How can I help a child who isn't mine?
December 7, 2005 6:17 PM   Subscribe

How can I help a child who isn’t mine?

For a little over two years, I’ve been involved in a nationally-known child mentoring program and have been matched with an amazing little girl who is now 10 and in the fifth grade (I’ll call her Sarah here). Considering some of the bad stories I’ve heard from others regarding this program, my experience has been truly phenomenal.

Sarah is such a wonderful child – she’s bright, thoughtful, outgoing, funny, and genuinely grateful for everything that is done for her. My husband and I absolutely adore her.

The problem is, Sarah’s home life seems like it’s destroying her future, and it’s driving me crazy.

She lives with her mom, older brother (13) and younger sister (7), and her grandparents. Dad is rarely in the picture. Mom is a real piece of work. Suffice it to say, she wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of Springer. The grandparents provide a little bit more stability, but not much – one has health problems, the other speaks very little English (and Sarah doesn’t speak their native language).

I’ve observed or been informed by Sarah of several troubling issues. She stays up until all hours of the night (sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m., even on school nights); she doesn’t eat well (no breakfast, school vending machine crap for lunch, McDonald’s or Taco Bell for dinner); she isn’t participating in any after-school activities and seems to get no encouragement as far as reading, sports, or anything productive; she watches horrifically inappropriate things (Thirteen. Scary Movie. Made-for-cable films about subjects like kidnapping and rape and murder.) and listens to very sexually-oriented music. Mom won’t help her with her homework – she claims she doesn’t understand it, in spite of having a perfectly legitimate clerical-type job (and hello? The assignments are designed for a 10-year-old!), yet she will get Sarah’s ears pierced 5 times and take her to get acrylic fake nails. In the past, Sarah’s appearance has been problematic: inadequate hygiene, for example, and at one point her clothes were in such horrific disrepair (not fitting, holes the size of her head) that my husband and I bought her and her siblings winter wardrobes for Christmas. Her teacher has informed me that Sarah shows up for school crying in the morning and is so distracted and overwhelmed with personal dramas (pertaining mostly to her family issues) that she can’t focus on her work. Oh, and according to the teacher, Sarah is now running with the “fast” girls at school.

School has been an issue since I’ve known her. She was failing the third grade and her teacher told me she only promoted her to fourth because Sarah was already too socially mature for her classmates. Starting the next school year, my husband and I arranged for Sarah to receive weekly tutoring at our home, and we have continued to fund that to this day. Sarah was tested for learning disabilities last year and was found to have a low-level language impairment. Specifically, she has great difficulty reading and spelling. Her academic troubles have led her to seek out validation in other areas – mostly in being a social butterfly and the center of all the schoolyard soap operas. She gets in trouble on a daily basis for talking in class.

So, after this lengthy non-question, I’ll get to the point. I am desperately concerned that the lack of sleep and nourishment and hygiene is going to negatively affect her health. I’m equally concerned that the lack of school success, meaningful activities, personal space and individualized attention will only end up making the rebellious crowd and related activities that much more attractive to her. In a nutshell, I’m terrified she’ll end up pregnant and a dropout before the age of 16. And frighteningly, that wouldn’t be that uncommon in her family’s circle.

My husband and I want to take her in and raise her. Realizing that’s probably an impossibility, I’d like some other, meaningful ways to influence this child’s life and mitigate some of the horrible influences she’s exposed to. I know that the once-weekly tutoring sessions (which we always follow with some homework help, a homemade family-style dinner and a game) are good for her, but they aren’t enough to un-do all the other six and a half days a week.

I feel desperate for a solution here. The teacher seems to have pretty much written off Sarah (and her pain-in-the-ass mom) as a lost cause. The caseworkers from the mentoring program can’t really do much, because it isn’t a case of child abuse, plus since the program is voluntary they aim to keep the kids in it (and a pissed-off parent put on the defensive isn’t likely to let their kids stay involved). And Mom definitely is defensive, and has an excuse for everything. She’s also told me before that Sarah is a “little shit,” is bad and evil, and that my husband and I can keep her (unfortunately, though, she hasn’t made that wisecrack since we’ve decided we would in fact like to do just that).

Any ideas, thoughts, etc. would be deeply appreciated. I’m not looking for any reassurance that we’re doing stuff right; rather, I’m hoping for suggestions on how we can do more to ensure she receives the care and attention that every child deserves.
posted by justonegirl to Human Relations (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Report your concerns to your local child protection office. Assuming you live in Maryland, try here.
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:21 PM on December 7, 2005

I'm guessing that Sarah doesn't come from a middle class family. I applaud your concern and your willingness to work to improve her life. I don't know what you can do for Sarah but I think you might stand a better chance of helping her if you began by thinking about what class means. It sounds like Sarah has a number of problems and that you'll be able to help her with some of them but you need to be aware of how Sarah's world works.
posted by rdr at 6:42 PM on December 7, 2005

There isn't a lot more you can do then what you are doing now. Your influence will have an effect, just probably not as much as you would like.

