A few days ago, an Amber Alert was issued for a little boy from my hometown by the name of Omarion, “Mars” for short. It was a particularly complicated case as he went missing while in the care of his foster family and was autistic and nonverbal. My small, Midwestern town rallied and searched and prayed and, five days later, his body was found in a lake in the city park which had just recently opened following much fanfare and planning.
It was impossible not to follow the case as it unfolded since there were so many posts on my social media feeds: the searches, the leads, the birth mother speaking out, the foster family keeping quiet. It wasn’t long before speculation began arising about who was to blame. Conspiracy theories bounced around and fingers were pointed. When tragedy strikes, we like to identify the root of the issue. Speculation is a natural human response to explaining the unexplainable. I watched and I mulled and I felt uncomfortably conflicted and so I mulled some more until I could put my finger onto why I felt so unsettled about my reaction to this boy’s too short story…
… and then I read this news story recalling his history:
“Omarion wears adult clothes held up by a belt and wears shoes with no soles. Omarion’s teacher provides Omarion clothing that he changes into before class starts in the morning,” court documents in Oakland County said. “Omarion is frequently bullied by his peers due to poor hygiene and for body odor. In the past, school personnel have had to give Omarion sponge baths due to his overwhelming body odor and hygiene.” (Source: Mlive)
At that moment, I realized why I was feeling uncomfortable: Mars’s tragic passing was uncommon, but his life beforehand was not. That description above? That could be detailing normalcy for any number of children living in poverty. I’ve seen it and I teach them and I’m telling you not in condescension but merely as a voice for the voiceless, this is so very disturbingly normal.
- Shoes 3 sizes too big or too small
- Pants that look like capris but are really just a younger sibling’s clothes
- Odors of human or animal feces or urine
- Lice jumping off heads onto tables
- Bedbugs hiding in homework
- Skirts in the dead of winter
- Shirts worn 5 days in a row
- Teeth broken in two from poor hygiene and diets
- (And that list doesn’t even begin to address the homes of mattresses with no sheets, dog shit covered floors, roach infested kitchens…)
I know these things to be true because those are all truths from my own experiences as a teacher. That little boy’s story is shamefully normal.
Now, lest we begin to jump on the judgement train again (and trust me, I’ve had quite a few therapy sessions revolving around resisting the urge to become completely jaded after years upon years of the same) it would do us all good to leave space for a couple of truths.
First, let us remember to be extremely careful of falling into the trap of the Single Story.
This TED talk absolutely beautifully illustrates this point, but allow me to apply it to this situation.
The foster family: On one hand, Ryan and I definitely made some crazy eyes at each other in our foster care training classes. There are some Crazy (with a capital C) people out there. Listen, they didn’t put this clause in our foster parent handbook because they were afraid someone might do it:
On the other hand, fostering is hard. Fostering a child with special needs is hard. We don’t have enough foster families as it is and, even if these foster parents are found guilty of negligence, it is important to understand that fostering is deeply complicated in even the best case scenarios.
The birth family: First, it was difficult for me to hear Mars’s birth mother speak out about her missing son because the media was really throwing out the heartbreaking mom story. Single story, friends. Beware the single story. Certainly, definitely, grieve for this mother whose son went missing while under the care of another, but let’s not forget why he was with the other in the first place.
And yet, blame is heavy; let it not rest too heavy on any one individual. As terribly conflicting as it is to accept, when children are taken from unsafe families it should not be equated with that family not loving their child. I’m not offering excuses for atrocities brought upon children. I am offering that we remember not to judge from a Single Story. Some people really suck as parenting and there are a whole host of reasons for why this occurs. Love, (as all of us who understand that any family is complicated), is sometimes just not enough.
Finally, may this serve as a reminder to all of us that we are constantly surrounded by poverty, constantly surrounded by child maltreatment, EVEN WHEN WE DON’T SEE IT. I am surrounded by it and I still have to fight to truly see because it is so much easier to look away. But we have to look. If you don’t see it in your daily life, I encourage you to find a way to look harder. We aren’t heartless, just overwhelmed, so start small. Talk to a friend who works around poverty. Don’t skip over the journal articles about how poverty impacts children. Talk to a staff member of a school in an area of high poverty. (Remember, it doesn’t just affect urban areas. Poverty impacts rural schools just as often.) Talk to someone who is currently living in poverty.
We don’t have to fix it ourselves. We don’t have to have all the answers. We just need to stay aware. We need to get to the point where we understand that this little boy’s life wasn’t an exception to the rule; get to the point where his history horrifies us because it is yet another example of inequality and not because it is shocking in its originality.
Beware the single story,
And keep your eyes open. Teach them to stay open.