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A look at trauma’s long shadow through the story of an Indiana girl who was failed by everyone

A look at trauma’s long shadow through the story of an Indiana girl who was failed by everyone

Picture of Marisa Kwiatkowski
[Photo by Igor Spasic via Flickr.]

The young woman was hunched over in the booth, ignoring the chatter flowing through the restaurant.

During more than six hours of recorded interviews, she sometimes held back tears, sometimes let go and often spoke with a mix of anger and hopelessness of all she’d lost. She said she never had a chance for normalcy.

“I hide and mask my emotions so well — and have for as long as I can remember — to escape the pain and rage inside me,” she wrote in one journal entry. “Fake, happy feelings and smiles only last for a few short weeks, but for that time I feel normal — although forced.”

The young woman has suffered repeated trauma throughout her life. At each turn, the people responsible for her safety failed her — her birth parents, relatives, foster parents, the Indiana Department of Child Services, school officials, therapists and others.

She was 3 years old when she entered the foster care system. When DCS officials found her in 1993, she was feeding her infant brother pieces of a Popsicle. The two children were alone in an apartment with no running water.

Over the next two decades, the welfare and school systems blundered in numerous ways. She was sexually abused in foster care. DCS officials bowed to public pressure in a contentious adoption case. School administrators and teachers had little patience for her behavior, seeing her as a troublemaker instead of a troubled child. And she struggled to get the therapy she needed.

Her teenage years and early 20s were punctuated by stays in mental health facilities, self-imposed homelessness and tangles with law enforcement.

The woman, now 27, described a darkness that befell her. She said she isn’t surprised she’s been called “evil.”

“More often than not,” she wrote in a journal entry, “I believe those words about myself. I know I’ll never be married. I’m incapable of appreciating love no matter how pretty I appear on the outside. I will never entirely believe that someone could love me.”

My reporting project is exploring the long-term effects of trauma, a growing problem in many corners of our cities, by looking at the life of a girl who grew up in harsh circumstances in central Indiana. How does post-traumatic stress affect children who grow up amid poverty, violence and drug use? What happens when they are thrust into a system that is too overburdened or politically manipulated to deal with their needs?

I’ve already conducted hours of interviews and gathered more than 1,000 pages of records relating to her experiences. And I plan on interviewing many others.

The project has the potential to expose gaps in the welfare system and drive a discussion on, among other issues, the sweeping impact of post-traumatic stress on certain individuals, communities and society. It also touches on race and sexuality. And it explores the challenges of adopting children with trauma, mental illnesses or developmental disabilities.

Or, as one DCS family case manager referred to such kids, “The children no one else will take.”

[Photo by Igor Spasic via Flickr.]

Comments

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I am thankful, touched, and deeply touched by your project. Reportorial instincts deeply rooted in the hearts of journalists have long served society in positive ways. So I offer both a salute and a thank you for your effort in this project! The young woman's experience, her heartbreaking journal entry along with your work will help collective humanity take yet another step forward!
I have a wonderful grandson at the center of my world. His mother experienced a childhood much like the young woman in this article. When my son introduced Amanda into our lives I must admit experiencing strong personal reservations due to the history she related to us. 7 years later it is much different, I occupy a "Dad" type of role in her life and she appreciates it. As usual in looking back I see my own lack of understanding was at the core of the initial skepticism.
It didn't take long for the initial skepticism to vanish and we fell in love with her like our own daughters. The love we felt was not misplaced due to pity, compassion or empathy. Although we experienced all those feelings for her, it was her unique traits, virtues that existed side by side with the undesirable ones that secured her a permanent place in our hearts. It was the horrific happenings she was subjected too that played a central role in her developing a few inimitable characteristics.
Some years have passed since Amanda came into our lives and we've of course had the ups and downs that come with life. I've quietly observed, as us dads often do, how skillfully she navigates those challenges. More importantly though is the fact when her genuine traits of love and discipline come to the fore, they are free from pretense or affectation. Its the ever present understanding that on one hand she carries a heavy burden which can sometime prompt bad behavior, on the other hand she possess' qualities to overcome. Love requires we accept both and lovingly offer support and beneficial words on both sides.
Here is why I am taking the time to relate our experience. While my son and two daughters lived a childhood nearly opposite of hers, she possess' attributes of love, humility and discipline which oftentimes far exceed my own children's. They on the other hand possess qualities she doesn't.
The valuable lesson I've learned is this: I strongly feel in order to exhibit the love to all children and adults we must first understand we are all imperfect humans and we have blemishes and beauty in us. I will always offer understanding while simultaneously reminding her of the beauty that exists in her. Beauty that came at least in part from the trauma she went through.

Love does exist in all of us and it is that basic human trait that will motivate us to address the entirety of this challenge and subsequently graduate to the next phase of taking care of all kids and adults. Journalistic projects like yours help us all!

Thank You for your work!

Timothy J Schmadeke
#LiveLife #LoveHard

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