Calling the 'local child protection' office would be a bad move. They typically are more concerned about kids that are close to being hurt ... though Sarah is being hurt by her environment, it's not live threatening. If protective services does anything, they will most likely come down hard on the mom ... who will then take it out on Sarah.

Try to see if you can increase your time with her. Talk to mom, and see if she would mind Sarah staying with you for a few days. If you do it gradually and supportively, you might be able to make more of a difference. Don't--under any circumstances--antagonize mom. Also don't bad mouth mom in front of Sarah.

There is nothing more frustrating then watching a child suffer needlessly. You can't stop it--but you can make it a little bit better. Concentrate on the things you can do.
posted by lester at 6:47 PM on December 7, 2005

ok, so lester can't spell. sorry!
posted by lester at 6:48 PM on December 7, 2005

My first, immediate, knee-jerk thought is "why can't you spend more than one afternoon/evening a week with her?"

I have friends who are mentors in a big/little program and they routinely spend as many as 3-4 afternoons/evenings per week with their matched child.

I also wonder (and I have no idea how you would do this) if you could find a way to have a talk with her about reproductive health -- "where babies come from".

You're a good person. Good for you for trying to help. Good luck.
posted by anastasiav at 6:48 PM on December 7, 2005

rdr: I don't think that justonegirl has an issue with understanding the meaning of class in this situation. Indeed it doesn't sound like Sarah comes from a middle class family. This obviously isn't a bad thing in itself, or cause for concern, but the mother of any child referring to them as "a little shit" and "bad and evil" is a problem, whether the family is middle class, working class, aristocrats or any other class you care to name.
posted by Lotto at 6:49 PM on December 7, 2005

If you do talk to children's and family services, I would be very careful about it. Based on your account of the situation, I doubt Sarah would be put into foster care. But, if she were (especially if you live in a larger city), it's entirely possible that you wouldn't be told where she's going and you would lose touch with her. Also, if you were to call children's services and the family gets a montly "check-in" from a social worker, it's likely the mother would be furious and not allow you to see Sarah (which might be worth it if the home situation is truly able to get better). Would the teacher be willing to make a report to children's services? This takes you out of the equation. Plus, if the situation looks like neglect, she's ethically bound to report it.
posted by zharptitsa at 6:52 PM on December 7, 2005

Is there any way you can spend time with Sarah (and/or her siblings) outside of the tutoring program? Would her mom be willing to let her shadow you at work for a day? Maybe just go to a good kids' movie one Saturday per month. From my limited experience, kids respond very well to people taking an interest in them (see your comment about Sarah searching for validation). If Sarah has more opportunities to know that someone cares about her and every aspect of her life, she'll very likely take it to heart. If she begins to see you as a model of a "successful" person, she'll begin to want to reach a similar kind of success, which is when you will be able to discuss the importance of school, positive social interaction, etc. Set up some sort of incentive program: an bigger popcorn at the movies for a good test score, time playing a game during tutoring if she does all of her math right- let her know that academic achievement is rewarding and appreciated.
You may not be able to take Sarah in as your own, but the more time you can spend with her, the better. IMHO. Do be careful, though, not to make judgments about her family and their way of life, especially in front of her. The last thing you want is for her to start thinking that Mommy is wrong and justonegirl is right. Do your best to be a very present, positive force in her life. Good luck and kudos to you for taking an interest in a needy child.

On preview, what others said with fewer words.
posted by PhatLobley at 6:54 PM on December 7, 2005

Calling the child protection office will not necessarily be a bad move. It sounds like the kid is being neglected, and those people really can help if it's bad enough.
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:54 PM on December 7, 2005

Also, I'm pretty sure that reports to CPS can be anonymous, or at least the reporter's name withheld. To quote from the website I linked above:

A report of suspected child abuse or neglect is not an accusation, rather it is the only link to services for families who would not voluntarily seek the help they may desperately need. Sometimes potential reporters of abuse or neglect are convinced that nothing will be done if they report, so they choose not to report. Aside from legal and ethical considerations, such reasoning is questionable. When an incident of suspected child abuse and/or neglect is reported, action is taken. This "action" or response is mandated by law and State Policy. On the other hand, if the incident is not reported, nothing will be done and the child may remain in an unsafe situation.

If the mom freaks out about it, report her again. CPS is required by law to investigate every report. It does not take an act of horrific child abuse to make CPS recognize that a child is in a bad situation.
posted by thirteenkiller at 7:07 PM on December 7, 2005

Best answer: Devote some time to teaching her how to be resourceful. For example, find your local Homework Helpline and show her how to use it. Introduce her to the reference librarian at the public library. When the time comes, acquaint her with the nearest Planned Parenthood. Explore every service available to her in your community so that when you are not available to help her, she can help herself.

As for her diet, try sending her home with a little nutritious something every time you see her. A box of clementines, a loaf of wholegrain bread, something healthy you cooked just for her--whatever you can just hand her casually. Every little bit helps.

