Children such as 10-year-old Tyler, 5-year-old Keiris, and 4-year-old Jerimiah, who live with their mother, Christina Wyatt, 24, in Middletown, Ohio.
In the summer of 2011, the family moved into the Center of Hope for Women and Children, a homeless shelter, after their apartment was robbed and they were evicted. Their only income at that point was a Social Security disability check for Tyler, who has Down syndrome. “I had to, really,” Christina said about moving into the shelter. “We didn’t have anywhere to go.”
Building a life
When Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Cass met the family there while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund, Christina’s voice broke as she described her determination to “get it back together” and build a life for her children different from her own: “I don’t want them to experience even a little bit of what I did. I want to give them the childhood I never had.”
Christina’s own childhood in the Cincinnati area included a mother who didn’t seem to want her, a father who she says didn’t take good care of her, and occasional stays in foster homes. “I sort of took care of myself from about 12,” Christina said.
She went to school and made money babysitting. But when she was 14, the father of two girls she babysat for raped her. “I was really scared,” she said. “I didn’t tell anyone. Then I got sick and found out I was pregnant.”
After he was born, they both lived in a special foster home for teenage mothers and their babies, where Christina noticed a pattern: “After a couple months, the girls lost custody of their children.” Out of fear of losing Tyler to strangers, she asked her mother to take temporary custody of him. At 17, the foster care system set Christina up in an apartment, paid her expenses, and gave her allowance, but at 18 she was “emancipated” from foster care and on her own.
Learning from mistakes
She got custody of Tyler back. Soon after, she moved in with the man who is Keiris and Jerimiah’s father, but “he wasn’t a good person.” Christina paused and declared in a strong voice, “Everything I’ve been through I learned from. I would never put up with anything like that again. I know I’m more than somebody’s punching bag.”
For most of her children’s lives Christina has supported the family with food stamps and minimum wage jobs.
Christina lost the Medicaid and food stamps she and the children had been receiving. The system in Middletown now involves a telephone interview rather than a personal one, but Christina said she didn’t get the notice about the phone appointment, and in any case, she had no phone.
She asked her mother to drive her and the children to the Center of Hope with a backpack of their clothes and a book bag filled with a few toys.
Christina also brought along some hopes of her own: She deeply wants to get her GED and then go to college—not a vocational/technical school or online school but a real college. She can’t explain why, but she wants to be a lawyer.
Christina is still determined to give her children a better childhood than she had, and though her own childhood gave her few road maps, she wants to find a way to keep moving forward. I truly hope she succeeds.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org).