By Sophie Sklar
The story of the crime, incarceration, and drug use in New Orleans is not unfamiliar to its inhabitants. It has, unfortunately, become one of the defining features of many areas of the city. The story that many people aren’t quite as familiar with, however, is how this deviant behavior affects the children of those committing the crimes, going to jail, and using drugs. Who’s standing up for them?
When these children spend their childhood struggling with abusive, neglectful, or drug-addicted parents, they start to have a skewed perception of who their role models are. They only know this disjointed type of lifestyle, and, consequently, think that following in their parents’ footsteps is their only option. It creates a vicious cycle, where, eventually, the kids turn into the same abusive, neglectful, and potentially drug-addicted parents that created their problems in the first place.
New Orleans Children’s Advocacy Center (NOCAC) intern Perri Weinstein explains the perpetuated cycle of neglect and abuse that she sees on a daily basis: “Most of the parents who come in for forensic interviews have been abused as children themselves, so it’s difficult to get through to them. Likewise, the kids of these parents have been abused their entire lives, so when their parents are being arrested or punished, they don’t understand what the problem is.”
Perri recounts instances where she has seen the same parents coming into NOCAC time after time, being investigated for a new case of abuse involving the same child.
The NOCAC team has launched a “No Hit Zone” campaign to try to educate parents about alternative forms of punishment. They work to teach adults the correct responses to poor behavior in their children and provide statistics and examples that prove how harmful these actions can be. While history tells us that corporal punishment is deeply rooted in Southern culture in particular, NOCAC works to break that chain of abuse to ensure safety for southern children.
There is a common phrase in the South that says, “spare the rod and spoil the child,” or in plain English, if you’re not physically punishing a kid when they do something wrong, they’ll never learn. The “No Hit Zone” team has seen parents who are so accustomed to corporal punishment that they will physically punish their children in public places, such as their elementary school. Parents will hear their child has misbehaved or received unsatisfactory grades and instinctively resort to spanking or beating without giving it a second thought.
By creating “No Hit Zones” in places that children are supposed to feel safe and protected, NOCAC hopes to guarantee some semblance of safety and structure in places like schools, hospitals, and other public spaces.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get kids to come forward about corporal punishment or types of abuse. Despite the discomfort and the hardships, these kids’ only role models are their parents or siblings, and they don’t want anything to happen to them. They often keep the pain hidden–both to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Perri recalled a situation where a girl came into NOCAC after being abused by her 16-year-old older brother. “This little girl was ready to give her statement of abuse in front of a camera to be used in court. She knew exactly what she was going to say. But once she found out that her brother would be tried in court as an adult and not a juvenile, she panicked. The girl refused to speak out and risk sending her big brother to jail.” This girl was nervous about the guilt she would feel and the blame she would receive and ended up perpetuating her own case of abuse.
Other institutions hoping to help provide children with better fates, such as the Tulane Parent Education Program (TPEP), see daily cases of abuse as well. TPEP offers psychiatric care to children who end up in the foster care system due to circumstances such as abuse and neglect. Carly Goldberg, former intern for TPEP, shared a particularly jarring experience. She met a young boy, probably around age six, who watched his father shoot his mother on the staircase of his own home.
“The little boy remembered Spongebob Squarepants on the TV in the background. It was otherwise just a normal day for him, until he went to the staircase to see what his parents were yelling about.” Although he was not personally being physically abused, the little boy was still a victim. With one parent dead and the other parent inevitably going to jail, he was stuck in the foster care system for the rest of his childhood.
As much as the psychologists and lawyers at places like TPEP and NOCAC are working to make an easier pathway for kids like these, it is beyond their reach to fix such a broken system. As Carly puts it, “Institutions like TPEP are a very big catalyst for change, however DCFS (the Department of Children and Family Services) is overloaded with cases to a point where they are just not able to give children the attention they deserve. They make decisions for children without properly considering how it will affect them because they just do not have the time.” It is a devastating fate for victims of this cycle, yet it’s hardly taken into consideration in the face of other macro-level issues in New Orleans.
In addition to the instances of abuse happening in New Orleans, institutions see an overwhelming amount of cases of neglect. According to TPEP’s research, “neglect is the most frequent form of maltreatment, experienced by more than 78% of victims.” Drug and alcohol abuse are often a huge part in that neglect.
“There was once a girl who came in whose mom was a heroin addict. She was literally like eight years old, knew every fact about heroine, and clearly hadn’t showered in days. What was even more sad, though, was that she was fully reliant on her mom and loved her so much,” says Perri.
Much like kids who have suffered from abuse, neglected children don’t even realize that neglect is taking place. In New Orleans, 28.6% of the population reports binging alcohol regularly and 15.2% regularly take illicit drugs (National Survey on Drug Use and Health). Many of the people who contribute to this statistic have children, and those children often have to bear the weight of their parents’ substance abuse or addiction.
Polly Lejfer, another intern at TPEP, saw a case where a neglected child came back as a 21-year-old.
“When this kid was four years old, his parents would overmedicate him so he would sleep so that they could leave him home alone for hours at a time.” When Polly saw this boy as an adult, it was clear that this case of neglect had taken a toll on him. “It really messed up his brain chemistry and now he is a really low functioning person.” This boy’s lack of care from his parents and early influence with drugs inhibited him from having a fair shot and finding a better path in life. He, instead, would be imbalanced for the rest of his life.
“Kids came in all the time who weren’t used to having any adult supervision,” Carly explains. “I saw kids that had run into traffic, missed days of school, and weren’t fed regularly. Most of them had parents that just didn’t care very much.”
If all of the kids in the neighborhood are experiencing the same elements of neglect, how are they supposed to know that there’s a problem? To them, this is just how things work. When they’re old enough to start scoring their own drugs, they run the risk of evolving into similar addicts and substance abusers like the ones that raised them. They become the same citizens that drive up New Orleans’ high crime, drug use, and incarceration rates.
Science shows that young kids are incredibly impressionable. When they see a behavior, especially from someone they respect or love, they want to do it too. As they start to get older, those behaviors become habits and ultimately start to secure themselves into that individual’s personality. When children see their parents blowing off responsibilities and letting them skip school or stay out late, it is easy for those kids to lose motivation to attend school or be home at a reasonable hour. It’s even easier for them to turn into the teenagers loitering around town late at night with their friends, neglecting to do their schoolwork.
These rebellious teenagers later develop into the adults that raised them, with the exception of the small percentage that take a different direction in their lives. With the incarceration rates as high as they are, it is clear that these kids are lacking the role models they need at home. And without getting to school regularly, teachers can only try their best to help guide their students.
While not every child is guaranteed to fall into this cycle, there’s a very high chance that they will. It’s difficult to beat the odds, and only time can tell where the city will be when the next generation cycles through.