Good luck. You're doing a good thing.
posted by jrossi4r at 7:13 PM on December 7, 2005

Try to get her involved in something she is interested in and will be able to pursue on her own like sports or art. Maybe you could even send her to a summercamp to give her a break and let her be a kid.

I'd butter up her Mom: even if you don't like her it is her kid and she has the final say in how much interaction you have with her.
posted by fshgrl at 7:15 PM on December 7, 2005

The thing that bothers me the most is the no breakfast / bad lunch comment. Doesn't her school have free/reduced lunch and breakfast programs? I find that mind boggling...but I don't know what the school system is like in your state. I know you've probably already tried going through the school (or at least her teacher) to get help, but try again. Talk to a social worker or counselor at her school. They are there to deal with things like this...she needs to be fed, she needs proper clothing. Of course she's struggling in school if she doesn't even have that.

As for other advice, I think you should pick your battles. Inappropriate movies and sexual lyrics? Pretty normal for a lot of 10 year olds these days. Fake nails and piercings? Yeah, maybe it shouldn't be a priority over school, but's not out of the ordinary. Worry about the things that are going to affect her in school - bad nutrition and unstable homelife. Get help.
posted by jetskiaccidents at 7:42 PM on December 7, 2005

At 10, she's old enough to start understanding concepts of cooking and basic nutrition, as well. If she's eating at Taco Bell and out of vending machines every day, does she have pocket money? Could you teach her how to pick healthy foods that require minimal preparation? Enroll her in a cooking class for kids? Teaching her a skill like that could boost her confidence, get her out of the house, and help her whole family if she's able to get them all eating a little better a few years down the road.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:46 PM on December 7, 2005

I hardly think this rises to the level of 'neglect' and trust me, forcing her from her mothers home would be far, far more traumatic then what's actually going on, and the most likely result of a complaint is that you'll get cut out of the girls life by the mother.

Secondly, while what you describe sounds bad, do you really think it'll all be peaches and cream if you just took custody of her? How do you think she'd react if you tried to take away her TV and hip-hop? How do you think she'd react if you didn't let her hang out with the 'fast' crowd It would not be easy at all, and she would be deeply upset with constraints you put on her (even though she probably needs them)

And really, a lot of what you seem to be worried about is only stuff that will affect her 'social acceptability' in the future. I wouldn't want my daughter to act like that (if I had one) and yes don't want her to get pregnant or AIDS or hooked on drugs or whatever but beyond that this stuff won't matter when she's an adult.

All she really needs to get a good education. Maybe you could get her to come over more nights and help her with her homework yourself, rather trying to get the mom to do it. Keep in touch with the teacher to find out what assignments she has due.

That sounds like about it. You could also cook dinner for her while she's there (you'd certainly be doing this if you took her on as your own kid, obviously)

Finally, (just to be amoral here) I bet if you offered the mother $40,000 to adopt her she'd be more receptive. It would cost you a lot more then that to rase her anyway (the teenage years are the most expensive)
posted by delmoi at 7:50 PM on December 7, 2005

Can you really buy a kid like that? I mean, legally speaking, does that work?
posted by phrontist at 8:01 PM on December 7, 2005

Reading solves everything. Make reading enjoyable for her and no matter how bad her life is she can turn to books.

The cooking suggestion is an excellent one...

Any afterschool activity would be great. Every school has something, even if it's not academic. (If they have one FIRST lego leauge is awesome).
posted by phrontist at 8:04 PM on December 7, 2005

I agree with delmoi, if CPS could do anything, it would probably cause far more problems than it would solve in this situation. Her mother sounds like a real prize, but is she really worse than the most likely alternatives? There are, for example, some wonderful foster parents, there are also a lot of crummy ones.
posted by Good Brain at 8:09 PM on December 7, 2005

Can you really buy a kid like that? I mean, legally speaking, does that work?

You definitely can't just buy a child legally. However you can adopt a child, and you can give someone money. I'm not exactly sure if you can do both at the same time legally, but there's probably a way to pull it off without breaking the law.
posted by delmoi at 8:10 PM on December 7, 2005

Best answer: Does Sarah see the importance of any of this? Would she consider going to bed earlier or is her home too disruptive to do so?

Unfortunately, I think her eating habits are probably common for pre-teens, even those from "good" homes. Look at the market for PopTarts and mini donuts. Also, my parenting magazine just reported that 1 in 4 kids eats french fries at least once a DAY. Could you talk to her about nutrition? Maybe you could give her a batch of bran muffins, a block of cheese, some fruit and some juice boxes every week. That's the sort of grab and go breakfast that works well when you wake up late after having been up late. As for lunch, is there a meal program? Could you help her find health choices in the vending machines? Could you give her some cans of milkshake meals and some energy bars so that she can have that instead? Convenience is key. Maybe you could also watch Super Size Me together and help her find healthy choices at McDonald's, Taco Bell and the like. It's unlikely you can overhaul the family's general eating habits. But maybe you can help her make choices that are quick and convenient. If you could get two health meals (or meal substitutes) going every day, the evening fast food meal might not be so bad.

