Monthly Archives: July 2012

RIP RieLee, Baby

It’s hard to hear or read about violent or unavoidable deaths of children; their demise is unnatural, unfair, and heartbreaking. For me, as someone who has always loved and connected with children, and now as the mother of a near 4-year-old, it brings out raw emotion: a burning behind the eyes, constricted throat, wrenched guts, and flushed skin. Like I’m losing all my children.

The story of RieLee Lovell, a 2-year-old, has been especially hard to absorb. Published photographs show a beautiful Native American child still full of life. She was found dead, it seems, by other children, more than a day after it’s said she probably died. Folks are pointing their fingers at her caregivers, who were recently charged in RieLee’s death and are accused by community members of being drug addicts. Other folks on the comment boards of news organizations are pointing at the parents, the tribes, and Native American savagery. They point at everyone except those reflected in their mirrors.

But we are all to blame for RieLee’s death, and other children like her. The all-encompassing We condemn youth like RieLee and their families to their fates every day.

It’s not enough to say RieLee’s parents or caregivers – who so obviously need professional help for their own problems – are solely at fault. I am not saying they hold no blame. They surely do. But I wonder: What resources were they offered for the problems plaguing their family and community? What were their circumstances, historically and presently? This is the vicious cycle all people in poverty, but especially Native Americans, continue to be devastated by. There is no greater victim, no person more hated and outcast, than he of circumstance. It’s easy for those of us keeping our financial heads afloat to cast squinty scorn upon demographics we feel should be able to simply “get over it.” Like it’s easy to pull yourself out of five or six generations of poverty, or easy to overcome institutionalized racism or privilege. For most – especially children – it’s an impossibility.

Lots of folks scoff at this. I hear from judgmental people all the time about how they changed their own destinies through hard work and dedication, yadda yadda. I don’t want to downgrade or make light of anyone’s success – heck, by most accounts even I should be a stereotypical down-and-out Indian – but I contend success (lots of it, anyway, if not most) isn’t determined by the work you do. It’s determined by factors beyond your control, like paler skin pigmentation, male genitalia, generational financial legacies, the right side of the train tracks, whether you can fake a smile or not, and a sturdy network of people who know people. That last concept could very well be an answer to many of the problems children in poverty face: If more structured and “successful” adults compassionately and appropriately mentored youth, we’d see a great shift in the structure and success of at-risk kids.

Unfortunately, Americans surround themselves with protective bubbles to keep isolated from Undesirables. For non-Native people living in states like South Dakota, those bubbles are known “Reservations.” We value individuality and independence, and disregard communal efforts of living among fellow human beings. When those two value systems collide, as they often do for Native American people torn between traditional family/spiritual structures and capitalist consumerism, you get stories like RieLee’s, whose parents felt leaving a toddler with chemically dependent young adults was the best caregiving option they had to choose from while they “worked through a rough time in their relationship.”

How proud are we to live in a society that promotes ME versus US? (Sad pun, and ironic when you consider RieLee died at the height of our country’s Fourth of July celebrations.) Why didn’t WE provide RieLee with a world where her parents could receive adequate couple’s counseling without having to drive three or four hours to see a licensed therapist? Why aren’t there well-funded treatment facilities located in communities devastated by meth and alcohol? Why is our state government debating the merit of Bible studies in schools and not elementary, middle and high school budgeting courses to pull the next generation out of poverty? Where the fuck are our priorities, folks?! We could demand these things and more from our government leaders (many of us do). But helping the underdog isn’t in our nature anymore.

And kids like RieLee die.

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To Minot With Love

Sent June 14: Hi there. I hope you are doing well. Not sure if you remember me. I just happened to find a note you wrote me many moons ago when we were both in Minot, ND. Your profile picture looks fantastic. I am hoping you still carry that same confident, determined spirit always trying to understand why… Take good care.

 – Awesome Therapist*

I found this message a couple weeks ago in an obscure folder on Facebook. OK, maybe not that obscure, but I never check the “Other” folder under the main messaging area in Facebook. That I did at all was purely chance. Maybe.

It’s an amazing blast from my past. Here’s my response:

Sent June 23: Of COURSE I remember you! When I speak to student youth groups about overcoming challenges I refer to the wonderful advice you gave me back in the summer of 2001: you are responsible for yourself (well, maybe those weren’t your exact words, but I do remember you putting the emphasis back on ME to take control, versus letting outside influences determine my thoughts and actions). How wonderful of you to message me!

