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Breaking the cycle

A mother shares her story of poverty, trauma, and the promise of education.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s interview day for prospective students at the Science Leadership Academy, and Angela Sutton is just another happy mother.

Sitting with other parents in the back of the room, her hair coiled in gleaming braids, she’s telling about the day her 7-year-old tried to order $500 worth of science books online.

“It was biology, anatomy, it was a chemistry book in there – I couldn’t believe it,” she tells the parents nearby. “He said, ‘Mom, I saved you so much money, they were half off!’”

Everyone laughs. Upstairs, Sutton’s older son, Jahzaire, 13, is answering questions and showing off his science project: an important step on the journey to adulthood.

Downstairs, mothers and fathers of every description are milling around, drinking coffee, chatting and wondering. White, Black, Asian, Latino, jeans, slacks, young, old, hip, square – it’s a cross section of Philadelphia families, united by a desire to give their children the best education possible.

All that sets Sutton apart are the odds she’s trying to beat. “Everything I didn’t have as a child,” she says, “I want to give to them.”

She’s not just talking about money. She’s talking about peace.

Angela Sutton is one of tens of thousands of Philadelphians raising children in what’s known as “deep poverty,” living on about $10,000 a year. She grew up in Germantown and North Philadelphia, surrounded by violence, dysfunction, and deprivation. Raped for the first time at 8, abused and rejected by family, bullied in school, ensnared in her own anger, life was, in a word, traumatic.

“It changed who I was,” Sutton, now 38, said. “I felt nothing was for me, everything was against me. I felt no love.”

When it comes to education, the challenges faced by people like Sutton – and the children they raise – are daunting. Traumatized people develop tools for survival – tuning out, lashing out, repeating the abuse – that are far from helpful in school, often resulting in still more trauma: suspensions, expulsions, arrests, incarceration.

Sutton is determined to break that cycle. Her mission is never far from her mind, even as she sits in SLA’s bright lobby, waiting for Jahzaire.

Jahzaire and Angela Sutton in the lobby at the Science Leadership Academy on interview day. After his interview, Jahzaire came back smiling. Just over a year ago a personal crisis threatened to throw him off track – a crisis that peaked with him in custody of the Department of Human Services, crying, “My dad don’t like me, the school don’t want me, and now you trying to take me from my mom?”

Every year, thousands of deeply troubled young people attend school in the Philadelphia system, hoping to rise above circumstances like Jahzaire’s. Every year, thousands fail.

So Sutton is visibly relieved when her son strides confidently back into the lobby, stylish in his bow tie and suspenders, a Styrofoam model of a cell tucked under his arm.

“He’s smiling,” Sutton says. “That’s good.”

Toxic, infectious, and ubiquitous

The first lesson of trauma, says Mariana Chilton, is that it’s a social experience, handed from one person to another, replicating like a virus.

“If you’ve been traumatized, you’re very likely to reenact that trauma,” says Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University. “It’s very infectious, and I think it has a lot to do with why Philadelphia continues to recycle its poverty.”

The impact on children’s ability to learn is profound. Neglect and abuse essentially starve young brains, slowing the growth of neural pathways and stunting cognitive and emotional development.

“We have a 3rd grader right now who can’t count to five, and a 4th grader who can’t count beyond 10 – on her fingers,” says Jeneen Whaley, manager of the Center for Parenting and Early Childhood Education at the People’s Emergency Shelter in West Philadelphia. “Not only do you have the acting out, the fighting – you have children whose ability to learn is adversely affected.”

Trauma is not exclusive to the very poor by any means. Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of all kinds can be found in any zip code.

But in low-income communities, where jobs and resources are scarce, multiple forms of dysfunction and deprivation can blend together over generations to create what Chilton calls a “toxic” level of collective trauma.

Of the 60,000 children estimated to live in deep poverty in Philadelphia – defined as about half the official poverty level, about $10,000 a year for a family of three – many will suffer from the kinds of experiences Sutton grew up with. Whaley estimates that “99 percent” of PEC’s residents grew up badly abused.

Mental health surveys suggest that trauma among poor Philadelphians is “off the charts,” Chilton said.

Traumatized children are more likely to drop out, get arrested, make bad decisions about sex and drugs – and repeat bad behaviors, traumatizing still more children.

It’s a vicious cycle, Whaley said, that can suck in entire families and communities.

For many children, the first trauma is hunger, which leaves them lethargic and withdrawn, slowing their neural and cognitive development.

Neglect can do similar damage. Physical and sexual abuse intensify the effect, teaching children coping mechanisms like disassociation (“tuning out”) or hypervigilance – mechanisms that may be useful in traumatic, dangerous situations, but don’t work well in school.

The result is a very large problem for the District. Thousands of such children attend Philadelphia schools at any given moment, where they’re likely to fall afoul of the system by acting out what they experienced, or tuning out and falling behind.

Even the brightest among them can struggle to beat the odds.

“There was a young man here, and he had a phenomenal gift for writing,” Whaley recalled. “The stuff he was turning out at 12 and 13 could sell books.”

The boy – “call him Bruce,” she says – had been a chronic truant and was far behind in his schoolwork. But he made good progress in PEC’s afterschool program. On the brink of high school, he showed promise.

But he also had a mother who, instead of supporting her son’s writing and schoolwork, “belittled him.”

It was something Whaley has seen countless times – trauma replicating itself. “Because of her mental health [issues], her own substance abuse, because of her own trauma, she wasn’t able to nurture that in him,” she said.