I think there are a lot of 10-year-olds who watch inappropriate movies and listen to inappropriate music. My health nurse recently told me that she struggles with her 11-year-old who insists on sporting the T&A look -- and that's a solid family from a very good neighbourhood.

Mega ear-piercing and fake nails are probably not uncommon among the girls she knows. Her mother probably sees it as bonding and splurging. This is probably the least of your worries, since it is not really permanent.

When I was growing up, girls from poor families often hung out with fast girls because they put more emphasis on how seductive your clothing was than what brand or cost it carried. Maybe you could go shopping for vintage clothes at second-hand stores -- tell her you want to get some bargain-priced name brands for yourself, then see if she's interested in finding clothes for herself. If you can help her see a way to fit in with the other girls, she'll have more choices.

You can obviously set a good example by role modelling and perhaps expanding your contact time with her. Your tutoring and mentoring sound like great opportunities. Maybe you can help her with goal-setting.

But you may not be able to save her from everything. Now is the time to talk about bodies, relationships, sexual identities and the like. As noted above, help her get in touch with resources in the community. Practice calling various services, meeting with them, etc. Help her see Planned Parenthood (or whatever they're called now) as a resource. Talk to her about safe sex. By the time I was in 6th grade, sex -- whether oral or the "real" thing -- was not uncommon. You want her to know that she can get diseases from a variety of endeavours, not just plain vanilla sex.

Finally, if there are any opportunities for her to go to summer camps, leadership events, mini exchanges or the like, help her find out about them. The more she feels comfortable with middle class kids, the more she'll be likely to emulate some of their behaviours. Not that all middle class kids have model behaviours.
posted by acoutu at 9:41 PM on December 7, 2005

The longer you can keep her out of her home environment, the better.

Have her sign-up for after school activities. Find something for her to do on the weekends--every weekend, all day, Saturday and Sunday. If you have to, haul her to Church. She's too young to know what to do with herself and will just end up getting into trouble. During the summer, toss her into a summer camp. Far better she spend the summer getting eaten alive by mosquitos than sitting in front of the TV or roaming the streets. Don't upset the mother. If you upset the mother you'll kill your chances of being part of Sarah's life. Be extra friendly to the mother. Perhaps get her a Holidays gift or three. Have Sarah start spending nights at your house, if possible. The nights that she's at home call her each night and let her know you're thinking of her and that she needs to go to bed. Take her on trips. Take her to museums, to restaurants, to concerts--really try to expand her horizons. If you can make it clear to her that there's far more life than her immediate dysfunctional environment you'll have done her a tremendous favor. As soon as she's old enough, 13 or so, consider putting her in a boarding school.

Note that none of this will be cheap.

Also, it sounds like she needs some old-fashioned discipline. You might consider putting together a daily schedule for her that dictates exactly when she wakes up, when she goes to school, when she leaves, when she does her homework, when and what she eats for dinner, and when she goes to bed. Give her a reward for keeping to the schedule. Kids need routine. Don't let the teacher write her off. Call the teacher and ask about Sarah's grades and performance--every Friday. Let the teacher, and Sarah, know there'll be consequences for bad performance. Don't be afraid to punish the kid either. You need to find some way to let her know that it's simply unacceptable that she gets into trouble everyday. You might have to give her an allowance and than withhold payment when she acts up.

Really, though, you should understand that messing with other people's kids is generally a very bad idea. The truth is you and your husband are probably much better off having your own kid rather than playing Guaradian Angels to somebodyy else's kid. If you truly love this kid then it may be too late, but take a moment to understand the world of pain you'll be entering if you really try to raise this kid from afar.
posted by nixerman at 10:04 PM on December 7, 2005

I totally disagree with delmoi - it's way more than just "social acceptability." The poor kid isn't being properly cared for. In a perfect world, her mom should be reported to CPS because Sarah *is* being neglected. But I agree that it could just cause more problems. Even if you say education is the main factor, home life is a huge factor in a child's success in school and life. She's not getting attention or support at home.

Per acoutu's comments, a child's nutritional habits are most affected by their parents. Of course they are exposed to junk food and ads for it all day, but its up to their parents if that food is available at home.

I agree, justonegirl, that you should try to spend as much time with her as possible but don't badmouth her mom. I like all the suggestions about extracurricular activities, camps, sending her home with food. And try to forge a relationship with her mom. Lecturing the woman isn't going to do any good.

Also, talk to the kid about sex, drugs, etc. Do it gently, cuz you don't want the mom to freak out. Be the person that Sarah can confide in, that she trusts, that can take her to get birth control, etc.

