No safe haven for Braden and Charlie Powell

Would the judge who allowed the so-called supervised visitation between Josh Powell and his sons agree herself to step inside the home of a “person of interest” for murder? The idea she would allow any visit by Josh Powell with his children is a legitimate discussion. The idea the judge would agree to let it occur in his home is unbelievable.

Powell was prepared for the visit. He had at least a hatchett for a weapon and gasoline ready and waiting. No one could foresee exactly how he might hurt his children, but it’s not hindsight to say those two little boys were at serious risk. The people whose jobs it is to protect children didn’t heed the evidence and the warning it presented. And then, as we know, on February 5th Powell pulled his children into the house where he was waiting for them, and killed them.

The media are filled with information about Powell. We can find information about his actions, his background and the unproductive investigation into his wife’s disappearance on any news outlet.  Thousands of people have opinions about what we should have been done differently. The conversation is a waste of breath though unless we connect the dots.

In the few weeks since the Powell tragedy the Senate Judiciary Committee has met to discuss funding for a critical tool to protect families from violence. In February 2012 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) made it out of committee, but just barely. Eight senators opposed it. A bill that has enjoyed the rare gift of bipartisan support suddenly faced a brick wall. Sen. Grassley and his GOP colleagues opposed it because the new version includes an amendment to protect gays from intimate partner violence. If they read the Act’s section on Safe Havens for children at risk they didn’t put much value on it, given their votes against it.

Here’s where we connect the dots between the Powell case and VAWA. The Act contains a range of programs to protect women and children from violence by another family member. It specifically identifies the need for Safe Havens, facilities designed for supervised visitation of children by parents suspected of abuse. In its most basic form a Safe Haven can be a room in a police station or childrens’ services agency.

This begs the question – Why didn’t the judge who let the children go to their father’s home use this simple solution? If the judge or child protective services agency were not familiar with Safe Havens, why not?

The Violence Against Women Act will almost certainly survive the budget process. However, the budget for Safe Havens is facing a huge cut. In 2012 we allocated and spent $20 million. In his proposed 2013 budget the President has only requested $11.5 million. Before the 2013 budget posturing and arguing even begins we are poised to lose  40% of the funds for Safe Havens.

We don’t know why the officials in Graham, Washington didn’t set up a Safe Haven for Charlie and Braden.  When the full Senate and the House consider the Violence Against Women Act and funding for Safe Havens I hope they will remember the Powell tragedy.  The government should fund them, communities should create them and officials should use them. Safe Havens are meant for cases such as this. If we don’t connect the dots between budget numbers and real people then we are all to blame when the next tragedy happens.

Is social injustice the new American way?

Just a little over two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government may not ban political spending by corporations; the Court determined that doing so is a violation of the corporation’s right to free speech.

On its face the ruling that essentially granted personhood to businesses and labor unions started a new era for their influence on the balance of power in politics, and inevitably, public policy. We are seeing that shift in power in ways no one could have predicted. America is in the process of institutionalizing social injustice.

Consider the bitter fight over whether the federal government can force religious based organizations to cover contraception as part of its employees’ health insurance benefits. In particular the Roman Catholic Church has condemned the mandate as forcing it to violate its own doctrine opposing birth control. Certainly individuals can choose not to use contraception in deference to their religious beliefs. But does the Church, and its related institutions, have greater rights than the individuals that it employs?

Corporate dollars are flowing into coffers for candidates who want to shrink government. And by shrink, they mean they want to slash spending on social programs. Federal and state support for affordable housing, food stamps, health insurance for poor children and assistance with paying the gas bill is certainly shrinking. In the meantime large corporations are enjoying record profits, but also enjoying record low tax bills.  According to Warren Buffet effective corporate tax rates last year averaged only 12%.  It could just be a coincidence that corporations can make virtually unlimited donations to politicians but they are not asked to pay taxes to support social programs.

When access to contraception is denied it restricts the rights of people to choose when or if they will have children. When affordable housing resources are cut, families end up homeless and when food stamps are cut children literally don’t get enough to eat. In short, corporate rights are overtaking the rights of real people.

Money has always given its owners a louder voice. Money talks, as they say. But in America we have been promised a government of the people, for the people, by the people. It seems that corporations are now those people.

Which came first – trauma or homelessness?

The psychiatric definition of “trauma” is “an event outside normal human experience.”

That seems to be an understatement. Consider the following:

  • 90% of women who live in homeless shelters have experienced physical or sexual abuse
  • An estimated 46% of homeless youth ran away from home to escape physical or sexual abuse
  • 33% of homeless veterans served in a war zone

Trauma can overwhelm you with feelings of powerlessness. As one author wrote, it “tends to be sudden and overwhelming; it ‘owns’ you.” A serious traumatic experience can lead to both physical and mental health problems. People in treatment report feelings of shock, numbness, confusion, extreme anxiety and depression, just to name a few of the emotions that can shatter your world.

The link between traumatic experiences and homelessness seems intuitive. After hearing the personal stories of some homeless people I wonder how they can still put one foot in front of another, and yet somehow they find a way to survive. And even if this link does not seem so evident on its face, it has also been documented repeatedly.

