Nicholas Kristof – Call to Action

Question: Where was the first reported child abuse case in the United States?

Answer: New York, 1874. Her name was Mary Ellen Wilson. For eight of her 10 years, she had been beaten, cut, starved, subject to hard physical labor, deprived of a bed and warm clothes, and generally tortured by her foster mother. A neighbor who investigated Mary Ellen’s living conditions had no advocacy group to turn to. But she did seek help from one established organization, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They took Mary Ellen’s case to the New York Supreme Court, invoking statutes against animal cruelty since there were no laws protecting children at the time.

Mary Ellen

Did you feel the catch in my throat? Could you feel my heart breaking as I wrote that? How could we have thought to protect animals from cruelty before we protected our children?

This past week, I attended a fundraising luncheon for Safe & Sound, formerly called San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center. At the luncheon, I learned that there were 64,000 incidents of child abuse in the Bay Area reported last year. One every 10 minutes.

I also learned that a groundbreaking study by Safe & Sound and the Berkeley Haas School of Business suggests that child abuse could cost the United States as much as $5.6 BILLION annually.

$5.6 BILLION!!!


Because abused children are more likely to require special education. They’re more likely to drop out of school. Have mental health and/or substance abuse issues. To make bad choices. They’re 59% more likely to be arrested as juveniles. Incarceration not only costs $$$$, it also presents a potential lifetime of lost opportunity for those who’ve been incarcerated.

Nicholas Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and keynote speaker for the Safe & Sound luncheon, described a recent survey (sorry, I didn’t record the reference) where 97%  agreed that all children should be given an equal start in life. He wryly noted that this is a greater consensus than those who believe the earth is round.

Flat Earth Society Rocks!

So why can’t we manage to follow through with giving all children a decent start in life?

Kristof described a homeless man he had once interviewed who, when asked how he’d managed to be homeless for eight years, said that he’d made a series of poor choices. But then Kristof dug deeper. It turned out that this man had been born with drugs in his system. By the age of two, he was being beaten. By the age of three, he had seen his  brother murdered. And he, himself, had been shot at the age of five. Who wouldn’t end up making poor choices with a start like that in life?

Then he described another man from Arkansas who had been a troublemaker at school. One day he was fooling around in the library and saw the cover of a book that looked a little racy, a little interesting, not like so many other boring schoolbooks. So he pulled it off the shelf to check it out. But there were other kids in the library, and he didn’t want to lose his tough kid cred. He hid the book in his jacket and walked out.

When he got it home, he read it. LOVED IT. To his credit, he returned it to the library, but then he saw there was another book on the shelf by the same author. So he stole that one, too. Read it. LOVED IT. When he returned the second one, he found another by the same author. So he stole it. Read it. LOVED IT. By this time, he’d figured out that he enjoyed reading, something he’d never imagined. He started studying. Got better grades. Went to college. Became a lawyer.

And when he went back for his high school reunion, he was thrilled that his school librarian was still there. When he saw her, he was proud to tell her how well he was doing, but that he had a confession. He had stolen books from the library, repeatedly, but he’d always returned them.

She looked him in the eye and said, “I know. When I saw you steal that first book, I drove 70 miles to Memphis and found more books by that author.”

Librarians rock!!

Now, that library hero could have treated the boy as an “other,” a troublemaker, one who needed to be penalized for his actions, but instead she chose to see his potential and feed it, not crush it. Perhaps we, as a nation, need to feed every child’s potential, not just the ones who already start out with advantages in life.

Perhaps we need to make sure kids don’t go to school hungry. That they have healthcare, dental care, and a safe home life. Perhaps we need to follow through on our belief that all children deserve an equal start. Kristof quoted further from the Berkeley/S&S research study, estimating that for every $1 we invest in a child early on we save $7 down the road. I consider that a pretty stellar investment.

But remember that investment doesn’t always take the form of money. The librarian who invested her time (and some money) to connect a young  boy with books that piqued his interest shows us how thoughtful action can have a tremendous impact on a child’s life.

What’s the call to action? If it’s been awhile since you invested in children, find a way to do it this week. Support programs that fight child abuse. Or any other program (like after school programs that our dismantler-in-chief wants to cut)  that helps kids. Invest your time in helping children. Do it on a regular basis. Time or money. A little of both. You decide.

(Teachers, you already give more than your fair share of time and money, so sit back and watch the rest of us do some work. You can cheer us on from the bleachers or the refreshment stand.)