Most of all, realize that some parts of Sarah's life will be out of your control. You sound like an amazing person who really cares about this little girl, and I'm sure you've already had a profound impact on her life. But you can't *save* her nor should you try. Even if you do your best she may have some hard times ahead. All you can do is your best, and not beat yourself up if her life isn't perfect.
posted by radioamy at 10:32 PM on December 7, 2005

I totally disagree with delmoi - it's way more than just "social acceptability." The poor kid isn't being properly cared for. In a perfect world, her mom should be reported to CPS because Sarah *is* being neglected.

In a perfect world, she would have a perfect mother, no? So that's really a non-issue. In the real world CPS is not a panacea and can fuck kids up just as much as all but the most fucked-up parents.

Cheap old clothes and junk-food and 'the fast crowd' at school is not going to fuck a kid up for life.
posted by delmoi at 11:43 PM on December 7, 2005

Have you talked to the girl about what she wants out of life?
posted by delmoi at 11:44 PM on December 7, 2005

I would try to get her involved in every program available to her: after school, atheletics, music-what does she like? If you have the time, take her to do activities other days of the week. Be a good role model with you eating habits. Be a pilar of trust in her life. It really sounds like you would be a better mother than her real mother, but think about that: that is her real mother, that is her culture and her family. Make sure that you are not making her feel ashamed of who she is by wanting to take her away from her life. Whatever happens between you and her, she will have to deal with her family for the rest of her life. It might be better to be a friend who can show her another way of life, than a second mother who's going to solve all of her problems by whisking her out of the trailer park.
posted by slimslowslider at 12:03 AM on December 8, 2005

Bravo for you, for being involved with this girl and wanting to do everything you can. But you knew that already -- the mentoring is really its own reward.

Talk to the caseworkers. Obviously Sarah is in the program in the first place because of issues like this. The recommendation about CPS does not have to be about "neglect" -- this is certainly a borderline case -- or about getting her out of her home. The first step that CPS will try is getting the mother to correct things on her own. The second will (or should) be getting the mother some resources such as a parenting class. The third option is (often) going to be placement with a sympathetic family member -- grandmother, aunt. Foster care is reserved for chronic and severe cases -- it isn't some kind of quick fix they apply willy-nilly, unless you have a severely dysfunctional urban CPS.

It's always possible that you could be tapped for a foster situation, so look into getting certified now, regardless of any outcome. I wouldn't count on that, though, unless you maintain good relations with the mother.

The school should definitely work with the mother on homework issues. The no-breakfast thing can be solved very easily -- there's a federal breakfast program for underprivileged kids. See if she qualifies. If she doesn't, there may still be a local group (like a church) that offers a breakfast program. Without breakfast she will not have successful school days. The school having crap in vending machines is something that all their students face -- my local district has just begun restricting theirs, so talk to the school about that.

The movies and music, well, if the mom won't lock those down, you're gonna have to accept.

I would second slimslowslider in that her real mother is always going to be her real mother. Real mothers have to really fuck up before they get rejected. Really, really, really fuck up. As long as she shows her daughter some occasional love, she's going to continue to have a strong influence. You're just gonna have to accept that.
posted by dhartung at 12:51 AM on December 8, 2005

Cheap old clothes and junk-food and 'the fast crowd' at school is not going to fuck a kid up for life.

They may not screw her up for life, that's true. But they're a fast track to nowhere. And ending up as an unhealthy, unwed, teenaged mother who perpetuates a cycle of poor education, poverty and poor parenting will certainly have an adverse affect upon her life until its end.
posted by Dreama at 2:13 AM on December 8, 2005

Finding a way to give her effective advice on sex education seems like a good way to contribute to stopping her being pregnant at 16. Can anyone suggest to justonegirl how to go about helping with this?
posted by biffa at 3:32 AM on December 8, 2005


Gospel choir, too! Probably most of the girl singers she might like - Beyonce, for example - learned how to sing in gospel choir.

The children and grandchildren of choir members who come to our choir rehearsal will never get in trouble, as they each have a dozen mothers ready to utterly decimate them if they do.
posted by By The Grace of God at 4:23 AM on December 8, 2005

Response by poster: I think the biggest part of my dilemma is feeling like my hands are tied, that all logical suggestions just don't apply. For example, while I would *love* to get her into some extracurricular activities, I can't actually be there to take her (since I work about 30 minutes from where she lives and can't get off early except for the one day when we do tutoring), and it's already a sure thing that her mom won't put in the effort to make sure she gets to practices, etc. She does go to a Greek Orthodox church with her grandmother on Sundays and participates in some church activities there, so that's a good thing at least. She also participates in chorus and safety patrol at school because those are during school hours.

Another thing I want to point out, in case it affects anyone's answers, is that the breakfast/lunch thing has nothing to do with finances, but rather the family just doesn't care. They wouldn't qualify for meal assistance because the grandparents are okay on money (not rich by any means, but okay). I have no doubt that there is food available at home, but the problem is no one is encouraging or expecting Sarah to eat -- rather, the priority is on her getting her younger sister ready for school. The lunch thing, I fully accept that kids are eating crap now. I just wish there were some balance with breakfast and dinner to offset that.

