By Laura Kiesel
By the time Rosmina Garcia was five years old, her life was defined by fear.
A little girl who loved to read and take care of her baby brother, she also had a mother who suffered from substance abuse and never knew when the police would come knocking on their door again, nor could she ever predict when and where her next meal would come from.
“I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders,” says Aurora resident Garcia, who is now 23.
Garcia goes on to explain she experienced not only extreme poverty, but “every form of abuse.” Unfortunately, her experiences are not rare.
A new report by the Center for Promise at Boston University found that more than a quarter (28 percent) of youth living in poverty in the United States have experienced three or more “adversities” during adolescence—including parental death, divorce or substance abuse, neighborhood violence or mental illness. In particular, black or multiracial youth were found to have the highest rates of three or more adversities, at 16.6 percent and 15.5 percent, respectively.
Dating back to a 1998 study on “adverse childhood experiences,” research has found strong correlations between childhood abuse, neglect or other harm and the development of extensive health problems as adults. Neuroscientists have discovered that when the developing young brains of children are subjected to sustained stress, the body pumps out excessive amounts of cortisol—an adrenal hormone long associated (in chronically high amounts) with depression, immune system compromise and more. This, in turn, can have lasting biological effects on the body.
As noted by the latest study, experiencing traumatic challenges in childhood has been linked to a failure to thrive as one grows older. Children who have experienced extreme adversity are much more likely to drop out of high school and to have trouble maintaining steady jobs as adults. Childhood adversity is also linked to the development of addiction to alcohol or drugs, psychiatric disorders and chronic illness later in life.
“Without question, the impacts of adversity does not stop when adversity stops,” says Jonathan Zaff, PhD, executive director of the Center for Promise and a research associate professor at Boston University’s School of Education. “Even in those who exhibit resiliency and achieve academic and economic success as adults, there’s still this toll taken on their physiological health.”
Zaff believes the high rate of adversity among black and multiracial youth has to do in great part with the intersection between race and class in the country.
“[I]f you are a minority, you are substantially more likely to live in a low-income family,” says Zaff. “You then have incredibly biased social policies, including exclusionary policies in schools, that tend target kids by race who are already suffering.”
On the other end of the spectrum, income also can serve as a buffer for hardship. Not only do youth living under the poverty line experience adversity at a rate of six times those living above it do, but few children whose families make high incomes experience three or more significant life adversities.
This matters, because the number and type of adversities experienced by individuals growing up can substantially impact their future incomes. For instance, the Boston University study found that children who had experienced the death of a parent were significantly less likely to thrive financially as adults than those whose parents experienced mental illness, divorce, substance abuse or economic hardship.
While certain types of adversity can have greater impacts than others, Zaff notes it is the compounding effects of multiple challenges that often deter youth in achieving successful lives as adults.
“It never seems to be one thing,” says Zaff. “We consider [adversities] as clusters and constellations, and it usually doesn’t boil down to a single thing they are facing.”
In the absence of the stabilizing influence a reliable and well-adjusted adult is expected to provide for a child in the home, Zaff notes that having access to such an adult outside of the traditional parent role can have a truly compensatory effect for youth dealing with significant challenges.
This was the case for Garcia, who after being moved around several times between both of her parents’ and paternal grandmother’s homes for many years, was finally taken into the care of her brother’s case worker when she was in the fifth grade.
“That was the beginning of rest of my life,” says Garcia. She was given her own bedroom for the first time and encouraged to participate at school.
When she continued to struggle, Garcia was enrolled in Denver Kids, a nonprofit program that partners with Denver Public Schools to provide additional support to approximately 1,250 children living in poverty.
As outlined in the Boston University report, public schools can serve as a first line of defense against the challenges impoverished children face, by partnering with programs that offer supplemental aid and focus on fostering increased academic engagement. For example, Denver Kids assigns both an educational counselor and therapeutic mentor to work with a student in and out of school to help them overcome roadblocks.
“Educational counselors serve as one of the most supportive adult relationships in our students' lives,” says Bridget Boyd, the director of marketing and communications for Denver Kids. “They function as resource navigators, advocates, and the bridge between school and home.”
Denver Kids has had tangible results: nearly half (48 percent) of the students in the program become the first in their families to graduate from high school, with 90 percent of Denver Kids graduates going on to pursue college.
Garcia was with Denver Kids for seven years before going on to attain a bachelor’s degree in human services from Metropolitan State University. She currently works as a mentor specialist with Aurora Youth Options.
“My mentor and educational counselor still offer me support,” says Garcia. “They have been two of the biggest influences in my life.”