I’m a few years behind in reading Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s book chronicling a decade that she spent following a family from the Tremont neighborhood in the South Bronx. Timely or not, I can’t help but post about it.

The first thing that broke my heart was the pervasiveness of sexual abuse. By about 15 pages in, every single woman and girl in the book up to that point had been sexually abused by a family member, family friend, or acquaintance. One girl was only two years old when she was molested. The psychological toll of abuse is enormous, and when a problem is as widespread as this book suggests that it is, where do you even begin in helping people heal? The legacy of abuse runs through families, as daughters blame their mothers for not protecting them, even as they are often unable to protect their own daughters.

Secondly, at several points in the story, the failure of our social programs to provide meaningful help at the moment when it is most needed becomes crystal clear. For example, Jessica, a young mother, enters a special rehab program while in prison, hoping to shorten her term by a year in return for completing the program. She initially does well in the highly structured environment, and begins to explore and rethink her past while participating in counselling. When the counselling begins to explore her history of sexual abuse, she can’t handle the strong emotions and begins acting out in ways subconsciously calculated to get her kicked out of the program. That is the very moment when true progress might have been made – her anger and self-destructiveness must stem, at least in part, from the abuse, and of course it will be painful for her to revisit that part of her childhood. Yet instead of sticking with her and doubling or tripling the support provided at this crucial moment, the program booted her. Certainly, I understand that programs like this must be very strict, but it still felt like a tragedy.

This article from City Limits about re-engaging youth ages 16-24 who aren’t working or attending school describes exactly the kinds of issues that come up in Random Family. Most of the young people in the book dropped out of school and have little or no work experience, and it is striking the degree to which they are on their own, even when they might be ready to seek support.

The lesson for me is that for programs to make a real difference, they must find ways to hang in there with their clients, through the times of resistance to change and of acting out and of disorganization or irresponsibility. Rules and expectations must be set, but so must an ability to stick with the person, help them through the worst part of the change process, and still be there for them. Where are these programs? How can we create more of them?