I guess my biggest problem now is how to get her mom to see that Sarah is struggling, and to fix it rather than making it worse. How do you point out that a parent is allowing their child to wander down the path of teen pregnancy and school failure? How do you tell them that blowing smoke in their face and turning their child's ears into pincushions at age 10 are bad ideas? How do you tell them that their kid's problems have nothing to do with the kid being bad, but everything to do with their crummy home life?
posted by justonegirl at 4:45 AM on December 8, 2005

Best answer: Oh man. I have so been there. Unlike most everybody else here, I'm going to go out on a limb and say you should not call CPS. Aside from the pretty crappy home environment that she's living in, what is her relationship like with her mother? Are they close, do they get along? Because while you see a Jerry Springer-esque lady who can't take care of her kids, she sees mommy, and that isn't something that will ever change.

I took a teenager in when I was 24, I tried to save her. It was too hard on me, way too much. What this girl needs is a positive influence on her life, and you are providing that. You should spend more time with her, and remember that just like how the adult-themed entertainment she watches will have a long lasting effect on her opinions and actions, so shall your influence on her, if you provide it.

What she needs is to know that you're in her corner, that you've got her back if things get rough for her, that you're looking out for her best interest. Be sure to have your husband hang around with her and be an awesome, "normal guy" figure for her to see as well. Let her see how he treats you, how you two relate to eachother in a normal way, how your self esteem and confidence affect your life in a positive way.

I can't stress this enough: Encourage her to be interested in culture that is outside of the miserable dreck that she sees on MTV that teaches her to be successful by being sexually available. Watch Buffy with her. Buy her some Francesca Lia Block for Christmas. If she's watching movies like Thirteen, the themes aren't too adult for her in either of these.

Engage her in activities that make her feel smart, that give her some confidence in her intelligence and ability and make her feel comfortable honing those aspects of her personality, to counteract all of the crap that she's no doubt getting from the unchecked media she consumes everyday. Play board games, even video games. Praise her for her intelligence. It goes a very long way.

Finally, these were the big lessons that I learned from my experience in trying to help a teenager in a similar situation:

  • My home life had been similar to this girl's and the girl that you describe. In a way, I had been trying to go back in time and save myself. Can't be done. You probably know that, but it bears saying.
  • Taking her in would likely be too much for you. Trying to fix a broken family system like the one this girl lives in is like trying to stop a train with your bare hands. You won't be able to fix it, and the deeper into it you get, the worse of an example you will be for her. "Get in the boat first" is what they say in situations like this.
  • A friend of mine gave this advice to me when I was in this same situation, and it's stayed with me all of this time - you have to respect her journey. With positive balance to counteract what she's experiencing, she can come out of this a much stronger person.

    If it makes any difference to you, I grew up in a home environment much like the one that you describe. I can't watch the movie Thirteen, because it was my life. But I had external factors, positive influences on my life that instilled values in me that helped me to be much more successful than I could have been. I remember those people and I am very grateful to them. That's what you should be to her.

  • posted by pazazygeek at 6:08 AM on December 8, 2005

    FYI.. you should help her fill out the paperwork for the free/reduced lunch. You would be surprised who qualifies. for example...I taught at an elementary school where I had students who had parents that owned several restaurants and those kids were on free lunch.
    You could help the fight to get vending machines out of (elementary) schools. Write the principal, school board, PTA. Find out why they have them (usually fundraising) and try to help them to find out another way to raise money for the school.
    Is she in art or choir at school? do they have performances/art activities at the PTA meetings? You could help her get there show your support.
    posted by nimsey lou at 6:47 AM on December 8, 2005

    I'd say, create a few more opportunities to do something fun each week. If you can afford tutoring, can you also afford something like horseback riding lessons? As a screwed up young girl, horses and piano were some of the few things that kept me sane and stable. Having something positive each week to invest in also kept a lot of negative activities at bay. Giving her an opportunity to learn a new skill will teach her about new ways to receive gratification. Horses, in particular, might be a bit of a class-jammer, but trust me, working with animals offers a great deal of healing and comfort.

    5th grade also seems a ripe grade to get her on a sports team, or two. First, start by taking her to scheduled games that her school plays so she can identify friends involved. Talk to a school administrator about which spring sports are available at her school or in the area through youth leagues. A sport will satisfy her need to be social, and sure, fast girls also play sports, but I tend to think that the collective knowledge and oversight by a (hopefully female) coach will do more good than harm.

    Perhaps she can't live with you, but maybe there's a way to occupy her time to the extent that her life is lived outside of her home and in the company of people who build her up and care about her welfare. I know there's a lot of talk about "overscheduling" children these days, but the alternative in this case seems worse.

    By The Grace of God's suggestion of choir isn't a bad idea at all. Perhaps you can join the choir as well?

    As far as eating goes, try doing some cooking lessons or involving her in your meal prep when she's at your house. Empower her to make her own food decisions by sending her home with a grocery bag of healthy things she can cook for herself.

