I don’t know much about plumbing or civil engineering or heart surgery or geology.
But I know a thing or two about children of neglect, abuse, and abandonment.
I’m living during a time when I sometimes wish that I didn’t.
All over the country, states and counties are scrambling about what to do, given COVID-19.
I sometimes can’t find the words to describe the severity of this crisis. But many are with “writing campaigns.”
Friends, we are talking about children. Three-year olds and seven-year olds and 12-year olds. We don’t know how many, but we do know that close to 500,000 live in the foster care system. Because of neglect, abuse, and abandonment, the circumstances were so dire, that the government had to take them.
Countless have not been reported and are living with their abusers. And given COVID-19 and schools being closed, the reports are harrowing.
Children are dying of child abuse at unprecedented rates. It can be exhausting at times, and very sad. I wrote about it here.
Local and state newspapers are begging for people to become foster parents.
Ironically, this tremendous need was pronounced mostly in the month of May, National Foster Care Awareness Month.
A recent article in The Gainesville Sun titled How You Can Help A Child In Need, the need was stated simply: “Florida needs foster families, and Florida needs them now. Florida needs you.”
I commend the authors for their advocacy. As the President of an international foster care agency, I’d add one line.
Not everybody could be a foster parent, but everybody could make a difference.
Thousands of RFK volunteers around the country and world, are doing just that with “writing campaigns.” Here’s a letter that was recently written by a counselor “Grandma” (many of the children don’t have grandparents). It was delivered to the child who lives in western Massachusetts.
I want to touch her so badly. It’s Mother’s Day, but I can’t.
People have lauded me for the love I have for my mother, Maria Luiga Zeppetella Martin, or “Louise.” They see the all the photos and videos and terms of endearment that I’ve posted on social media since her massive and unexpected hemorrhagic stroke in the evening on August 21, 2015. I wrote about it here.
But I can’t see her today. And I’d be lying if I denied my urge to run past the security guard, the one who sits outside the entrance — one of those kinds who gets to carry a gun — at her skilled nursing facility, just to see that look of joy on her face.
Then she would caress my face.
Later we would sit, and I’d hold her hand.
When one suddenly dies, or in my case, suffers a mentally debilitating stroke, for the first time ever, you appreciate her as you never have. This is loss, defined. In the case of death, the qualities of the loved one exist only in your mind; in the case of mental impairment, you still get to see and touch and listen, but it’s not the same as before.
Not even close.
I haven’t had a conversation with my mother since her stroke.
In addition to Mom, today I think of the millions who have no mother. Or of those estranged from their mothers because of addiction or mental illness. Children in foster care have lost their mothers, temporarily, and oftentimes, permanently.
I relate with them: grief.
My love for my mom is deep. Inside my body. My chest. Real pain — a somatic reality completely different than the emotional pain.
I want to touch her so badly.
Some have said, “Just think about what an amazing woman she was and all the good memories.”
That doesn’t work with me in times like this.
The thing about Mom was that she wasn’t really amazing in the sense of being one of those super-moms. She didn’t care about my grades, as long as I passed my classes. We never took “Mother-Son” trips or have dates or do any of that stuff.
She didn’t care whether I sat on the bench or played quarterback.
Her expectations were simply: help others, respect people, respect the planet.
But she’d always be there. Wearing whatever team pin or t-shirt. And when I finally got up to bat, I’d hear this distinct faint voice, “Go Paul!” And I’d look and you could see the expression that blended smile and joy and pride – her living and loving me, caught up at that moment.
That same faint voice sang flat at every Sunday at mass, or later at the Protestant services. But she’d sing with all her being. And she meant what she sang. You could just tell.
In every season of my life — when I was succeeding and all those times I was failing — she loved me the same.
Mom is gone. The nurses will let us FaceTime with her, but I won’t. It will only confuse her, and I’m almost certain, in spite of her mental fragility, at least possibly, cause her to wonder why I’ve abandoned her.
If she doesn’t see me, she’s not thinking about me.
I want to touch her so badly.
Three mental realities bring a tinge of solace.
First, I am a lucky man to have a mother like Luigia Maria Zeppetella Martin. I was loved, unconditionally, from the time she bore me, to the day I kissed her and told her I loved her and went on vacation. (She had the stroke while I was on vacation.)
Second, I think of the hundreds of thousands of children in the United States (and millions around the world) that either have no mother or have lost them because of neglect and abuse. I work for those children. I’ve been with hundreds. I’m blessed to have that which I…had.
Third, Mom’s real name is Maria. When she immigrated to the U.S. with her family, she didn’t want to be called “Maria” because back in those days Italians weren’t liked much. So her aunt used her middle name, Luiga, and gave it an American twist: Louise.
But I think of the name Maria. And, growing-up Roman Catholic, I think of the respect they have for Maria, Mary, Jesus’ mother.
Mother Teresa was once asked about why Catholics make such a big deal about Mary. She replied, “No Mary, no Jesus.”
Mom’s name in English would have been Mary.
So no Mary, no Paul. No me. That’s the thing about mothers, without them, we wouldn’t be here.
There is an urgent, and when I say urgent, I truly mean urgent situation before us.
Have you ever wondered why social ills like homelessness or, say, sex trafficking garner so much national and international attention? — as they should, because these are insidious problems that need to be addressed.
But have you ever wondered why foster care, a term that you’ve heard before, doesn’t garner the same interest?
The fact is, there are half a million children in the foster care system and so many more right now that, because of COVID-19, and because many of these children are locked up with their abusers, with no mandates reporters to help get them into a safe place — this COVID-19 pandemic is directly affecting these children in ways our country has never seen before.
COVID-19 is having a dramatic effect on so many of us. But I can tell you a child is different. A child is different because a chlld is not developed, emotionally, not developed in terms of their brains, their neurology.
They are the most vulnerable of all people.
But children in foster care? They are different than the “normal” child. They have been neglected. They have been abused sexually, physically, and on top of that, they have been abandoned.
They have been taken away from their biological parents.
And, and guess what? Courts are closed; these kids cannot be reunified with their parents. The guidelines in place for these biological parents to get their children back are not in effect anymore.
Many of these children are hurting in ways they have never been hurt before.
I have a specific call to action. RFK works in 44 states. In hundreds of counties we have chapters, we work alongside government agencies with these children. We have close to 20,000 volunteers.
What we are doing right now is we are finding creative, innovative ways to mobilize our volunteers, to help social workers to meet these children in different ways.
Reports of child abuse have dropped dramatically. Reports have dropped, and that is because there are no mandated reporters today. The teachers, the coaches, the pediatricians — the eyes, the eagle eyes that have looked out for these children for decades — aren’t seeing them anymore.
So what we have is a true epidemic.
Just one quick statistic. Incidents of sexual abuse, visitors to the national sexual assault hotline, over half of them in the last 60 days, were minors. And of those who called, 79% of the minors who called said they were living with their perpetrator. And there are no mandated reporters to help them.
There is hope. We’re mobilized across the nation and in 12 countries to meet the needs of these vulnerable children who are experiencing neglect, abuse, and abandonment, in so many cases.
Do this. Go to RFK.org right now, if you would. Register for our email list. We are not going to spam you and we won’t sell your information. But we will give you information because you want to know about this — because I’m sure that you care.
The second thing is follow us on Instagram. Follow us on Facebook.