In the early 80s, a college friend asked me to help babysit some kids at the local YWCA where she volunteered. The mom had just left her abusive husband and the staff was trying to find safe housing for her and her three children. At that time, few shelters for battered women took in families.
We were set up in a recreation room full of toys. It was clear from the start that these kids weren't like any I had ever met.
One girl, the oldest, was a bubbly and vivacious 8-year-old. She ignored my female friend but took an interest in me. She gave me hugs and kisses and insisted on sitting in my lap. She wouldn't leave me alone. Her need for touch was overwhelming.
The youngest was about 4 years old. She said nothing and hardly moved — a blank stare on her face. She didn't respond when we tried to engage. Catatonic may be the best way to describe her.
The middle boy was wild. He never sat still. He ran around the room throwing toys and pushing his siblings. We couldn't calm him down. Finally, out of frustration, I grabbed him by the shoulders and said, "Can you please just sit still and be nice for a minute."
The boy's response still chills me to this day. He said, "You can hit me."
In shock and horror, I responded, "What??"
He repeated, "You can hit me and I won't cry. My daddy hits me and I never cry."
All I could think to do was hug him. He didn't hug me back.
Years later, I learned that these young children were living out the harsh reality of adverse childhood experiences—ACEs for short. Traumatic events such as loss or separation from a parent, sexual abuse, and physical and emotional injury pile up in a child's body and mind. Once embedded, the damage is hard to repair. Like so many similarly wounded children in Philadelphia and beyond, these kids were at risk for a lifetime of self-destructive behavior, wired to over-react to stressful events, and prone to early illness and death.
Weeks after our babysitting detail, we heard that the mom and her three kids moved back in with their dad because they had no other place to go. I can only hope this damaged family got the help they so desperately needed.
As I read the stories of immigrant children being torn from their parents, heart-breaking tales of forgotten moms and the descriptions by experts of the damage already inflicted upon these lost kids, the rage and helplessness I felt 40 years ago in that YWCA recreation room are flooding back. I still feel incredible anger and hatred for a man I didn't know for hurting his helpless children.