    Finally, recruit more mentors. Are there any girl-specific mentoring programs in your area? Don't leave yourself holding all the marbles and rocks. Ask your trusted female friends if they'd like to get involved.
    posted by cior at 6:51 AM on December 8, 2005

    Best answer: You know, I'm going to have to side with pazazygeek on this one. I grew up middle class with a very messed up home life. Was called a "little b*tch" and "b*stard" starting at around age 7? Check. Not taught proper hygiene? Check. Ran with a fast crowd by teen years? Check. No structure or predictability at home, allowed to indulge in poor nutrition/inappropriate media/etc.? Check. Alcohol and violence in the home? Check. I have a Masters Degree, a very nice career, a great marriage and a solid financial portfolio. My sister (unmarried and pregnant at 20) is married to a wonderful man, now has two children, an undergraduate degree and is a very involved SAHM.

    How did I get from there to here? I had relationships outside of my family with adults who did not try to be alternate parents to me. Instead, they acted as mentors for my interests, provided a listening ear, did not try to judge or preach to me, and just showed--through example--that things could be different and that I had choices.

    I think that trying to take control of what is happening to Sarah would not be appropriate or easy unless she is in immediate danger of being physically hurt. The courts give preference to birth families except in very extreme situations. Even inadequate parents (and especially parents with low self-esteem) have a sense of ownership of their kids and can get VERY defensive about interference or judgement of their parenting. And, kids with inadequate parents may still love and side with their parents even when it doesn't make logical sense... because they are the parents.

    You might be better off mentoring Sarah in the role you already have specifically BECAUSE you are not her parents. Slowly try to figure out ways to spend a little more time with her. Explore her interests and support her in activities that promote confidence (such as individual or team sports, music, working with animals, etc. Canoeing captured my heart at that age, as did horseback riding. Theater did too.) Listen to her. Don't try to psychoanalyze her, just listen to her. Answer her questions. Tell her that you are proud of her when she does well on a school project, etc.

    Try to resist judging her or the environment that she is growing up in. Peers are incredibly important at that age and, if wearing acrylic nails or having 5 ear piercings is what is "in" right now, telling her that she cannot do these things or she's going to end up unwed and pregnant at 15 is going to cause her to withdraw, not open up. No, I wouldn't want my kid to wear and do the same types of things that I did in the early '80's but I will be her parent. If that was the way it was with--say--my niece, I would recognize that acrylic nails will eventually fall off and that isn't who SHE is.

    Best of luck.
    posted by jeanmari at 7:36 AM on December 8, 2005

    I guess my biggest problem now is how to get her mom to see that Sarah is struggling, and to fix it rather than making it worse.

    This might (might) be possible. But this:

    How do you point out that a parent is allowing their child to wander down the path of teen pregnancy and school failure? How do you tell them that blowing smoke in their face and turning their child's ears into pincushions at age 10 are bad ideas? How do you tell them that their kid's problems have nothing to do with the kid being bad, but everything to do with their crummy home life?

    This is not how you do it. That attitude isn't about problem solving. It comes off as holier-than-thou and judgemental and condescending. Essentially, you're wanting to tell this woman "You are screwing up your kids. It's all your fault and I am know what's good for you and them better than you do. I'm going to tell you what you're doing wrong. In fact, you're such a screw up that I think I should take your kids from you because obviously I could do a much better job myself". Gotta tell you, justonegirl, that's going to go over like a lead balloon.

    I understand that your heart is in the right place and you really care for all the right reasons. But putting all the blame on her mother is not going to get to solutions for Sarah. Assuming that nothing is screwed up badly enough for CPS to take her away, then she is stuck with her Mom for better or worse. It's important to find collaborative solutions, where you can support the Mom in meeting Sarah's needs positively, instead of just assuming she's unfit to parent. The kinds of things you're saying in the paragraph I quoted above will only draw hostility, not solutions.
    posted by raedyn at 7:41 AM on December 8, 2005

    And read everything that jeanmari just said. Again. Twice.
    posted by raedyn at 7:42 AM on December 8, 2005

    I've also been on both sides of this issue. Calling Social Services will definitely do you no good -- you have to be screwing things up to a truly appalling degree before anyone even thinks of acting*.

    In my own personal case, I know of dozens of complaints sent in for my supposed benefit that did nothing whatsoever aside from getting my parents ticketed (causing further financial hardship), including the time when my stepfather was seen by multiple neighbors breaking into my house with the obvious (i.e., screamed repeatedly and heard by all witnesses) intent of killing all the occupants -- unless, I suppose, you count hundreds of hours of forced counseling sessions as "doing something." The only actual action of any sort ever taken was the one time my father was arrested for falling behind a couple months on child support -- THAT they take seriously.

    The only thing that ever really helped was the one person who was smart enough to realize they couldn't fix home, but gave me somewhere else to go where I got exposed to a lot of other people... so I could see that it wasn't like that everywhere, and I could do better. Nothing wrong with your being that person, but they may be all you can do.

