A Better Ending for the "Invisible Child"

If there's one news article I would put on your must-read list from 2013, it's last week's exceptional New York Times series on Dasani, a homeless girl living in Brooklyn. The reporter interviewed Dasani and her family over the course of a year, and she gives you a vivid, child's-eye view of what it's like to live in dire poverty.

The series shines a harsh light on New York City's response to its growing number of homeless families. As the reporter explains, the shelter where Dasani and her family have lived for three years is: "a place where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm... where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers."

[If you think that this isn't happening in DC, read the many reports on DC General, which The Washington Post has called "the crown jewel of the city's shameful housing crisis." The former hospital now shelters 500 homeless families in overcrowded conditions, a number expected to continue to soar throughout the winter.]

Despite these horrific living conditions, the New York Times series on Dasani paints a picture that is not hopeless. Dasani's smarts and pluck and her strong ties to her family and teachers help her get through what many would find unbearable. She is an amazing girl.

As I read the series, it struck me that the family's story can be summarized in two ways. How you sum it up has a lot to do with your outlook, and also what solutions you may support to help Dasani and so many children like her.

You can tell the story of a girl who, despite extreme poverty, has a chance at a better future. She is surrounded by a number of caring people who have helped her become resilient. There's her grandmother, who gave her a safe, stable first year of life. Her charismatic mother, who advocates for Dasani, shows her love, and disciplines her when she misbehaves. Dasani has strongly bonded brothers and sisters who look out for one another. And, there's Dasani herself, a strong and bright girl.

There is another way to tell this story. Dasani has drug-addicted parents, who struggle in recovery and can't always meet their children's most basic needs. Her mother at first abandoned her and then went on to have many more children, despite not having any income or stability. Then, of course, there's Dasani, who gets into many fights at school.

Dasani is a girl on a precipice. Which story should frame our response?

It strikes me that nowhere in the series do you see agencies working with Dasani's parents for a better outcome. No one is working with them to improve their parenting, job skills, financial literacy or even to help them find housing. The parents are not blameless in this story, and they have failed in a number of ways. Yet, Dasani's fate is tied to her parents and other adults in her life. If we don't help them, we risk continuing the cycle.

Here are some ways we could have invested much earlier in Dasani's family to help shape a better outcome:

  • Parental education. Her mother could have been identified early as vulnerable, and participated in a home visiting program to receive counseling, parenting skills and referrals to needed services. Research shows that children served by home visiting programs are more likely to enter kindergarten ready to learn, experience good health, and have strong relationships with their parents.

  • Financial literacy. Dasani's parents could have been offered financial literacy programs to help them use the small inheritance they received to get on more secure financial footing. Instead, their transition to safer housing was short-lived when the money was gone.
  • Child care. The lack of child care at the shelter and at the drug treatment program the parents attended made it very difficult for them to seek employment. Without subsidies, private child care is simply too expensive. In DC, the average cost of full-time child care for an infant is more than $20,000 a year.
  • Affordable housing. The New York Times reports that it costs $3,000 a month to house Dasani's family in the shelter, and there are almost no affordable housing options for them. The affordable housing crisis has also reached the District. Investing in permanent, affordable housing will be critical for a long-term solution.
  • I don't know Dasani, but I know many girls like her through our work at Children's Law Center. To give them hope for a better future, it's not enough to intervene when there is abuse and neglect. We can also work to prevent neglect by helping vulnerable families and their children much earlier.

    That should be the District's New Year's resolution for 2014.