By Charles L. Baker
I was reminded this Christmas of a young man I'll call Johnny. He was referred to the Buckhorn Children's Center with a long history of violence. His record indicated he had dozens of fights at school, not only with other students, but with teachers and the principal as well.
When Johnny came to us, we discovered he fought because he was scared. Johnny came from a very poor family and had to wear hand-me-down clothes. A lot of rural kids wear hand-me-downs, but Johnny's were from his older sister.
When Johnny wore his sister's shirts or pants to school, he would be teased by the other children. Johnny, who also had a severe speech impediment and couldn't compete in a verbal battle, would ball up his fists and wade into anyone who teased him about his clothes.
Johnny's school had one hard-and-fast rule: Any student caught fighting in school would be paddled. So nearly every day Johnny went to school, he was humiliated, got into a fight and was paddled. It was no wonder he was terrified of school.
When Johnny arrived at the center, he had all his belongings in a small paper sack. He was wearing the only pair of jeans he owned, along with a completely worn-out pair of sneakers. When our nurse gave him his physical examination, she discovered the reason for his severe speech impediment. Johnny was nearly deaf from long-neglected infections in both ears.
Ear surgery was scheduled; and in time, Johnny's hearing was restored and, with speech therapy, his speech improved.
Many staff members demonstrated their care for Johnny's well-being; but that caring is best illustrated by Alice, a child care worker, who took him on his first shopping trip. The budget was $200.
The first place they visited was the shoe department to get Johnny a good practical pair of shoes to replace his worn-out sneakers. Johnny immediately fell in love with a beautiful pair of cowboy boots. They were the right size, but hardly practical; and the price was $75!
When Alice returned, she apologized. She said, "I was so torn. He really needed underwear, shirts, good shoes and a pair of jeans; but I knew he probably never had anything he really wanted. So I got everything else, but we got the boots, too! I'm sorry I didn't stay within the budget."
What chance does a budget have against a pair of cowboy boots?
Residential care for children is suffering this year. It's expensive, and state government doesn't want to pay for it. Foster care, in most instances, is more effective, but I don't believe there are many foster parents who could get Johnny to go to school.
Some private organizations need to rethink what they do; undoubtedly, we have too many residential beds. But here's the real issue: Today, we have an increasing number of desperately poor families like Johnny's. The best answer is not to take children like Johnny away from their families and place them in either residential or foster care. We need to help the family and improve that school so Johnny can stay at home.
You can help that happen in two ways. First, write your legislator and urge more help for poor families. Second, write a check to support a children's charity. They need your help to survive and to buy those cowboy boots.
Charles L. Baker of Louisville is the retired CEO of the Buckhorn Children's Foundation.