    * - My sister and her ex-boyfriend have both been convicted recently for multiple incidents, and are on public record as attempting to kill the other in front of the children. The threatened involvement of Social Services has been used merely as the carrot to coax plea bargains. And so, despite a long paper trail of abuse, neglect, etc., nothing is done at all. I not too long ago was alerted that I (their Uncle) was the only family member likely to be judged a fit guardian if the parents were both convicted of felonies -- but apparently nothing less than that will bring action of any kind.
    posted by Pufferish at 8:08 AM on December 8, 2005

    Response by poster: I truly appreciate the responses so far and they've given me, honestly, the first glimmer of hope and encouragement I've had in a long time.

    I regret having offended some people with explanations that evidently came off as condescending or holier-than-thou. I realize how it probably sounds and I probably deserve to feel ashamed of describing the situation the way I did. However, for what it's worth, I do hope it's understood that I wouldn't actually approach the mom this way, or ever -- ever -- make Sarah feel bad about her family life. I want this child to be happy, healthy, and safe, not make her hate her family or focused on the negative aspects of her situation.
    posted by justonegirl at 8:24 AM on December 8, 2005

    She has a roof over her head...she will survive and hopefully learn a valuable lesson in life. Like, how to not live as an adult when she is one.

    You can't save the world or tell it how to live as this is life as we know it.

    Growing up in a single family my mother had trouble with the babysitters' lifestyles and felt it safer for me to be a latch-key child at the age of 7. At least she knew I would feed myself (she could also know what I ate) after school and was not being influenced by the lifestyles found outside of ours in these homes. Since I had the key to our home it would be safe for me there to go to after school.

    About all you can do is influence her to be responsible for herself like my mother did with me when I was home alone.
    posted by thomcatspike at 9:57 AM on December 8, 2005

    You can't make her into something she's not. Have you considered that she is a child you find endearing *because* of her upbringing, even if it means she's using it as the pole from which she is opposite?

    You can continue to be her mentor, give her the gift of being exposed to your very different perspective and understanding of the world. But you can't "save" her from having a family you think of as lower class.

    Problematizing it in this way will only increase the chances of the child stigmatizing her own background.
    posted by macinchik at 1:12 PM on December 8, 2005

    CPS will probably cause more problems than it solves.

    If you can do it without pissing off her parents or without them finding out: talk to her about using condoms to avoid pregnancies and AIDS. Talk to her about Planned Parenthood (I wouldn't mention abortion specifically in case it'll piss her Mom off, but she should know generally where to go for contraceptive help). Talk to her about how boys are going to try to get her to do things and tell her she won't get pregnant and it's okay and they're wrong. Tell her specifically with examples; teens I work with feel less embarrassed if you share embarrassing stuff with them like "and when I was your age they told me to drink Pepsi afterwards and I wouldn't get pregnant, or that they would pull out, or that I could use vinegar. . . but it was all b.s." And they sometimes take it more seriously from people who are important to them, but not their parents or teachers. Tell her to be in control and never let anyone get her to do things she doesn't want to. In fact if you could give her condoms or money for condoms without pissing her parents off I'd say do it. Or keep them in a bowl in the bathroom when she comes over. Seriously. Lots of teens are too shy or cheap to buy them, or they get the crappy free ones that break. Don't ask her what she's doing or if she's active, just tell her this stuff and say it's important. This will head off the most irreversible trouble she can get into, like std's or pregnancy.

    Be a positive influence in her life, even if she does end up in a way that doesn't meet your criteria for what you want for her. She will need you even more if she becomes a teenage mother or gets in trouble with the law or something - it's not the worst thing in the world, but it does make things harder. But know that how her family is raising her is not up to you, unless it's abuse or neglect.
    posted by Marnie at 6:08 PM on December 8, 2005

    I third (fourth?) the cooking classes. Could you even maybe make cooking a regular activity you do together? It doesn’t sound like there’s much she gets to do well at and achieve at. Perhaps some simple, fun cooking could be that something?

    Kids can get a real feeling of achievement and recognition from cooking. It’s such a nice feeling for anyone to cook something and have people eating it say it’s yummy, or ask for seconds. For someone who hasn’t perhaps ever had the chance to do anything well, or be praised for something they’ve achieved, it could be a really positive thing.

    Cookery teaches all kinds of other good stuff too. Kids learn how to start a project and see it through to the end, how to be organised, and how to clean up. How to be safe with the oven, stove top, appliances and knives. How to cope with mistakes, disasters and the unexpected. Plus a little bit of chemistry (baking), reading (recipes) and maths (measuring and counting). Basic nutrition of course. Some creative expression too - smiley faces made from bacon and eggs, anyone?

    And it’s messy and fun and you get to eat it. Awesome!

    (And she gets fed a little more -- and p'raps learns how to feed herself when no-one else will.)
    posted by t0astie at 4:03 PM on December 11, 2005

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