Crittenton Services has been serving women and children in West Virginia for over a century. Over that time span they’ve collected some powerful insight into challenges the state faces regarding poverty, especially concerning women and children.
A History of Helping Women
It all started when a bout of Scarlet Fever killed a four-year-old little girl named Florence in 1882. Her father, Charles Crittenton, was devastated. A preacher in New York suggested that he deal with his grief by helping women of the streets.
He began preaching to the immigrant wives and daughter and mothers of men who were off working in factories and mines throughout the country. Many of these women resorted to prostitution to support themselves and their families.
Kathy Szafran, President and CEO of Crittenton Services, Inc. in Wheeling, says that Crittenton would go and preach, “Go forth and sin no more,” until it occurred to him that many of these women had nowhere to go. 130 years later, she says, their organization’s mission is still basically the same as his: to help women become independent and self-sufficient.
She explains that today the national Crittenton Foundation connects 27 independently operated and governed Crittenton centers in the country—all of them dealing with unique challenges in a variety of ways.
A Residential Program for Teenage Girls and Teenage Moms
Over the years, the center in Wheeling formerly called the Florence Crittenton Home has morphed from being a safe place for prostitutes, to being a place where the wealthy would send unwed mothers, to today, being the only licensed maternity care, behavioral health center in the state. The Wheeling-based agency has evolved into four programs which all serve a mission of helping children and families in need achieve self-sufficiency.
One of the programs that has been the cornerstone of Crittenton Services for all these years and remains the core of the agency is their residential program which caters to girls 12-18.
The program operates with a constant waiting list. It’s licensed to house 42 people, ten of which currently are babies. All of the adolescents have behavior issues that have landed them in this facility.
Bessie is from Southern W.Va. She’s 17. She was skipping school, she had complicated problems at home, and then she got in trouble for fighting.
“That led me to getting on a bond, and I broke my bond by not going to school and saying, ‘Who cares?’ And then I got put on probation till I was 18.”
Bessie explains that she found motivation to behave because she didn’t want to be “sent off.” Bessie also, at this time, got pregnant and had a baby. Her little girl is now nine months old. She was born with a cleft pallet and had to undergo several surgeries, required special bottles, and special care.
“We didn’t have daycare or nothing because it’s a small town. The nearest day care was probably thirty minutes away and I didn’t have a car. I had no help,” Bessie says.
That’s when her parole officer told her about Crittenton—the only place in the state that would take both mom and baby.
Bessie showed us around the Crittenton’s residential hall in Wheeling. It’s a dorm-like building with rooms large enough for two girls and two cribs each on the top floor. The first floor houses a daycare, a kitchen, and a health clinic where there’s a nurse and all the basic medical needs of the girls can be met.
Down stairs there are classrooms, meetings rooms, and recreational spaces. Bessie says normally it’s a crazy environment, but we were there while things were relatively calm. Girls were rotating in and out of the program and many were out on an off-site trip to a nearby flea market.
“When I first got here everything seemed so loud and so crazy and then I was like, ‘OK, they’re just like me. They just had to be here for a little bit and deal with new changes and being away from home. It’s fine.’ But I cried so hard when I first got here,” she remembers. But she says she adjusted.
Bessie explains that she’s now what’s called a “positive peer.” It’s a privilege that comes with good behavior, but she says it’s a role that comes naturally to her because she has a nurturing personality.
Bessie’s situation isn’t typical because she enrolled herself and her baby into the program. Through the education program which continues year-round at Crittenton, she’s caught up on her high school classes.
“This place has taught me a lot about independence, so I’m going to go get a job. For sure. I’m going to get a job, a part time job, because I know that my baby is more important than any job or any schooling. But I need that, too,” she says referring to the job, “to have a future.”
She was able to get a food handler’s card while at Crittenton, so now her plan is to get part time work at a fast food restaurant, go to school, and spend evenings with her baby.”
“I think I made the right decision to come here and get the help that I need,” she says, “and I think that I’m ready to go back home.”
Even if she wasn’t ready, Bessie turns 18 this month, and as a legal adult without a court order, there’s nothing keeping her in the program which would usually continue for another two to five months.