If trauma can lead so often to homelessness, what about the trauma of homelessness itself?  When they lose their home people lose much more than a place to sleep.  They lose their sense of belonging in the community. They lose important possessions, including irreplacable pictures, letters and personal mementos. They lose the security of a door with a lock.  Life on the street is filled with terror and with good reason. The murders of four homeless men in California permeated the news in late 2011.

Trauma and homelessness becomes a vicious cycle. The after effects of trauma can leave a person unable to cope, unable to work, unable to take care of themselves or their children. The resulting homelessness adds trauma on top of trauma.

How can our country let this injustice continue? There are many selfless, caring people working tirelessly to end it. But there are far too many who believe the homeless have the choice and ability to find and keep a home. Otherwise it means we have to accept we have failed to live up to our country’s ideal – that we are a land where there is equal opportunity for all. And that would just be un-American.

(homeless data taken from reports posted on National Coalition for the Homeless and the Homelessness Resource Center sites)

There are children sleeping on the streets tonight.

Parents of teenagers probably think they have experienced life with a “disconnected youth.” There’s evidence you have a teenager. You’re paying astronomical car insurance rates and feel like you should just have groceries delivered by the ton, but maybe you rarely see your teen, between time with friends, sports and part-time jobs.

There’s a more sobering definition of a disconnected youth. These are the thousands of youth who are stumbling in the dark. They are not in school nor do they have steady jobs. While a process for counting unaccompanied youths is difficult, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that as many as 50,000 youth may be homeless in any given year. And when we say  youths, we are talking about children as young as 14.

How do children end up on our streets? The same factors that lead to adult homelessness cause kid homelessness – because they lack access to a good education they are getting a head start on poverty. They often come from homes troubled by domestic violence, or families with parents who themselves lack much education or employment opportunity, suffer from severe mental illness or have substance use disorders. We know that many children are removed from the family home for neglect and abuse, and placed in foster care.  When they turn 18 they “graduate” from foster care, meaning financial support for the foster parent ends and the youths are expected to move on, ready or not.

There are good services out there, and reason to hope they may get more support. President Obama just released his proposed budget for 2013, and it increasesd funds to reach out to our homeless disconnected youth. More importantly it encourages even greater collaboration among social systems who touch youth. The Departments of Labor and Education should integrate job training and education opportunites with social services and affordable housing.

When I was raising my two sons I often reminded myself I could pay now or I could pay later…if I didn’t teach them and supervise them when they were young it would only get harder along the way. If we want to help our homeless youth connect to real opportunities we must take care of them now, or we will surely be paying later. And they will become the parents of the next generation of disconnected youth.

It all comes down to social justice

There is a common thread among so many critical issues today. If one looks at it from a macro level we can see breakdowns in social justice underly homelessness, chronic illness, domestic violence, poor educational outcomes…the list goes on and on. The plethora of empirical data available to demonstrate this rather intellectual concept is fascinating. Still, if you think about it, most of the information is common sense. If a child doesn’t know where she will sleep that night can she concentrate on schoolwork?

A teacher friend of mine got a frantic call from a student one night. She had a paper due and an exam the next day. When she got home her mother told her they had to move that night. They were getting evicted.

Would your child do well in those circumstances? Amazingly this child did. She called a trusted teacher who helped her work through a barrier overwhelming to a young student. In the end they agreed the child could use the library to get her work done, though chaos reigned at home.  When she was done she went home to pack knowing one part of her life was still ok. At least the trauma of eviction did not exacerbate the harm for a good student to get bad grades.

A simple intervention of a caring adult protected this child from the brunt of this particular social injustice. Whatever the reason for the eviction she was bearing the burden of it.  If we are willing to put aside judgement and connect the dots we can reduce social injustice.

For more on homelessness and educational outcomes see

Have you ever told yourself a lie?

If you’re human you probably have told yourself at least a white lie now and then. Ever told yourself you’ll start your diet tomorrow? Or that you don’t need to go to the doctor because you never get sick.   Simple denial can work for a long time.  This happens so easily to victims of domestic violence. After all, we are trained by our abusers to question every thought we have. We learn to doubt our own instincts. And so we stay.

If you’re not sure if you’re being abused, posted this easy list of questions to ask yourself.

Does your partner:

  • Hit, shove, slap, kick, punch, or choke you?
  • Threaten to hurt or kill you?
  • Call you names or tell you that you are crazy?
  • Criticize things you do or say, or criticize how you look?
  • Hurt your pets or destroy things that are special to you?
  • Blame you for the abuse he or she commits?
  • Limit where you can go, what you can do, and who you can talk to?
  • Unexpectedly check up on you at your workplace, home, school, or elsewhere?
  • Force you to have sex, perform sexual acts you’re not comfortable with, or sexually assault you?
  • Threaten to have you deported?
  • Apologize and tell you it will never happen again (even though it already has)?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be in an abusive relationship. There are people who can help you. You are not alone. Talk to someone you trust, such as a friend, a doctor, or a help center. Talking with someone can help you make the changes you need to stay safe.

Some lies we tell ourselves don’t really mean that much.  This one could mean everything.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help you find resources in your area. This nationwide database has detailed information on domestic violence shelters, other emergency shelters, legal support and assistance programs, and social service programs.

Contact information

  • Call 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233).
  • Call 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).
  • Visit the website at: