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In A More Perfect World...


It happened just a week ago, and any day now it will be happening again. It happened last year too, and the one before that.  Children getting pregnant and having babies, children on the rez, children that I care deeply about. 

Life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is hard.  Teen pregnancy and teen suicide rates far exceed the national average. One in four infants there are born with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects. The prospect for their future is frightening. But this isn't about statistics, it's about real people - people that I know and love.

Kay's baby is due any day now. Kay won't turn seventeen until later this fall. 

I met "Kay" when she was in the first grade at Red Cloud Indian School.  It would be more accurate to say she reached out to me first.  I'd been corresponding with children of the class thru the exchange of letters and artwork.  I obtained an 800 phone line so they could call me to visit, and Kay's was the first little voice I heard, the first one brave enough to make that call.  We were friends from the start.  When I went to visit at Red Cloud for the first time, it was Kay who bravely stood at the front of a line of shy, giggling little girls eager to meet me and to find out if I knew their names from the pictures they had sent.  It was Kay who would captivate my heart, and it was Kay's life that would break it over and over again in the years to come.

Kay was among the poorest of the poor on the reservation... with little to wear, little to eat, and little stability in her life.  Her mother and step-father were alcoholics, a situation tragically common among children of the rez.

In her first grade class, with the best teacher God ever could have given them, Kay found love and encouragement, and she showed herself to be a bright, inquisitive little girl, eager to learn.  But often Kay didn't make it to school at all, no one at home cared enough to see that she got on the the school bus.

With their mother's permission, Kay and her sister had a wonderful time staying overnight with me in a motel with a swimming pool, and eating more breakfast the next morning than I've ever seen a child consume!  It makes sense... a bounty of food was a rare ocurrence in their lives.

Kay and I stayed in close communication for the next few years, talking on the phone as best we could over the noise in her house, and exchanging letters, with me sending stamped envelopes for her to use.  From time to time I would send a few dollars for her to buy a treat at school, or for her and her siblings.  I was not surprised to find out later that her parents confiscated it for alcohol and drug money, as they did with a larger sum I once sent for them to buy Christmas gifts and food. This is common, stealing from your own children, taking food from their mouths.

In her Jr. High years I began to sense that things weren't going well in Kay's life, she withdrew and our contact was less. She lost her place at Red Cloud, since her parents failed to get her re-enrolled on time.  She ended up at another school, and then another. Visiting her web page on Bebo told me she was living a life far too common to young people there, and far too advanced for her young years.

Then came the tragic news that her mother and step-father were in jail on charges of sexual abuse, and more.  Children are not safe even in their own homes on the rez. Her parents and siblings turned against her as if it was her fault that they family had been torn apart.  Abused children of the rez are expected to hide dark family secrets, just as they are elsewhere in our world. This took a toll on the bright little girl who once was, and she dealt with her pain in the same ways that most there do, alcohol and weed. 

I began to lose hope.  I wanted desperately to kidnap her, to bring her home with me and give her a normal life, if only it were that easy, if only it would work to pull a child from all they've known and transplant them in a foreign world and a school that would be unaccepting.

Kay's life in recent years has been controlled by child welfare services, being shuffled from place to place and eventually involving minor run-ins with the law.  Kay was relocated from the rez to a nearby city to keep her safe from her family, and at first it looked like that might make a difference.  She was doing well  in school, an honor student as she was meant to be. She stopped drinking and made positive efforts to keep her life on track.  But from time to time she'd be back living with her mother and her mother's boyfriend of the moment, and then shit would hit the fan and she'd be moving again.  No stability, no security, and far from enough love.

Several months ago I noted a series of days of comments on her Facebook page that she was feeling sick, and then that her brother had accompanied her to the doctor.  I know the signs all to well.  I wrote and asked her, "Kay, are you pregnant?"  Yes, of course she was. It was almost to be expected.  And the father? An on again, off again boyfriend. A young man not nearly up to taking on a comitted relationship, much less parenthood. He's been out of the picture for some time now. 

Kay has struggled to stay in school and keep up with her classwork, struggled even to find ways to get there at times.  She was moved from a school she loved to one she just barely endures. She's working a part-time job, and is tired, so very tired, as is often true of pregnancy.  She is sixteen, pregnant, and has dark circles under her eyes.  She's staying straight and sober, soon to get her own apartment, and trying hard to plan a life for her and her soon-to-be-born son.  Kay wants to be a good mother, a mother better than the one she has known, a mother that she loves despite all that has happened. 

When she was young, it was Kay's dream to one day go to college and become a teacher, an awesome teacher like the one she was blessed with in First Grade, a dream within her reach.  What will her future hold now, I wonder. Will she finish high school? Will she go on to college? Will she stay out of trouble, away from alcohol, and away from men who would abuse her?  Will she make a good life for her and her son?  Only time will tell.  If God answers my prayers she will.

In a more perfect world, someone would have cared enough to see that Kay was fed, and kept safe and warm, to see that she got to school, to see that she avoided drinking, to see that she was safe from predators and violence, and to see that she she used birth control.  In an more perfect world... someone would have done that for her mother too.  I pray that the cycle will be broken.

14 comments:

  1. Oh, my heart just goes out to Kay. It sounds like she's trying so hard despite the situation she's found herself in. I hope that she can pull through this and be the good mother that she wants to be - and I'm sure that having you as a friend has made a huge difference in her life.

