A lot of people, particularly a lot of Christians, believe that rescuing poor children from abuse and neglect is a wonderful, Godly goal. But trying to do it day to day for years is. . .beyond hard.
In order to sustain this work, the urge — the drive — to do so has to live deep in your heart and…your gut. You really can’t be capable of leaving to do anything else. In order to sustain this — and I know I am sounding overdramatic — you have to be “taken over” by the plight and welfare of these children.
So many of our clients and all of the parents of the children we are trying to save are wounded. Their situations are so often intractable, and their past is a festering sore. You can’t stay here very long if you don’t have this experience of being “taken over.” You can’t fight through the pain of being unable to solve people’s poverty or erase the blot of children’s pasts.
Trying to rescue poor children day to day is messy and painful and can be discouraging and heart-breaking. You don’t belong here without this experience of being taken over, and the hope that comes from an active faith. For “. . .suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts…” (Romans 5:3-4).
My personal history is that I spent five years as a prosecutor of street crimes in Washington, D.C., a year of which was on the street in a special criminal investigative unit. Some time after that, I served for five years as the pastor of an inner-city church in Diamond Hill, a very poor neighborhood here in Fort Worth.
For the past 15 plus years, I’ve served as founder and leader of Methodist Justice Ministry, an organization dedicated to its mission of “bringing light and hope to families who have experienced neglect and domestic violence by providing free legal representation and ongoing support to help ensure that these children have a caring and protective caregiver.” From these experiences, here are a dozen truths I believe I have learned, which I want to pass on to you.
1. Children in poverty blame themselves for everything bad and hurtful in their lives. If they are hungry, it is because they are not good enough children. If they don’t have the material things and experiences that they see other children have on TV, it is because they are not good enough children. If they are moved from pillar to post, relative to relative, it is because they are not good enough children. If their mother chooses to subject them to an abusive partner, or abandons them to relatives and chooses that abuser over them, if a parent is physically abusive to them, if they are sexually abused and their mother asks them not to report it and protects the abuser, if their parents abuse drugs or alcohol and their homelife is a chaotic hell, it is somehow their fault in their minds. That is why a child so often wants to be reunited with a failed parent — to have another chance to earn the parent’s love. In situations like this, an older child will make herself the de facto parent of the siblings. In 2019, our superintendent of FWISD reported that 85% of the children in District schools live at or below the poverty line. That is a lot of children struggling with the psychological and emotional effects of poverty. All of this is why the licensed professional counseling we offer for all of our children is one of the most important parts of our ministry, probably THE most important.
2. Nothing good done for a child is ever wasted; nothing bad done to a child is ever without long term harm. If a child is cherished and protected when young, no matter the economic setting, that child is much more likely to be hopeful about life and to be capable of cherishing and protecting others as an adult. On the other hand, so many of our bitter, cynical, nihilistic, neglectful and abusive parents were abused and neglected in poverty as children.
3. Poverty is inherited. The myth of a child being able to pull herself out of poverty by her own bootstraps as an adult is just that — a myth. When I was on the street in D.C. and in Diamond Hill here in Fort Worth, I was daily in neighborhoods where a child would have to be Superman or Wonder Woman to get out of her teens without a child, a criminal record, an abusive relationship, or a drug or alcohol habit. All too often, it is all of the above. For so many poor children, there are no bootstraps.
4. To the poor — particularly poor, single mothers — it feels as if everything conspires to keep them in poverty. There is almost always a lack of: affordable child care; living wages; reliable transportation to work; full-time work; work hours that are friendly to child care; a boss who cares about their family; education; and marketable job skills.
5. Single women in poverty can be forced to move from abusive male to abusive male out of economic necessity. See items 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8.
6. Drug use and alcohol abuse are the anesthesia of the poor. So many of the poor start to use because they feel defeated and lack hope. Almost every past and present MJM case of abuse and family violence involves alcohol and/or drug abuse.
7. Overcriminalization holds the poor back. A recent, exhaustive study reveals that as many people in the U.S. have criminal records as have college degrees. Read that sentence again, please. If you make a mistake as a young man or woman, particularly if your parents don’t have the resources and clout to help you get around it, even if everyone around you in the neighborhoods where you grew up were modeling this behavior, you pay for it the rest of your life in housing and jobs and resources. And your children pay for it. And their children.
8. Poverty leads to a sense of impotence and a distorted masculinity. So many abusive men were not only abused and witnessed abuse in their childhoods. Many take out their sense of powerlessness in the workplace on their partners and their children at home.
9. There is such a thing as a “poverty industry” comprised of businesses, groups and individuals who make their living off the poor. If you are interested in learning more about this, I recommend a book entitled Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. — How the Working Poor Became Big Business.
In addition to the pawnshops and the title loan and payday loan companies and the plasma buyers and the predatory loaners and the “we-tote-the-note” used car dealers, there are consultant firms who charge top dollar, led by CEO’s and owners with handsome salaries, to help re-organize and advise non-profits serving the poor.
There are non-profits serving the poor run by leaders with shockingly high salaries. There is a fundraising industry that accepts no discounts in salaries to help raise money for non-profits serving the poor. There are family law firms who charge the poor thousands of dollars as a retainer, exhausting their savings or requiring them to take out loans, and then immediately withdraw when they run quickly through the retainer without having really helped their client. MJM must be ever-dedicated to staying out of that industry.
10. MJM, we don’t move children out of economic poverty; we move children from greater to lesser economic poverty. Our clients are almost all economically poor — those who seek custody of children to save them from family violence, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and untreated mental illness — are poor but not as poor as the parents. But when we obtain legal custody, for instance, of a number of grandchildren for a poor grandparent, we make them poorer by giving them children to support. This is why it is so very vital for us to be able to provide financial aid for rent, utilities, children’s clothes, etc. for our clients.
11. Rescuing poor, suffering children is the heart of the Way of Jesus. See Matthew 19:14; 25:31-46. Listen to the Spirit.
12. See item 1 above. Above all and always, see item 1.
We are so blessed with the service and support of our board, our attorneys, our caseworkers, and our support staff, and First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth to do this work we do, day after day, because we all have been, thankfully, “taken over.”
Brooks Harrington is the founder of the Methodist Justice Ministry, a pro bono legal ministry that provides legal protections and supportive services for indigent victims of child abuse and family violence. He has been a Marine infantry officer, a criminal prosecutor in Washington D.C., a litigator in private practice, an ordained United Methodist elder, and the pastor of an inner-city church.
Today, Brooks dedicates his time and energy toward helping the clients of the Methodist Justice Ministry; all net proceeds from the sale of No Mercy, No Justice, as well as all speaking honorariums will directly benefit the ministry.