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.