Bessie plans to return home to live with her father.
Cycles of Abuse and Poverty
“What’s really happening to us today? Why do kids have these behaviors? Why are we managing such poverty issues? It would be so simple to say that if we gave everybody an education, if everybody had food in their bellies and a roof over their head, that would end poverty.”
But CEO of Crittenton Services, Kathy Szafran, says it’s not that simple.
Her organization has been managing the side effects of poverty in West Virginia for over a century—dealing largely today with girls displaying behavioral problems. She says together with the National Crittenton Foundation, they’ve amassed certain insights about human psychology that could hold keys to breaking patterns of abuse and poverty—two things which, turns out, go hand and hand.
In fact, according to very recent research, identifying trauma is maybe the first step toward breaking cycles of poverty.
“You can take any of these girls and without dealing with their trauma,” Szafran says, “you can get them in school—doubt if they’ll stay in; you can get them in a house—sure they’re going to struggle; and the odds of them reliving that cycle of abuse would be very good.”
What is trauma? What does it look like? What usually springs to mind are severe scenarios like rape, physical abuse, loss of a parent. These are, unfortunately, common experiences that can take long term toll of an individual, but as Tracee Chambers explains, even more common and equally harmful are small abuses that build up from very early ages. Chambers is the clinical intake specialist for the residential program at Crittenton. She says she trains staff to recognize behavioral symptoms that can come from what’s called complex trauma.
She says ,any of the girls at Crittenton have similar backgrounds: “Mom and dad were using and not responsive when they cried, or mom and dad didn’t bother to feed them regularly, so from the period of infancy when you’re learning how to trust the world and that you can have your needs met based on your cues, they don’t feel like they have any control and they don’t have trust that their caregivers can meet their needs.”
Chambers says the trauma compounds as a child grows and develops.
“As they start to develop into toddlers and they start to try to explore environment and stuff like that, parents either restrict their movement and throw them in a crib for the day so that they don’t get to explore and learn, or they’re very punitive and negative when they get into things, or they’re exposed to this chronic chaos.”
Chambers says this chronic developmental trauma from intermittent love and neglect can create individuals who find it difficult to build trust, or feel helpless or hopeless to have an impact on what goes on around them. She says that a variety of behavioral problems are typical.
“It’s hard to get a kid in to a school to learn their ABCs when they’re worried about what happened last night,” Chambers says, “or if they haven’t eaten in a couple days.”
Szafran refers to some of the girls who then, eventually land in Crittenton’s residential program. She says without learning how to cope, the infant, turned toddler, turned adolescent is often ill-equipped to rise out of the impoverished circumstances in which she lives.
“And then she gets pregnant.”
Szafran is adamant when it comes to teen pregnancy. She says high teen pregnancy is not about lack of access to contraceptives or education. It’s about girls making the decision to have a baby.
“She got pregnant because it was something she could choose to do,” Szafran says. “And she will have someone to love her. And it may be her ‘way out’ because This Guy is promising her the world.”
Then, Szafran explains, she’ll most likely recreate the only reality she’s ever known.
Breaking the Cycle
The programs at Crittenton aim to allay behavioral symptoms by instilling healthy alternatives that teach someone how to self-regulate so that they can rise above the chaos. Resiliency tools are used to that end—things like having a daily routine, good nutrition, and how to recognize healthy relationships and unhealthy life patterns like addition and abuse.
“Our kids don’t realize that they’ve been abused until they’ve had a couple classes and then they say, ‘Well yeah, that happened to me,’” Chambers says.
She says they also teach teenage moms how to connect with their babies: positioning, eye contact, how to use real words and a positive tone of voice—reciprocal nonverbal contact that builds trust and a positive connection. She says these are basic, fundamental, and critical skills. They build resiliency in the mother and in the child.
“The more connected and attached they become to their child,” Chambers says, “the more likely they are to protect them from people who would harm them, and the more likely they are to work hard to get them what they need.”
And that, she says, can break the cycle of abuse. A resilient, happy child, she says, can overcome obstacles and find her way out of poverty. Or at least, she’s more likely to.