26 thoughts on “Nicholas Kristof – Call to Action

  1. FictionFan says:

    Great post! As you probably know, I was in charge of a school for boys with behavioural problems for some years, and always felt it should be called a school for boys with parenting problems. Abuse and neglect don’t affect one generation only – those who are abused and neglected almost inevitably pass that on to their own children unless there’s some kind of intervention. How are children to learn to be good parents if they are never shown how? So I reckon you could increase that 5.6 billion – the effects go on increasing exponentially for ever, unless and until someone says stop loudly and means it.

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    Nothing will reduce me to sadness more quickly than child abuse. Given the nature of my professional background, I’ve encountered it far too often. As you mention, it’s difficult to make a life of good choices when you’ve had nothing but pain, neglect, and betrayal.

    I always get upset when there’s talk of decreasing funds for Head Start. It’s been shown to help disadvantaged children tremendously, including those who come from homes of abuse. Better academic skills over the years, less incarceration, etc. It’s a program we should support strongly.

    • Carrie Rubin says:

      I should add that not all studies have found Head Start to be helpful long-term, but even in the short-term, having a safe, educational environment to go to is a plus.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, indeed! Head Start is a proven program, not just because it’s a good invest but because it’s the right thing to do. And there are sooo many other programs out there that help kids that should get more funding. So, so many.

      I have a story for you. I had taken my son to the pediatrician when he was maybe six or seven. He had a smattering of dark scars on his left arm. The pediatrician saw these and said, “So Liam, how did you get these scars?” I, of course, knew the purpose behind the question. Liam held up his arm proudly and said, “This is my badge of Frisco.” He then proceeded to tell the doc how a ball-crazy golden retriever named Frisco had pulled him down a concrete driveway while chasing a ball on leash. I silently applauded the eagle eye of that doc.

  3. heylookawriterfellow says:

    This is an amazing and powerful post, Jilanne. And I’m taking it to heart. I’m gonna donate to a child abuse prevention program (and share this on my FB page in the hope that others will do the same.)

    I just wish I knew which books inspired that future Arkansas lawyer…

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yay! Yay! Yay!! Three cheers for you, awesome friend! I wish I knew the secret of THOSE BOOKS, too. But Kristof said that the lawyer was going to have an op ed piece in the New York Times here shortly. I’m keeping a lookout for it. Also going to ask the friend who was there if she recalls the lawyer’s name…..

  4. virginiafh says:

    I’ve been so saddened and disheartened by all the random violence and murder in the news lately, not to mention the lack of compassionate, productive governance. This post does a great service to remind us all how important it is to nurture and protect children — how else can we become a healthier, kinder, more cohesive society?

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      It is easy to get depressed and feel like nothing will ever get better. But we have to try, we can’t let despair win. Each generation is an opportunity for improvement. so we must actively break the cycle of neglect, ignorance, poverty, and violence in any way we can. Don’t give up!

  5. Patricia Tilton says:

    Really enjoyed the post and the stories shared. Very powerful. I like Nicholas Kristof and especially his interest in the struggles of girls and women globally — and his interest in the education of girls. Read his “A Path Appears.”

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, he’s a tremendous advocate for girls and women. And its amazing how he can talk for half an hour without notes. He really knows his subjects deeply. I’ll find “A Path Appears.” Thanks for the rec!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I can just picture that librarian driving to Memphis for more books, just so she’d lure this boy into reading. So brilliant, thoughtful and open-hearted. It truly made me cry. Thank you for reading!

  6. roughwighting says:

    Bravo Julianne, for posting this, tugging at our hearts and tear ducts (yes, I’m crying softly) and pleading with us all – DON”T STOP THE PROGRAMS that children need so much. In fact, add MORE programs to protect children. I know some corporate types need to see an economic bottom line. But most of us know it’s our spiritual/humanistic bottom line that tells us to give to places that help children get away from violence, that help feed children, clothe them, allow them to thrive to become happy human beings.
    A friend of mine teaches in a Head Start program. She’s paid poorly. And monthly, she begs for funds to keep it going, to save the children.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      It’s crazy where this country invests its money. And your friend is doing great work! Definitely more money needed for all children’s programs, and that includes schools and teachers!!

  7. Ste J says:

    This problem is brought up dramatically in season four of the masterpiece of tv that is The Wire, it is a huge challenge for teachers and parents to give children the best start in life with so many influences and problems about. Fantastic post and worthy of more attention from media which tends to focus on other things when the big stories are right here, happening in our school and homes.

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