Make a difference for Lucas

Last fall, I read with dismay the news of 4-year-old Lucas Webb’s death, purportedly at the hands of his parents. And now I read with equal horror that workers with the Missouri Children’s Division had failed to remove the boy from his father and stepmother, even after repeated calls to the Child Abuse Hotline by daycare workers.

lucas barnes webb
Lucas Barnes Webb,
courtesy of The Kansas City Star

The knee-jerk reaction likely will be to blame the child service workers and the Department of Social Services. To be sure, mistakes were made, and the state already has fired two workers involved in the case. Surely there will be calls to crucify others.

But that will be the incorrect response to such a tragedy. If you’re outraged and want to make a difference to ensure that young Lucas didn’t die in vain, you should turn your ire toward the Missouri General Assembly. Ask your legislators how they justify spending much of the precious five-month session, year after year, debating how to curtail abortion, or setting up roadblocks for women seeking birth control, or slowly but surely dismantling the state’s safety net for those living in poverty.

Or spending time on frivolous legislation, such as passing a bill allowing drivers to show proof of insurance by smart phone.

Instead, legislators should turn their attention to taking care of the children who already are here, who live in Missouri. Thousands live at or below the poverty line. Our representatives and senators don’t seem to care about those children, though. How else to explain the continual cuts to services that benefit them, such as Head Start and Medicaid, the elementary and secondary education budget  and, yes, the Children’s Division?

Please, be angry about Lucas Webb’s death. Be very angry. And then do something about it. Contact your state representative and senator and demand that they address the systemic breakdown that ultimately caused Lucas Webb’s death. For a list of Missouri legislators, go to www.house.mo.gov or www.senate.mo.gov.

Voices from the past, loud and clear

I’ve been feeling my age lately.

I know, I know. I’ve written about this before. Same story, different issue.

But this time, I’m walking around on a cranky knee, watching my 16-year-old son make mature decisions regarding his future, marveling at my 15-year-old daughter fixing a meal for her younger brother, beaming as my 10-year-old readies himself for his part in the chorus of a high school musical.

Some days, the hubs and I actually have time alone before the sun goes down because the three kids are busy with their own lives, which are becoming increasingly more tangential, less congruent, to ours.

Time marches on.

And then in the mail the other day arrived a letter from my aunt.

That right there was unusual – getting an actual letter instead of an e-mail? How old school.

And what was inside was even more so. My sweet aunt – my dad’s sister – had photocopied some letters her father wrote her mother before the two ever married, when they were just a couple of crazy 20-somethings. A note was attached:  “Hope you can read this letter from Navy to Loie,” wrote Aunt Mimi. “Some things are different in this century and some are the same.”

Hmmm, I thought. Intriguing.

The date on the first letter was Richmond, Calif., July 19, 1933.

Now, I had a bit of an idea what this was about. When I was a high school sophomore, I had to write an oral history on an older adult. Lucky for me, my paternal grandparents were visiting my southeast Missouri hometown for the Christmas holidays. I asked my grandpa if he’d let me interview him, and he agreed. We spent several hours talking, me with pen and notebook in hand, my grandpa with an ornery look in his eye. Sometimes during the interview, I wondered if he were pulling my leg with his stories.

Because I’d never in my 16 years heard the stories he told: Of his days in the U.S. Navy in the early 1920s, picking up dead soldiers from Central America, spending time in port in San Diego, going to college as an “older man” in his mid-20s, which earned him the nickname “Navy.”

Navy

College is where he met my grandmother, Lois. She was six years his junior and a serious Park College coed. He tried for years to woo her, but she was a hard sell. She had goals – to become a teacher – and she didn’t want some romancer to get in her way. But a few years after the stock market crash of 1929, she had to leave Park and return to Marceline to find a teaching job so she could help her family make ends meet.

Loie, when she was a little girl.

Grandpa, an independent man by then, paid his own pay to college and finished in about three years, including time spent at the teachers’ college in Warrensburg. But he couldn’t find a job after graduation, which frustrated him. So he took his money, bought some camping gear and a good pair of goggles, bade his poor mother adieu and hopped a freight train heading west.

So that’s the back story on those letters. By the time I heard that story, my grandpa was 78. He died a year later. I haven’t heard his voice in 27 years. Until, that is, I read the letters my aunt mailed me.

“Procrastination is the thief of time,” began a letter dated July 24, 1933 from Bakersfield, Calif.

I could just hear my grandpa deliver that truism. He had a way with words – I have a vivid memory of a hot August day in 1977. I was laid up with a toothache on the couch at my grandparents’ house. Everyone else had gone shopping for new school clothes, but I couldn’t. Grandpa volunteered to stay home with me.

I was watching something on TV when Walter Cronkite broke in with a special report: Elvis Presley had been found dead in his Memphis home. Elvis. Dead.

I gaped at the TV, but my grandpa just kept on playing solitaire and making a tsk-tsk sound. “It’s about time,” was all he said.

My dad inherited that trait, and these letters reminded me of that.

