When I was still in college I got a job working at an emergency shelter for youth. Kids were occasionally brought in late at night by the police or a county’s on-call social worker. More frequently they came with social workers directly from court hearings and they lived at the shelter for days, weeks, even months, waiting for a spot to open up for them in a residential program.
After a year, I applied for another job within the agency. I was hired as a staff supervisor at a residential treatment center for adolescent girls. There I met many good people including one of the women who has stood by me through much of my life, peak and valley, and who inspires me still. My co-workers joined in celebrating my marriage, even as much as many didn’t think it was such a good idea. Some maybe even took bets on our chances. (Ironically the stately old house that was once the group home facility now houses Awesomesauce and Awesomesauce, the law firm that represented me in my divorce.) It was there where I first began to educate youth about sexuality, a role which would become a growing part of my professional life over many years and several more positions.
The residential treatment center provided a relatively intensive therapeutic environment to teen girls who were mostly survivors of various forms of abuse. Anti-government types might have called the facility a re-education camp for the children of the very poor. Most, but not all, of the clients were from poor families. Some of the girls were pregnant. Some of them were mothers. All who required access to reproductive healthcare were provided it. This included education, contraception in many forms, and in at least one case, abortion.
We can digress here and talk about Margaret Sanger’s views on eugenics, but what we did at the facility wasn’t about keeping the poor and down-trodden from reproducing. It was about helping all these young women control their reproductive lives. When women (or in this case, girls) gain control over their reproductive lives, they wait longer to have children, they have fewer children, they are better parents, and the economic situation of the entire family is improved.
The girl who had the abortion was homeless. Though she hadn’t yet had any formal sex education, she knew a lot about sex. Her mother was a drug-addict and a prostitute. They actually do have prostitutes in the Midwest, something which surprised me at the time. The girl had gone along on “calls” with her mother. After one of the Johns loudly and assertively solicited the girl’s services in addition to her mother’s, the girl was left at home, often to look after younger siblings while her mother went off to work. The children never knew when their mother would return. She had occasionally been arrested and disappeared for days.
Bad men would drop by looking for the girl’s mother, often for the money they felt they were owed. Somehow or another, the state got involved, and the girl and her three siblings were placed in a foster home. The foster parents insisted that the girl leave the parenting to them even though she had grown quite accustomed to not only doing the parenting, but to being the only responsible person in the room. She didn’t know what to do with herself, that is until she met a reckless, wild boy at school who gave her a lot of friendly attention, at least at first. He was white and he had heard black girls were easy. (She was actually bi-racial; her mother was white, but that didn’t seem to matter.) The boy was horny. The girl was flattered by the attention; too flattered. Most everyone knew the boy’s father was rough-looking and drove a beat up pickup truck, but they didn’t know that the man routinely kicked the boy, his siblings, and their mother in an alcoholic rage that he was unlikely to remember the next day. Most people didn’t know that the boy’s mother, sweet as she was, was thoroughly cowed.
You probably see where this is going. The prostitute’s daughter fell in love—or what she thought was love—with the rough boy who mistreated her. As far as either of them knew, it was just how men treated their women. The prostitute’s daughter ran away from her foster home and slept in the bed with the rough white boy’s mother most nights. It was the same bed the boy had been conceived in. The boy’s mother adored the girl, and the father also liked her. The father also believed that black girls were easy. That was how this girl finally came to us; that and stealing the father’s pickup truck to get away. She was barely fourteen.
Hers was the potential baby Rick Santorum thinks she should have viewed as a gift. Any way I look at it, I still can’t see any gift. Maybe Rick Santorum knows something I don’t. Surely he thinks he knows something as he has had a lot to say about sex and sexuality and what is normal and proper. (Dan Savage can tell you all you need to know about that.)
After scrounging up private resources to cover the cost, I went with that girl to the clinic. She was afraid and her hand shook as she put it in mine during the procedure. We returned to the facility and she went to her room to rest. I brought her a glass of water.
“Thank you,” she said, “you know, for everything.”
She deserved a great life and I told her so. Unlike a lot of the girls I worked with, she believed me. I wrote the report to the Court that concluded with a recommendation that she be required to receive the Norplant as a condition of her probation. It was not the only time I made such a recommendation.
That girl worked the program with a grim determination I have rarely seen in another human being. She showed her mettle many times, confronting her past, confronting her mother, confronting her peers, and learning to respect herself and to demand respect from others. She was smart and she worked hard, graduating to an independent living program and from high school. She went on to college and to medical school, and to have a career and a family of her own. Most stories like this one don’t end this way, but this one did and it offers hope.
Thankfully, that girl’s mother was not allowed to “remake” her daughter in “her image.” Shame on you for the things you have said, Rick Santorum. Really, shame. While we are at it, shame on all the GOP state legislators proposing bills that would make the lives of girls more difficult when we should be doing exactly the opposite. Shame on those who support such bills and on the Governors who sign them, and if and when we stand by and watch, shame on us, too.