Crazy – seriously – but I thought about you (beyond totally plagiarizing you at speaking gigs!) just the other night. I work with a juvenile diversion program – lots of kids on home detention – and was trying to explain how I came out of my teenage rut, and I fixated on you during my explanation. Not in a weird way (!) but the kids asked me a lot of questions about what exactly you did for me, because I really do come back to our sessions [in Minot] as being pivotal in my personal success. I told them that after a lifetime of counselors and therapists rehashing my parents’ viewpoints, you showed me the power of personal accountability. Or at least led me in that direction.

I know we only had a summer fling of a relationship but the impact you had on me is truly… astounding. I will end here for fear of writing you a novel of a response (I am known to be introspective, but you probably knew that – ha!). Please, if you want, keep in touch. If you ever need a good boost of ‘my work is meaningful,’ I will definitely provide input.

– Taté (Finn) Walker

PS – I still have the bookmark with your note hanging on my wall. Interesting the mementos life brings back to us time and again.

I was quite the shithead when I was a teenager and fueled by overflowing family drama. I won’t bore you with the details, but I was abused, depressed, repressed, and full of potential. I am jealous of people who look back fondly at their youth; personally, I’d willingly suffer a blow to the head if it would mean forgetting everything up until age 18.

With my depression came self-harm and cutting. Suicide attempts. Drug and alcohol use. Rape. It all blended together for a spiraling cocktail of woe. I was eventually sent to live in a group home my senior year of high school, where I would give up completely. The group home staff was ill-trained and some staff were downright abusive. At the time, I thought getting a few cigarettes in exchange for doing “favors” was a great deal.

In the destruction of the tornado that was my life I got pregnant (while a participant in the group home system, no less). I remember my dad asking me what I planned to do. I was eager for responsibility and control over my own life, and so I told anyone who would listen how I planned to raise the child myself. Now, working with youth as I do, I see how unfair it was for the adults in my life to leave the decision wholly up to me, especially considering I was ill-informed.

I was just a kid.

Kids having kids.

How odd is it that I was locked away in an intense treatment facility, yet somehow could manage the responsibility of pregnancy and motherhood? I know, young mothers do it all the time. Doesn’t mean they should.

My social worker, a nasty she-devil (and I feel qualified in passing such judgment now, especially since I’ve worked professionally with many wonderful social workers these last five years), was adamant about adoption. My dad and step-mother… I don’t remember them throwing in a definitive opinion one way or the other; my step-mom would later tell me they had discussed raising the baby on their own, but I know them well-enough that this line of thought is rather a joke. They could barely raise me. I felt the same way about my biological mother – the woman I have since come to love and admire for all the wonderful things she is, but with whom I had no healthy or developed relationship with during my youth (that’s another blog post). My mom stepped forward early in my pregnancy to say she would raise the baby. I said no to this; my dad and step-mom had raised me to doubt any issuance of love my mother offered me (gifts were “buying me off,” letters meant she didn’t want to see me in person, visits were forced, and any bad behavior I had was caused by the bad genetics I got from her — no, seriously, these and more were the messages my dad and step-mom threw at me throughout my youth). So to her offer I said no, and I said no in such a cruel and spiteful way as to make my dad, step-mom, and She-Devil proud.

And so the state child welfare authorities sent me to the middle of nowhere (otherwise known as Minot, ND) to hide my growing belly. It was a place for pregnant youth to learn healthy living skills. It turned out to be a dream destination for me. The group homes in Bismarck were Guantanamo compared to this oasis. The staff were mother hens, and they cared for and protected us fiercely. At 17, I was an old participant; the other girls were 12 and 13, although a 19-year-old came in eventually. We made healthy (if fattening) meals, got lots of naps, and I was allowed to volunteer with the local humane society.

Also in Minot, I was introduced to Awesome Therapist*.

For all intents and purposes, A.T. is my own personal Jiminy Cricket. I can’t explain well-enough except to say she empowered me with personal responsibility, self-reliance, and control. She helped me recognize the vast majority of my problems – depression, cutting, acting out – were a result of feeling powerless. To be fair to my parents, they probably said some of the same things to me, though their communication system was definitely in the realm of “The Authority,” whereas A.T.  took a more equitable approach (if you were ever once a teenager, then you know the difference). She helped me see how imperfect my parents were (that may sound silly – no parent is perfect – but, truly, the pedestal I held them on had grown to skyscraping proportions throughout my young life, and before A.T. they could do no wrong in my eyes), helped me understand the shit I had experienced in my life, including getting pregnant, were not all my fault.