    I once heard a theory (I might have told you this before) that if there is even one person in a child's life that cares about them and shows them love - then all the negative aspects that they've encountered can but nullified, or at least softened to a large extent. I believe this is true.

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    1. She really is trying Lady in Red, in an environment that is anything but encouraging and supportive. I know that one person cannot begin to erase all the damage that has been done, and we can't rewind the clock (though I wish we could), but I do believe that even one person who cares makes a big difference. Kay knows I love her and I don't judge her. She has known that since the beginning, and she knows it now. I told her I will attend her college graduation someday, and I will!

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  2. Painfully beautiful post, both true & important. As a country, we need to take care of our own before we will ever be in any position to take care of others. The cycle does need to be broken, and someone needs to be brave enough to do it. We have to try.

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    1. I agree Annie, too few people are even aware of living conditions in the "heartland" of America. It is like entering a third-world country. Poverty, violence, substance abuse, despair. It all goes hand in hand. The answers aren't easy, but there are efforts, and maybe some progress is being made. Ultimately, change has to come from within, from young people - and elders who still maintain Lakota values, who are determined to chose a better way of life for themselves, their families, and their communities. I do know children and families who are doing quite well, and God willing will lead the way for others. But first one has to be instilled with the belief that there can be a better, that there is hope. That is oh so hard to do in children who grow up in abusive situations such as these, and see that their parent's lives have gone no where. It is hard for them to beleive there's can be different. Kay has seen the other world, she knows a better life can be found, I'm praying she will strive for it, grab onto a dream and hold on tight! She is smart enough, she is resilient, and beneath it all, she is loving and kind.

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  3. Josie,

    Anytime you write about the kids on the reservation my just aches for them and for you too because I know you want to wave a magic wand and make everything "all better" for them. Having you in their life has made such a difference in more ways than you can ever imagine. A person to turn to when they think there is no one. There is a special place in Heaven for people like you.

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    1. Yes, Elsie, when you see children in such desperate situations you want to rescue them, your first reaction is to get them out of there. But it is their home, and where they belong if they choose to stay. I only wish I had the power to make a greater difference, to be more involved. Caring is good, friendship is good, love is good, but it isn't always enough to save lives. Tragically, one has already committed suicide, and others have tried. There will be more. There will be more babies at a young age too. I knew this from the beginning, yet my heart doesn't want to accept it. I want to scream "It doesn't have to be this way!" We can all help save people, but first and foremost they must first have the belief and desire to save themselves. I do look forward to one day going back to visit with John, for him to meet my beloved friends there, and to see them with their own children someday, God willing with good lives and success stories of their own. It will happen, at least for some, and that is a beginning. Each one teach one.

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  4. Reading this is heartbreaking.
    In all my years in working with children, it still never fails to shock me that this sort of thing continues to happen in our supposedly modern world.

    When I counselled children, the youngest of who was 4, I wanted to kidnap every single one of them. I wanted to keep them safe, make them happy and let them know that someone really cared.

    Despite everything that she's been through, Kay seems like a determined young woman. I admire her tenacity to keep going and I hope above hope, that she finally succeeds, especially in breaking the cycle,.

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    1. That's it exactly it, Lily, that's what tears me apart - that children ANYWHERE are put thru this kind of hell. Can't we as a world do any better than that for our children? Kay is determined, she is intelligent, she see's where her mother's life has taken her. She doesn't want that life for her and her son. If she can stay in school, she has a fighting chance of beating the odds. I want so badly to see this beautiful young woman have the life she has always deserved!

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  5. Wendy my beautiful hearted friend -- you are doing that for Kay. You are holding a space for her until she can fill it herself. you are showing her constancy, commitment, care, love.

    Kay's story is all too familiar -- what is not familiar is what you offer and have offered her throughout her young life.

    And for the many young kay's I've met, what you have given her, deep within her soul, is all it takes for her to make choices that will nurture and nourish, care and support her child, and herself, on their journey away from the past.

    You are beautiful.

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    1. If love was enough to save the world, we surely would have saved it all, Louise! :-) My heart overflows with love for these children, and for children everywhere who are neglected and abused. Childhood is intended to be a time of innocence, something these children have been robbed of. But yes, I pray that even one person saying I love you and I care about you can make a tiny difference, can light a spark in that young soul that says there is more, there is a higher purpose, there is a reason to live. Love is all about igniting hope. That is all I can do, that is all I have to give.

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  6. I also pray that the cycle will be broken, what is sad is that Kay's story is a common one and it is so heartbreaking for some of us it is hard to get our head around since it is so alien to me. That doesn't mean I can't feel for Kay and or the Kays out there.........

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    1. It is far too common, especially there, Jo-Anne. Like you, I find it so hard to understand, this is such a far cry from the way I was raised and what I've had to go thru in life. It certainly puts our little fusses and woes into perspective, doesn't it?

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  7. What a heartbreaking story, but sadly, all too common. Breaking the cycle seems to be enormously difficult whatever the cycle consists of. I've known children of alcoholics who became alcoholics themselves and then their children became alcoholics too, for instance. It seems near impossible to walk out of the circle and say - 'I'm not going to let this be my life.' It is sad. That young girl is lucky she has you.

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  8. It is all too common Selma, and even moreso on the rez. Alcoholism, drugs, gang activity and family violence affect almost every family there. Children grow up never knowing what a normal, safe, secure home is. How can they be expected to provide better? I'm praying that Kay has enough support from outside sources to choose another path in life, the one she really wants!

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Your comments are always appreciated... they make me smile! :-)