recipients. Millions more are offspring of the working poor - people with jobs who find adequate housing, health care and proper nutrition a daily battle. With incomes just high enough to disqualify them for most government benefits, they live from paycheck to paycheck.

"One has to be absolutely clear that we're talking here in probabilities," says Harvard's Schorr. "There are kids from this kind of background who become Nobel Prize winners. It's just that the odds are they're going to have disastrous outcomes.

"These kids have no reason to believe that their effort is going to make a difference. If they're called upon to postpone gratificaton - whether it's by staying in school or saying no to drugs or by saying no to sex, they have no reason to do that. Because both from their own experience and in the lives around them, there is no evidence that hard work pays off."

For Cheryl, the only thing worse than taking her baby home to the ghetto would be not taking him home at all.

Losing her other children already was exacting a heavy emotional toll. With the state restricting visits to two hours every week or so, mother and children were becoming strangers to one another.

"The baby was really all I had," she'd often thought during the months she was pregnant. "I didn't have my other kids, I didn't have nothing. Just the baby inside me. That's what it really boiled down to."

Early the afternoon of Friday, May 26, as Cheryl is giving Terrance his bottle and thinking about the Memorial Day weekend, a social worker from the Women & Infants staff drops by. In a few minutes Cheryl is going to have a visitor, the worker explains. Someone - the social worker won't say who - has dialed the state's child-abuse hotline with a tip, something about Cheryl and cocaine. DCF has been looking into the situation.

The first step was running Cheryl's name through the agency's Child Abuse and Neglect Tracking System computer, which keeps files of all complaints, whether the allegations are substantiated or not by field investigation. Cheryl's name was there. More computer work and a synopsis of the Smith family history came up on a screen.

The DCF investigator - trained, like her colleagues, in quasi-police work - contacted South Providence's St. Joseph Hospital, where Cheryl received regular prenatal care. Sure enough, tests of Cheryl's urine taken during visits to the prenatal clinic had, on six of eight occasions, disclosed traces of cocaine.

The desire for a healthy baby had driven Cheryl to the St. Joseph prenatal clinic. But she was willing to go to almost any length to avoid further trouble with DCF, an agency she blames for many of her problems. Cheryl had chosen to deliver at Women & Infants in the hope that her St. Joseph records would not follow her.

Carrying a clipboard, Martha Donnelly, the investigator, closes the door.

Was Cheryl aware of the results from St. Joseph?

Yes, Cheryl says.

Did she know cocaine could be harmful to the unborn?

What do you take me for, an idiot? Cheryl snaps. Of course I knew. Didn't your snooping show I've been getting drug counseling this spring? Didn't that show I had a problem? But my cocaine use has been sporadic, a toke of a cocaine-sprinkled joint every now and then. Never much. And never crack.

Cocaine was very much in the news at this time.

"The cocaine epidemic that has swept this state over the past five years has outpaced the ability of various human service systems to cope with its effects on children and their families," said child advocate Laureen D'Ambra. Her report, released the day before Terrance Smith was born, was prompted by the death of a baby who'd been discharged from Memorial Hospital, Pawtucket, despite a test showing cocaine in his body. Less than two months later, the baby was dead of starvation.

Another story - it made Page One the week after Terrance Smith was born - reported the state medical examiner's finding that cocaine ingestion had killed a 6-week-old Central Falls baby.

The door opens and Donnelly disappears.

Before talking to Cheryl, Donnelly had been in touch with Terrance's pediatrician. No, the cocaine test results on the baby weren't back yet. But the doctor "had noticed some jitteriness in the baby's condition." A jittery baby can mean nothing. It can be a sign of cocaine withdrawal.

Based on "jitteriness" and Cheryl's positive tests, the investigator and her superiors decide Terrance should be kept at the hospital on a 72-hour hold - an order a doctor can unilaterally, and without appeal, enter. The hold will give DCF the chance to take Cheryl to court. Then it will be up to a judge.

"I got all sorts of things going through my heart, my brain," Cheryl says, cuddling her baby.

Her room is shiny and clean, but there is not a single card, no flowers or gifts, no newspapers or magazines to read. There is no money - not even spare change - in her purse, and no chance of any for four days, when the welfare check, all of it already owed to the electric company, arrives. Visitors might have cheered her up, but there have been few.

Tank was by her side for a few minutes during labor, but once the baby's head started to appear, he mumbled something about hospitals making him sick and took off. He hasn't been back. Word is he's been seen at a bar, but there's no way of confirming. Yesterday, Cheryl called her apartment. A strange woman answered, said she hadn't seen Tank, then hung up. When Cheryl called back, the phone was off the hook. It's been off ever since.

"Wish I had a gun," Cheryl says. "Wish I had a bomb. Wish I had a Mack truck. Wish, wish, wish]"

She goes to the window, looks out over the ruins of South Providence, her turf. Anger darkens her face.

"I feel like a caged animal. I was free for awhile and now I'm back in. I got nothing now. Nothing. A piece of paper and a pen - and wham] My baby's history."

Tears forming, she hugs Terrance tight.

"At least I got to name him."

* * *


I met Cheryl Smith one January morning at Amos House, the South Providence haven that feeds and shelters the poor. I was doing a story on how the haves and have-nots had fared during Ronald Reagan's presidency. I also was keeping an eye out for people I might spotlight for a series about the lives of Rhode Island's poorest children.

"There's no way poverty should be this doggone bad," Cheryl said when I asked her about Reagan's eight years.

So began a relationship that was destined to take photographer Frieda Squires and me on a nearly year-long journey with Cheryl and her five children. Theirs is in many ways a grim existence. But it is not entirely bleak, as Cheryl, with her sharp tongue and quick wit, showed me.

On that very first morning, I told Cheryl that I was not interested in a quick interview that I would gussy up with a fancy phrase and an alarming statistic and slap into the paper. Nothing so easy. It would mean spending hundreds of hours with her and her children, going into their homes, getting to know their friends, relatives and neighbors. It would mean a slew of personal questions. It would mean a lot of photographing and prying and record-combing, not necessarily a pleasant experience.

Cheryl said yes.

To my surprise, so did almost everyone else we talked to over the next several months.

From the start, I was impressed with Cheryl's candor and intelligence. I knew, long before our reporting was done, that here was a person who deserved better, as did her children. I knew instinctively that she was willing to share so much because she felt her story, by no means unique, was important to tell.

- Wayne Miller

* * *


In January, reporter G. Wayne Miller and photographer Frieda Squires began an investigation into the plight of Rhode Island's poor children. They went to schools, workplaces, welfare offices, shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, health clinics, day-care centers. They examined police, court, state and medical records. They spent hundreds of hours in the inner city, in substandard housing and on the streets.

They report their findings in a five-part series beginning today and continuing daily in the Journal-Bulletin through Thursday.

Miller, 35, a graduate of Harvard College, has been with the Journal-Bulletin since 1981. His previous series were about the graying of America and deinstitutionalization, the policy of moving mentally disabled people from hospitals to the community. Miller is the father of two young girls.

Squires, 41, attended East Central University in Oklahoma and served in the Navy. She joined the Journal-Bulletin full time in 1985. Her photography has been recognized by the National Press Photographers Association, among other groups. Squires is the mother of two teenage boys.

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