The National Crittenton Foundation was honored to be invited to attend and kick off the second meeting of the National Advisory Committee (NAC). NAC members are appointed by the Attorney General Eric Holder to advise the Office on Violence Against Women on how to reduce and address the exposure of children and youth to violence. At the meeting held last week in Washington, DC, six young women from the Crittenton Family of agencies had the opportunity to open the meeting up by sharing their personal stories of exposure to violence to the NAC members and advocates who filled the ballroom at the Fairfax Embassy Row Hotel.

As Dani, Breauna, Ashley, Lisette, Catherine and Shannon shared their stories, the room was silent. They urged the NAC to recognize the impact that trauma has on girls and young women. From being exposed to the violence associated with war, seeing one’s mother being battered or being sexually or physically abused by a family member or trusted adult as a child or teen has profound and lasting impacts. The resulting trauma needs to be addressed early to help girls and young women heal and develop ways to cope with the long-term affects of exposure to violence. Their stories exemplified what we know to be true–without treatment and support a range of destructive choices and issues like addiction, homelessness and negative relationships dominate and shape their lives. Often they become pregnant as a means of finding unconditional love and having a family. As the young mothers testified, it’s their children who help them turn their lives around. However sadly, they continue to be traumatized as society and the “system” views young mothers as lost causes or bad girls.

In order to truly help girls and young women, people must look past their stereotypes and take a look at the root causes including racism, poverty, sexism and the incidence of exposure to violence that co-occurs with these “isms.” Above all else, the girls and young women stressed that they want to overcome trauma and to thrive. They strive to be good students, professionals and mothers. With the right support, they make it work. “I am a teen mom. I love my son and take care of my good care of my son. I work two jobs. We live in our own apartment, have a car and I am enrolling in the police academy. I am going to create a future for me and my son,” explained Catherine, a 22-year-old from North Carolina. Her son, Isaiah, age 4, was at her side as she told her story.
Young women from Crittenton agencies have been sharing their stories over the past few months in Washington, DC. What impressed me most about this meeting was the NAC not only listened to the stories, they asked thoughtful questions and then worked with the young women in small breakout sessions to discuss what worked and didn’t for them, and to define the supports they need to be successful as young women, single mothers and as individuals and what policies they would urge.

They had plenty to say:
All of the young women in each group stated that Crittenton was different because of the staff and the relationships they built with them. In the end they felt that it was all about relationships and they suggested ways to ensure that staff who work with marginalized young women need to genuinely care about their success.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Funding for foster care, residential treatment like Crittenton provides and alternative schools should continue to be made available. Every girl is unique and will thrive in an environment that’s the best fit for her. Without good options, girls will simply runaway.

Ensure funding to address the root causes (poverty, racism and sexism) and to address the emotional trauma that the girls have experienced. Too many people assume girls are simply “in trouble” and do not recognize that the situation they are in is through no fault of their own. It goes back to childhood trauma and the experiences they face growing up at the margin of the American Dream.

Make education more portable. Every time you move from one home to another, you have to start over in school. Girls in foster care are often many grades behind simply because they have to start over. They want to do well in school, to graduate and to go onto college and training programs. Don’t assume they want the easy way out. They go on to get masters’ degrees, run companies and work in human services helping others.

Create a system that better understands trauma and how to provided trauma-informed services. From therapists to police and educators, they must know that working with girls who have experienced trauma is unique.

While the subject matter was intense, we also made time for fun. The young women met with actress Gabrielle Union, who is a member of the NAC. Gabrielle was raped at age 19 and is an advocate on the issue of violence and young women and she took genuine interest in hearing the stories and in talking to the girls during session breaks.

We wrapped the day up with a short trip through the nation’s Capitol to see some of the monuments to our country’s history, laughing and playing along the way. As one of the girls reminded me, “We have seen and experienced a lot of bad things in our lives and we may be young moms but we are still teenagers and like to do the same things teenagers do.”

Special thanks to Susan B. Carbon, Director of Office on Violence Against Women for helping us raise the voices of young women living at the margin of the American dream. Each time the girls and young women speak, I feel the movement growing. Let’s keep it going!

Jeannette Pai-Espinosa