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A look at trauma’s long shadow through the story of an Indiana girl who was failed by everyone

A look at trauma’s long shadow through the story of an Indiana girl who was failed by everyone

Picture of Marisa Kwiatkowski
[Photo by Igor Spasic via Flickr.]

The young woman was hunched over in the booth, ignoring the chatter flowing through the restaurant.

During more than six hours of recorded interviews, she sometimes held back tears, sometimes let go and often spoke with a mix of anger and hopelessness of all she’d lost. She said she never had a chance for normalcy.

“I hide and mask my emotions so well — and have for as long as I can remember — to escape the pain and rage inside me,” she wrote in one journal entry. “Fake, happy feelings and smiles only last for a few short weeks, but for that time I feel normal — although forced.”

The young woman has suffered repeated trauma throughout her life. At each turn, the people responsible for her safety failed her — her birth parents, relatives, foster parents, the Indiana Department of Child Services, school officials, therapists and others.

She was 3 years old when she entered the foster care system. When DCS officials found her in 1993, she was feeding her infant brother pieces of a Popsicle. The two children were alone in an apartment with no running water.

Over the next two decades, the welfare and school systems blundered in numerous ways. She was sexually abused in foster care. DCS officials bowed to public pressure in a contentious adoption case. School administrators and teachers had little patience for her behavior, seeing her as a troublemaker instead of a troubled child. And she struggled to get the therapy she needed.

Her teenage years and early 20s were punctuated by stays in mental health facilities, self-imposed homelessness and tangles with law enforcement.

The woman, now 27, described a darkness that befell her. She said she isn’t surprised she’s been called “evil.”

“More often than not,” she wrote in a journal entry, “I believe those words about myself. I know I’ll never be married. I’m incapable of appreciating love no matter how pretty I appear on the outside. I will never entirely believe that someone could love me.”

My reporting project is exploring the long-term effects of trauma, a growing problem in many corners of our cities, by looking at the life of a girl who grew up in harsh circumstances in central Indiana. How does post-traumatic stress affect children who grow up amid poverty, violence and drug use? What happens when they are thrust into a system that is too overburdened or politically manipulated to deal with their needs?

I’ve already conducted hours of interviews and gathered more than 1,000 pages of records relating to her experiences. And I plan on interviewing many others.

The project has the potential to expose gaps in the welfare system and drive a discussion on, among other issues, the sweeping impact of post-traumatic stress on certain individuals, communities and society. It also touches on race and sexuality. And it explores the challenges of adopting children with trauma, mental illnesses or developmental disabilities.

Or, as one DCS family case manager referred to such kids, “The children no one else will take.”

[Photo by Igor Spasic via Flickr.]

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