I don’t have many heroes. But Dr. Kate Waller-Barrett is one. She was a preacher’s wife, a mother, a medical doctor and by anyone’s standards, a remarkable woman of substance, compassion and presence. She was also the co-founder of the National Crittenton movement along with Charles Crittenton 124 years ago. A passionate believer in the rights of all people, she understood that society was not kind to those born into ‘unfortunate’ circumstances -particularly those who, due to circumstances of their birth, had been disadvantaged from the very day of their conception. Her work with the Florence Crittenton movement is the reason we exist to serve families today. Her crusade began in her very own home.
Dr. Barrett recalled an evening shortly before Christmas when she, her husband and infant son who was only a few months old were seated in their “cozy little parlor” with the baby sleeping between them. There was a ring at the door and when her husband returned, he brought with him a young girl and her baby. Dr. Barrett, who was not much older than the girl, busied herself gathering clothing and food for the two and when the baby was comfortable they laid the two babies side by side on the couch. The girl told her story of meeting a “dishonorable” man and being left in disgrace; now destined for a life of poverty as an outcast living on the edge of society.*
Mrs. Barrett recalls, “There the two babies lay, side by side, my boy and hers, both with equal possibilities for good; and terrible possibilities for evil; both innocent, both pure; both equal in the sight of God and yet, in the eyes of the world, how different. My boy with every door open to him, with every hand stretched out to aid him; her boy with every door closed to him and with every agency of society against his future progress.” She was so moved by the experience, she stated, “my very blood boiled within me.”*
Times have changed since Dr. Barrett’s first encounter and her decision to become a leader for young women and children in the late 1870’s. But sadly, the opportunities for children born into poverty and trauma have not. Most are destined to struggle harder than counterparts born into easier circumstances. We now know these “very circumstances of their birth,” so eloquently described by Dr. Barrett happen when the brain is forming and the very architecture of the neural pathways is forever different.
At Florence Crittenton we are so fortunate to help young families and girls on the margins but our ‘blood boils within” as we think of all those who slip through the cracks and then sit forever in the margins of society, struggling to find a way forward. We long to advocate in the footsteps of our benefactress, Dr. Waller-Barrett.
As for Dr. Waller-Barrett – she went on to co-found 78 Crittenton agencies in five countries along with Charles Crittenton, receive her medical degree, act as a special agent for the Bureau of Investigation for alien women coming into the country and served in many highly visible roles. But nothing supplanted her passion for the mission of Florence Crittenton.
All those years ago, Dr. Barrett was able to see and address something we are still trying to solve today. How can we make sure all children have opportunities to grow and thrive without obstacles due to the circumstances of their birth? Montana has many great programs and services, but we must work harder to intervene earlier, improve outcomes, and make sure no child slips through the cracks.
Right now, somewhere across our great State there are babies who are born too soon to girls who are living on the margin. These families need our help. Many have no homes or families and are living with friends or in shelters. Mother and child will struggle to stay together, have adequate food and ultimately the child will grow up in poverty and the cycle will repeat itself if something or someone doesn’t intervene.
In another place, there is a young mother who is struggling to parent her son. Maybe she is too young, maybe he was born too early, or maybe her home is violent and terrifying. Developmentally, her son is not keeping up. In fact, he has a multitude of special needs. She doesn’t know where to go, who to reach out to or how to help him. She is sick with worry; sick with fear. She loses her job because her son is often sick. Then she loses her home. The cycle continues.
Across our Montana towns and cities there is a growing blight; girls and young women who are caught up in modern day slavery. They are traded like cattle for sexual abuse and use. Too we often blame them for their hideous circumstances. They are trapped – and have no one to help and nowhere to go.
There is plenty of data to support interventions for premature babies, trauma, teen pregnancy, abuse and maternal mental health. But the reality is most of these issues started long before baby was even in the picture. They started in the mother’s own childhood. Our only chance at making a difference is to be passionate advocates for OUR children. ALL of OUR children.
Our children will predict our future and it requires each and every one of us to come alongside those children and give them the opportunity to thrive and grow, regardless of their birth circumstance. Let’s partner together to be a voice for our youngest citizens and give them the opportunities they deserve to make our communities a better place.
*Taken from: Fifty Years Work with Girls, 1883 to 1933, The National Florence Crittenton Mission; Authors: Otto Wilson & Robert South Barrett.