Accepting responsibility for my actions is one thing; A.T.  showed me how harmful and unhealthy shouldering ALL the responsibility was. She also explained the importance of learning from the past, letting it go, and moving forward.

But the most important thing she did for me was encourage me to study my Lakota culture and reconnect with my biological mother. She said strengthening those two relationships would also strengthen me. And they did.

They still do.

With personal accountability came enlightenment on many levels.  My most immediate situation – pregnancy – engaged my initial focus. Abortion had never once made it into my conversations with other adults (very taboo) until Minot. I did some research and made an appointment with the clinic in Fargo. North Dakota law cut off legal abortions at 12 weeks. I was right at the cusp, which further validates my belief that all things happen for a reason – usually a good reason. Blessedly, extremely supportive women in Minot surrounded me, many whom did not agree with my choice, but were non-judgmental and loving to me all the more. I owe them much and more for their unyielding support; what could have proven to be a really difficult and stressful experience turned out to be a huge relief and turning point in my personal recovery. So many people talk about either their or others’ abortions as a negative event – something they regret. I am lucky in that my only regret is I was ever in a situation to be victimized, which led to the pregnancy. Once I was fully educated of the options, having an abortion became the only road I wanted to take. Maybe I will post another blog on abortion – like sexual or domestic abuse, it’s something a lot of us who experience those life-changing moments push to the back of our minds, yet in talking about it we open up avenues for others to learn and progress.

Abortion has taken up a lot of space here, but only to explore the amount of growth I undertook after meeting A.T.  It’s unfair to say she pushed me toward a pro-choice attitude. In fact, I have no idea where her ideologies fall on the issue, and I’m not trying to paint her as anti- or pro- anything. She simply empowered me with the tools I needed to make my own decisions. That’s really all any teen needs. We adults tend to think teenagers can take on only so much information and we ‘protect’ them from the scary real world. Teens are resilient, and strong, and thick-skulled. They have the potential of doing some great things if we lay out a full spectrum of options. Sure, some will continue to make bad choices. But I’m willing to bet just as many – maybe more – good (better) decisions would be made if we imbued kids with some knowledge power.

A.T.’s impact has stayed with me all these years. And as you can see, she still has the ability to bring out some serious self-reflection. As I reflect, it dawns on me that I use a lot of her methods when working with youth:

  • Empower Youth
  • Encourage Family Connections
  • Enlist Spirituality
  • Educate Culturally

Those four “E”s seem to work pretty well. The youth I spend time with just need someone to believe they can succeed. For whatever reason, we adults make that harder than it needs to be. When all signs pointed to failure, A.T. was by my side with assurances and approval for all the things I had done right (strength-based care is amaze-bombs, btw – most every teenager I encounter is a survivor of SOMETHING, and surviving IS something…).

I apologize if I’m making A.T. out to be some kind of magic bullet. I don’t expect she’s beyond criticism. No one is. But I’d put a cape on her and call her a hero any day for the way she made me feel about myself. And maybe that’s magic, and maybe it’s just letting kids know you care, so they can start caring, too. I can only hope I’m having half the impact on the kids I work with as A.T. had on me. Anyone who knows me also knows I still trip and stumble – hard. We all do. But if A.T. left me with anything it’s that life’s too short to sweat the small things, I’ve gotta move on from mistakes, trust myself, and love fully. She met me when I was at the banks of the Rubicon, and she showed me I had the means to cross it and achieve victory.

Vini. Vidi. Vici.

Sent June 24: “What a humbling, beautiful response! You definitely have not lost your touch in getting your thoughts and feelings across! I’m glad for that. I do think of our summer [in Minot] often (believe it or not), as you have always stood as a benchmark for resiliency and determination that I used as a litmus in working with other teenagers since. I’m actually tutoring a young lady right now in math, grammar and science that reminds me a lot of you…I make her question everything! My journey as a therapist and now teacher has been an interesting one the past 10 years and I do reflect on our conversations fondly. I’m so glad to hear that you are sharing your experiences with other teens. I have no doubt that the way you have incorporated everything is extremely invaluable to them. To be honest…my personal work to do the same lent part of the magic to our sessions not that long ago…”

– A.T.

*Name changed to protect identity