In my grandfather’s neat handwriting, the letters detailed for Loie his trip west, the beautiful scenery he saw – mountains, rivers, valleys, gorges – and the desperation he encountered in Hoovervilles around the west, families begging for food, educated men working menial jobs. My grandpa chose the transient life for a bit, but for others he encountered it was the only way to survive. The experience cemented my grandfather’s views for the remainder of his life.

But what my aunt was talking about, her cryptic words about some things never changing, was the fact that my grandfather invited my grandmother to join him in the hobo life, if only for a little while.

What? They weren’t even married, my mind screamed. Grandpa and Grandma thinking about…shacking? And he wrote it down?

“How would you like to be out with me for say – one week?” he wrote. “I have run across many girls and women on the road. They have quite a time of it.”

Hmmm. What did he mean? Do I want to know?

Needless to say, Loie didn’t hit the road with Navy that summer. She was too practical. And she didn’t want to lose her job. They didn’t marry for another two years, mainly because Loie had a good-paying teaching job, making more than Navy did as a teacher. And she knew that as soon as she married she’d have to quit so a man could have her job – married women didn’t need to work.

So Loie stayed single until her salary fell below Navy’s.

The rest…well, I know most of those details. But these letters my aunt sent gave me a glimpse into the lives of two young people whom I never met until they were well past middle age. I thought I knew them so well, but suddenly, they’re mysterious strangers.

And like that, my 44 years seem yet a blip in history. And I don’t feel so old.

The Hunger Games isn’t so out there

I tried to resist the lure of The Hunger Games, but alas. My curiosity got the better of me.

And that’s all right, because I’ve found the book is a real page-turner. I resent having to put it down, and it sometimes gets in the way of more important endeavors, like fixing dinner and folding clothes.

I thought I was the last person in America to read the book, which, in case you’re more square than I am and haven’t read it yet, details a dystopian American future where the 1 percent forces the 99 percent to send their children to play a kind of televised Survivor death match, all for the entertainment of the wealthy.

So a couple weeks back I was discussing The Hunger Games with a friend, who said she could not stand the book. Her gripe: It depicts children trying to kill each other.

That’s not a new literary theme, I reminded her, bringing up an obvious comparison: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Oh, sure, she said. Of course.  But the big difference there was that adults weren’t orchestrating the bloodbath; Lord of the Flies was all about base human instincts, but no adults were involved. It seemed, somehow, more humane, she said. What troubled her about The Hunger Games, on the other hand, was the machinations of adults to use children for their own gain – for their own pleasure.

That, she said, seemed inconceivable.

Well, not so much. And here’s why.

Cable’s multitude of banal offerings includes such reality fare as the Real Housewives franchise, the Kardashian chronicles, Ice Road Truckers and the any number of other stellar viewing options, ranging from Jersey Shore to the various talent shows like American Idol and The Voice. Americans, it seems, like to watch real people squirm and cry and possibly throw punches. So there’s that.

Couple that with how we treat children in this country, and The Hunger Games makes perfect sense.

The U.S. gives lip service to caring about children. And certainly many parents nowadays spoil their children mercilessly – how else to explain television networks devoted entirely to making kids laugh at stupidity (see Nickelodeon, Disney Channel) and iPhones and iPads for children. For some, babies and children are accessories (see latest celebrity baby bumps.)

But get down to brass tacks, and as a nation we really don’t take care of our children. Otherwise, we’d spend more on public education and less on wars. We’d not denigrate parents who choose to step off the career track to stay home with the kids.

And we’d not allow states like Missouri to price working low-income parents out of reliable daycare.

Reliable daycare helps all working parents. But for low-income parents, it’s one major hurdle to overcoming poverty. If you don’t have to worry about who’s taking care of your kids, you can find a job and become a productive worker, or finish your GED and go to college.

But last week, a Missouri Senate committee proposed a $16-million cut in childcare subsidies for poor parents. That’s along with proposed $13.6 million cuts in the state’s foster care budget and the loss of child protection jobs.

If the Missouri daycare-subsidy cuts go through, almost 4,000 children will lose their daycare monies. Families who make $23,290 – the current funding threshold – will be out of luck. They’ll earn too much money to qualify for daycare subsidies. Only families who make at or below $19,663 – 103 percent of the federal poverty level – will qualify.

The federal government supports childcare subsidies, but states set their own income thresholds. If these cuts are approved, Missouri becomes the state with the lowest income threshold.

What a dubious honor.

Attacking the welfare family is a common theme during election season, but guess what, folks? We’re now going after poor people who are working.

“It means that families who work and who make more than the federal poverty level may not be able to keep their jobs, and they may have to resort to going back on welfare,” Carol Scott, CEO of Child Care Aware of Missouri, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week.

So, yeah. I don’t think a book about wealthy adults watching poor kids compete to see who can outwit and outlive each other is so far-fetched, judging from the way things are going right now. The Hunger Games speaks of a dystopian future that’s within our reach, not unlike Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

Don’t get me started.