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A birth, a family, and the burden some DC children are made to carry

“I think about the man who works across the street from my house, a lot. I wonder whether he ever feels guilty for only being there to help direct me towards the right aisle whenever I can’t find something in the store on my own.

The only conversations we ever have follows a pattern: “hey, did you find everything okay?” // “did you want your receipt in or outside the bag this time?

“We never talk about anything else. More importantly we never talk about the reasons why we never talk about anything else,” wrote 17-year-old Aujinae, a DC Public Schools student.

When I read those opening lines of a personal essay she submitted to a writing contest sponsored by my nonprofit organization, Esther Productions Inc., I wasn’t sure where she was going. Then, she wrote this: “My father is that man who works across the street from where I live.

“For a long time, I believed that if some random person were to ever ask him who I was, he’d probably just tell them that I was a loyal customer. Not once would he mention to that person that he is my father, that I am his daughter,” added Aujinae.

I have tried to imagine what it must feel like to see your father regularly and not have him embrace you, not say he loves you, or not ask to spend time with you. How does a child manage that kind of rejection? How does a child handle that kind of pain, that kind of trauma?

There are, unfortunately, thousands of DC children and youth like Aujinae dealing with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health found that at least 47% of District children suffered two or more ACEs. However, for greater context, Michelle Garcia, executive director of the DC Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, told me during a recent interview that more than 50% of all DC residents have had some type of traumatic event in their lives. She indicated her office was reviewing a report that could lead to a citywide assessment of DC children.

Experts have said that the consequences of parental abandonment can interfere with a child’s development, including academic achievement. More importantly, the associated trauma can haunt a child through adulthood.

Aujinae’s father lived with the family for a while before he abandoned them. However, when he was there, he seemed to have little involvement with her and her siblings.

“He was always only there. He was like a mop in a house full of carpet — around but good for nothing,” Aujinae wrote. “His absence made me hate myself. It loved to remind me that I didn’t matter, that I was unworthy and that I would never amount to anything. Obviously, there must have been something so disgraceful about my existence that it caused my own flesh and blood to disown me.”

She is not alone: More than two dozen teen girls, mostly from DC — all navigating questions about self-worth and the anguish of father absence — submitted essays for the contest. They are not unlike the girls who participated in the 2017 Declare Equity for Girls program conducted by Crittenton Services of Greater Washington. Girls who participated in the focus groups that were part of the program believe no one sees them, as if they are invisible, Cynthia Greer, an associate professor of education at Trinity Washington University, explained to me last week.

Their beliefs may be grounded in reality: Most DC residents don’t hear the pain or see the internal wounds of teen girls. At Ballou High School, a student told her teacher, “I have to meet this guy and have sex with him. If I don’t, then he and his friends are going to rape my little sister.” At SEED Public Charter School, Stormiyah Denson-Jackson, a victim of bullying and neglectful staffers, eventually took her own life in 2018; District elected officials have yet to hold a public hearing to determine what happened at the Ward 7 facility.

Relisha Rudd disappeared in March 2014, after being sent off with a man who was neither her father nor her uncle, but a janitor at the government-funded homeless shelter where her family’s misfortunes took them. There has been much attention surrounding that case, including the typical anniversary markers after a tragedy: one year ago, five years ago.

Responding to the needs of these children cannot wait until they are dead, missing, or severely injured psychologically. That is why Greer and others launched Trinity’s Initiative on Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma in early 2019 after reviewing Relisha’s case.

“‘How did all the systems break down?’ we asked ourselves. We went back to her mother’s story; she was put in the foster care system,” explained Greer. “A lot of time we read their stories and we’re sympathetic or empathetic and we ask, ‘What could we do about that? Why do we have so many children living in poverty, and why are so many homeless?’”

The initiative at Trinity involves an “interdisciplinary team” that concluded “too many teachers, health professionals and administrators had not been educated about childhood trauma and the long-term impact of adversity.” The group held a major training event in April. It has developed partnerships with various organizations and institutions like Crittenton, Children’s National Hospital, the DC Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, and the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

The program has also conducted valuable research and developed critical resource materials. Most importantly, Greer and her team are training graduate students who can fan out across the District and the region. “We’re putting [those students] in adverse community environments,” where they can put what they’ve learned into practice immediately.

District officials have said one of the challenges the government faces in helping children and families suffering the effects of first or secondary trauma is the lack of qualified professionals. Greer said that she and her team are determined to produce “more culturally competent, trauma-informed counselors,” particularly in wards 7 and 8 where thousands of residents there are suffering unresolved trauma. This year, Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC Council invested $3 million for community mental health centers in those wards. Those are designed mostly for students and their families, however, and there still are not sufficient numbers of trained professionals to satisfy the enormous need. That’s why Trinity and other organizations are rising to the challenge.

But Aujinae doesn’t live east of the Anacostia River. What happens to her? After the holiday gifts and the feasting are done, not much will have changed in her world. She will be left to walk into that store across the street from her home to buy a loaf of bread knowing that it will not nourish her deeply scarred soul.

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