Policy for youth from troubled families: what sort of society do we wish to be?

            The Institute’s faculty has long researched or been involved in child support programs of one sort or another, including carrying out studies of foster care policy implementation. So, I was more than a little curious when I learned of a book that chronicled the troubled childhood and rise to fame of country music singer-songwriter, Jimmy Wayne. Wayne published his autobiography, Walk to Beautiful, to critical acclaim and wide success in 2014. Indeed, the volume was a New York Times bestseller. I had never heard of Wayne before learning of his book and I knew nothing of his music, but I was intrigued by his account and the ways in which he had interacted with the foster care system in his native state of North Carolina during his journey to adulthood. I therefore read his book with deep interest.

            His story reminded me of the poverty and human misery chronicled in another book published in 1996, Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt. Both evidenced the dramatic arc that captures an audience’s attention and empathy. Jimmy Wayne’s difficult life has been the subject of a television movie, and Angela’s Ashes was the basis of a Hollywood feature film.

            Wayne’s father abandoned his wife and child when he was born and the singer therefore never knew his dad, although he lived only miles away. The songwriter’s mother was bipolar and never truly assumed responsibility for her four children by two different fathers. She frequently abandoned the children for protracted periods, either leaving them with relatives, who offered them nothing, or to fend for themselves as homeless urchins or to become wards of the state. To rid herself of the responsibility of caring for her daughter, Wayne’s mother pressed the girl (the singer’s older sister) to marry at 14. While on the lam with her then husband, who had shot and permanently disabled the wife of her oldest son in an altercation, she abandoned Jimmy in Pensacola, Florida with just enough money (which he had earned himself) for a bus ticket home to Gaston and without food or any additional funds. This occurred following three weeks of living in a car that had left the child filthy and completely unkempt. Wayne’s mother did not indicate when or whether she might return as she left her 11-year old son in Florida, but simply told him to seek out his sister when he arrived in North Carolina. On another occasion, Wayne’s mother was sent to the state penitentiary for aggravated assault when she stabbed her lover in the chest.

            Perhaps predictably, this “family” lived in squalor and moved often and its households, such as they were, were routinely filled with drifters, grifters and drug users. When left to his uncle’s “care” during one of his mother’s periodic disappearances, Wayne, then in middle school, was consigned to live in a long vacant and derelict mobile home without heat or other utilities during the winter and was expected to earn any food he might obtain. His uncle took no interest in him and assumed no responsibility for him. Wayne’s grandfather (his mother’s father) treated him the same way. Regardless of who was nominally caring for Wayne, he often went hungry except for meals he obtained at school.

            Moreover, his mother routinely physically abused the boy, and her drunken spouse beat him mercilessly and without provocation and just missed shooting him in the head by inches during one such binge. Ironically, at one point, his mother was not content simply to abandon her child for weeks or months to “kin,” but went further and arranged, perversely, to blame him for her then husband’s obvious illness and asked the court formally to allow her to “give up” the 12-year old to the state because he was a menace to her spouse. The judge agreed to place Wayne in a group home. Despite the lie that sent him there, it seems clear in the songwriter’s narrative that his experience at the facility and thereafter, while parlous and too often sad, gave him opportunities to overcome the tragedy that had marked his previous years.

            I was struck by Wayne’s story not only for its own sake as a lens into the realities and brutality of poverty and of the implications of irresponsible parenting, but also for what it reveals about our current policy dialogue and assumptions concerning child welfare and foster care particularly. I share three brief reflections on these issues here.

            First, Wayne’s book and experience reveals the brutishness and inaccuracy of our culture’s now dominant stereotypic conception of poverty and the poor. Ronald Reagan popularized an enduring view of the poor in the early 1980s as lazy, dependent on public largesse and largely African-American. In contrast and much closer to reality than Reagan’s assertions ever were, Wayne’s family was white and many of his relatives, including his sister, worked in textile mills for very low wages. More, his mother was mentally ill and was never treated for that condition appropriately. Wayne’s description makes clear that whatever else may be said of her character, his mother did not possess the resources from a government or anywhere else to sit in a comfortable living room and watch television and eat chocolates as Reagan had argued was regularly true of the impoverished.

            Indeed, Wayne’s experience illustrates the fallacy of Reagan’s depiction, and provides a compelling and empirically accurate portrayal of the wild variety of conditions in which the poor seek to survive. In any case, no child should be left homeless or in the hands of “blood kin” or anyone else who regularly ensures they are treated as detritus and worse. As an innocent youth, Wayne did not deserve to be abandoned more than 800 miles from his “home” by his mother in the middle of the night with nothing but a bus ticket, or to be left homeless or to be compelled by an adult in his family to live in conditions not fit for habitation.

            This point raises a second policy concern illustrated by Wayne’s experience. The North Carolina foster care system regularly returned the youngster to his mother whenever she requested and permitted her to leave him with relatives for prolonged periods, including her stint in prison. The youth’s case workers apparently either did not check on him or were too over burdened to learn of the abuse he daily suffered from these supposed “loved ones,” including his mother. But the disposition to favor relatives over group homes or foster placement as a matter of policy is deeply ingrained in child support agencies across the United States. As a result, caseworkers are regularly enjoined to turn over every rock to find a relative, any relative, with whom to place children in peril, rather than to entrust them to group homes or foster care.

            That is, legislative and agency leaders do not inquire very deeply into whether such “kin” placements make sense or are in the best interests of the affected youths, as they clearly were not in Wayne’s case. Instead, these organizations’ assignment policies are too often without subtlety or nuance and therefore often fail to grapple with the realities confronting the children they purport to help. Lawmakers and the citizenry alike appear to be uncomfortable acknowledging that parents and relatives can be denizens of darkness, and rather than account for that possibility, simply wish it away. Wayne’s experience suggests that not all foster care providers are faultless either, but that fact only underscores my point. By failing to address the realities confronting these youths we often heedlessly and needlessly expose them to additional horrors in the name of our own psychological ease and comfort. We would prefer to pretend collectively that all kin are interested, capable and caring, rather than address the fact that many are not. In this sense, this policy predilection and our grotesque popular caricature of poverty are joined at the hip; both are wildly misleading.

            Finally, Wayne’s experience reveals just how difficult it is for our society to provide any sort of safety net in the name of the preservation or furtherance of human dignity. Youth support social workers are routinely asked to handle far too many cases while our criminal justice system is geared overwhelmingly to punishment and not to prevention. Wayne’s book raises the question of how any American child could have been permitted to live in such deplorable and dangerous conditions, and returned to them as a matter of policy on multiple occasions. We pride ourselves as a citizenry on our willingness to care for our own, but routinely we fail to secure that result for our nation’s youth, as many of our leaders daily disparage the institutions charged with helping to secure that result. We cannot have it both ways and not expect to wreak havoc and injustice in many lives. The larger questions Wayne’s experience raise are not whether we should celebrate his luck, pluck and success, but how many other individuals have not been so fortunate, and how we should collectively work to stanch the social bleeding their lives and lost opportunities represent. Here at the Institute we will strive to continue to make those human costs apparent and to help to identify ways society may effectively and equitably address them.