Poverty's punch: Stress, uncertainty haunt children in poverty

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Stacy Vogel
Monday, August 25, 2008
— Cullen McAdory’s eyes flashed as he stood on the front porch, arms crossed over his basketball jersey. He wanted to play outside, but his mom wouldn’t let him because he was suspended from school.

“Cullen, please, let’s not argue today,” his mother, Kathy Patrick, said wearily. “Right now, you’re supposed to be in school, and because you made bad choices, and decided not to go to school today, or they made you not go to school today, that means you need to stay in the house today until 3 o’clock.”

“You grounded me yesterday,” he replied with a lisp that made “grounded” sound like “gwounded.” “You said for one day you’d ground me.”

“From yesterday, that was something different. I’m not gonna argue.”

“You’re the one who starts everything!” Cullen stamped his feet. “You lie to me about, like, everything!”

Cullen has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and when he isn’t on the right medications, his temper can get violent, Kathy explained. His doctor is trying to find the right combination of medicine for him, but meanwhile, the whole family suffers from Cullen’s outbursts.

A few minutes later, Kathy answered her cell phone, and Cullen took his chance to sneak out with his bike.

Children hit hard

Poverty can have profound effects on children, especially those who experience it early in life, according to a report from the National Center for Children in Poverty. Chronic hardship can hinder children’s development and their ability to learn and contribute to behavioral, social and emotional problems, the report states.

Kathy, 36, has seen those effects in her own children as she struggles to pull her family out of poverty.

Carl, 10, and Cullen, 8, have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorders. Neither has a male guardian or role model in his life, and Kathy believes their behavioral problems might have something to do with stress caused by her failed relationship with their father.

Though Carl does well in school, he refuses to do his homework—to the point that he almost failed fourth grade last year. Kathy tries and tries to discipline him, but she’s not sure how. Besides, her own studies and jobs leave her little time to make sure the children attend to their schoolwork.

All four of the children—Carl, Cullen, Kiara, 7, and Keegan, 5,—have trouble trusting Kathy since they were sent to foster homes five years ago. Even little Keegan accused his mother of “lying” to him when she told him she’d make pancakes and didn’t make them right away.

Jessica Grandt is a social worker at Wilson Elementary School, where Kathy’s three oldest children attend and where Keegan will start kindergarten next month. She has seen different reactions from children in poverty to the stress in their lives.

Some, like Cullen, act out. Others withdraw, ashamed of their situations, or worry incessantly. Stress can affect their health, sleeping patterns and schoolwork, she said.

“(Cullen’s) behavioral problems are definitely part of the chaos that is part of their household,” Grandt said. “Being a single parent, and the stress Kathy goes through, I definitely think that contributes to that.”

The children pick up on Kathy’s financial problems, Grandt said. Kathy has struggled to find transportation after an acquaintance crashed her car last fall. Even if she had a car, she probably couldn’t afford the gas to run it, Kathy said.

The family usually has to walk or take the bus. As a result, the children are often late to school, making their days even more hectic, Grandt said.

Kiara and Carl both seem well-adjusted, though, and have solid friendships. And Cullen is a good kid at heart, Grandt said.

“With everything, even with Cullen’s behavioral struggles and all that, everybody at Wilson adores those kids,” she said. “I think despite all the stress and the chaos that exists in their lives, they’re great kids.”

Lack of stability

It’s not just a lack of income that affects children in poverty, the National Center for Children in Poverty writes. These children often experience chaotic and unpredictable home lives. Income rises and falls as parents change jobs or lose them suddenly. Families in poverty tend to move a lot, searching for lower rent or fresh starts, further uprooting the children.

Parents in poverty are more likely to experience severe stress and depression, which also affects their children, the report says.

Children crave stability, and they often don’t find it in low-income homes, Grandt said.

“Kids can be pretty resilient, but it’s hard,” she said. “They’re kids, and they’re dealing with things they should never have to deal with.”

The McAdory children have already been through a lot in their young lives. Kathy had an on-again, off-again relationship with their father, who did drugs and occasionally abused Kathy, she said.

When Keegan was just a few months old, all four children were sent to foster care. Their father was still using drugs, and Kathy didn’t have a job or electricity in her home. Kathy ended the relationship for good after she lost her children, she said.

The children bounced around between relatives and foster parents for more than two years before Kathy got them back.

“That’s affected their behavior completely. I know it has,” Kathy said. “You’re taken from your family at a young age and placed in a complete stranger’s home; you’re thinking, why in the heck are you there?”

Kathy was thrilled to get her children back, but it’s been tough, she said. They’re too young to understand what happened, and she thinks they subconsciously blame her for giving them up.

Meanwhile, Kathy struggles to care for the children on her own while attending school and working part-time jobs.

“I have so much going on in my head and so much going on at home, it’s like very overwhelming,” she said. “It’s like I try to do one thing, and while I’m doing this one thing, something else is going on over here. It’s constantly back and forth, back and forth …

“Families need that two-parent thing; I really, truly believe that.”

So Kathy looks for role models for her children elsewhere. Carl and Cullen both attend weekly counseling sessions, and Cullen has a special counselor assigned to him from the Janesville School District.

She’s eager to get Carl, Cullen and Kiara into the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, but the waiting list is long, she said.

Long-term effects

Life isn’t always stressful in the Patrick household. Keegan and Kiara are friendly and affectionate, especially with their mother, while Carl and Cullen often seem like typical pre-teen boys, running around with their friends, playing games and getting into mischief.

Still, the stress the children go through can have permanent results. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to drop out of school, have poor adolescent and adult health and struggle with poverty as adults, the National Center for Children in Poverty report states.

Kathy doesn’t want that to happen to her children. That’s why she decided to get her family in order this summer, especially because she was on a break from her work-study jobs. She’s going to have some tough classes in the fall, and she and the children can’t go through another year like they just had, she said.

“That’s why I’m not too stressed about getting a job,” she said. “Yeah, I really want one. Do we financially need one? No. We’ll just have to struggle like we have been doing. But my most important thing now is focusing on getting our family and my kids’ heads straight.”

At a counselor’s suggestion, Kathy put a piece of cardboard on the wall listing the children’s names with space for stickers for when they do their chores. A few days after she put it up, only Kiara had a sticker.

Weathering the storm

A few weeks after Cullen’s bike outburst, a new, hand-written sign hung on Kathy’s front door:

“No smoking!! Take your shoes off!! or don’t come in!!”

Kathy and Cullen sat curled on the couch watching TV as rain poured outside. Cullen was sent home from summer school earlier that day because he didn’t want to participate.

Kiara and Carl were still at summer school; Keegan had gone with a family friend to the Rock County Job Center to play in the day care while the friend collected food assistance.

Cullen wanted to go to a neighbor’s house, but Kathy told him to stay inside.

“Why can’t you stay here and snuggle with me?” she teased as thunder rolled in the distance. “We never get to spend time together.”

Cullen took off his sweaty T-shirt and laid his head in Kathy’s lap as she stroked his back, just like she did for all four of the children when they were younger. The volume was low on the TV as cartoon aliens fought each other. The lamps in the living room gave off a yellow glow on the white walls, offering a stark contrast to the dark clouds outside the window.

Outside, the storm raged on.

View the special section on poverty at gazettextra.com/poverty

Last updated: 9:56 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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