The family soon left. Five years later, Whaley was working as a Philadelphia police officer (she’s since returned to PEC) when she spotted Bruce with some shady company.

“So I roll down the window and I say, ‘Bruce, come here,’” she recalled. “He says, ‘Eff the police!’”

But then he recognized her: “Oh my God, Miss Jeneen, I’m so sorry.” Yes, he was dealing drugs. No, he wasn’t in school. Yes, he’d go back, he promised – as soon as he “beat this one case.”

And please, he said, “Come by and see my mom sometime. She’s doin’ good.”

Three months later, Whaley got a call: a “hospital case” in Cobbs Creek Park. “It was him,” she said. “They shot him. The people for whom he worked took him into the park and killed him.”

Rejection, tailspin, and crisis

It was just over a year ago that Jahzaire faced a personal crisis that threatened to throw him off track. Now he is looking to gain a spot in one of the city’s best high schools. Could Angela Sutton see Jahzaire in Bruce’s shoes?

“Easily,” she said. “This is what I try to explain to people. When you’re dealing with children that are this fragile, one bad day can change their destiny.”

Jahzaire’s bad day almost came in 7th grade, when Sutton got a shocking call from school: DHS was ready to “take him downtown.”

It was the culmination of a string of setbacks. Jahzaire’s grades had been slipping for a year – “puberty stuff, girls breaking his heart” – but the big blow had been a falling out with his father, who had asked Jahzaire to go to a funeral for a little-known aunt.

Jahzaire had been scheduled to make a presentation in class that day. He knew his grades needed a boost, so he chose school over the funeral. “I didn’t know her like that,” he recalled.

In response, his father cancelled a planned weekend and sent him a bitter text: “You’re blood, but you’re not family.”

The brutal rejection sent Jahzaire into a tailspin.

“He was devastated,” his mother recalled. “From that point on, his grades were horrible.” She’d sent him into counseling at school, where he eventually told a story about a spanking that triggered the call to DHS.

That’s the call every struggling parent dreads – harbinger of one of the worst traumas of all. “Not a single parent I’ve spoken to is not afraid that DHS is somehow going to come and take the kids and rip apart the family,” said Chilton.

So Sutton rushed to the school, burst through the front door, jumped on the countertop and “lost my mind. … I said, ‘He’s leaving here over my dead body!’”

She was lucky: a DHS staffer involved knew and trusted her (“He said, ‘Ms. Sutton, I’m so glad it’s you.’”). The story was cleared up, and she took Jahzaire home.

But her work wasn’t over: Next, she cut off Jahzaire’s father entirely. He’d been abused by his own dad, and now, she believed, he was repeating the same thing with their son.

“I said, ‘I’m breaking the cycle right now,’” she recalled.

Jahzaire didn’t like it: “He didn’t do nothing to me!”

Sutton gave no ground: “He already has. He’s endangering your future. He’s a destiny killer. … As long as he’s around, you’ll be on this emotional roller coaster.”

Eventually she won her son’s trust. “He said, ‘Mom, just bear with me,’” she recalled. “He brought up his last report card last year, and he’s been doing good ever since.”

Jahzaire himself is matter-of-fact. “I can tell you all about that,” he said. “Ever since that day, I haven’t talked to him. … My dad was a big distraction for me. Putting him in my past has been very helpful.”

Luck and perseverance

Chilton and Whaley see much room for improving the way schools handle trauma survivors like Sutton’s family. Whaley sees a need for more support services of all kinds, especially when it comes to keeping young men on track to graduate.

Chilton reiterates that schools need to adopt a comprehensive “trauma-informed” approach to everything from staff meetings to discipline, such as the Sanctuary Model developed by Drexel’s Sandra Bloom. In that model, mental health professionals – social workers, psychiatrists, nurses – collaborate to provide trauma-informed, healing treatment.

But both agree that what’s also needed is what Sutton has: luck and perseverance.

“I’ve been raped. I’ve been shot. I’ve been homeless. I became angry, bitter,” Sutton said. “I had so much hate for families.”

She struggled to deal with her own issues – among them, a tongue that can “cut arteries.”

But as she grew older she learned to forgive and focus. She has a GED and a work history. She became an advocate with a group called Witnesses to Hunger, where she met Chilton; working with that group, she and Jahzaire have both spoken publicly about what it’s like to go without food. (“It makes it hard to concentrate,” Jahzaire said.) She’s got credits toward a degree and hopes one day to work professionally helping people like herself.

But she’s still on public assistance, living in Section 8 housing in the Far Northeast on $692 a month (“more if there’s child support”).

It frustrates her that so many are so poor in a country so wealthy, and that the prison system gobbles up so much promise.

She tells her boys that they already have two strikes against them – “You’re Black, and you’re men” – and that they can’t afford a third.

But she also tells them that with an education, they can do anything. Both sons attend one of the top-performing charters in the city, Folk Arts – Cultural Treasures (FACTS). She has challenged Jahzaire to win a spot in one of the city’s top selective-admission high schools, like SLA – and so far, so good. If he stays on track, she says, the sky’s the limit.

But there’s no money now.

She’s already let them know: This year, no Christmas. No new sneakers, no down vests, no PlayStation, and no excuses.

“I used go to the dollar store, and buy them toys, and they were cheesy, but they didn’t know any better because they were younger,” Sutton said. “But now – they know. I can’t do that this year. They’re looking at me, so I told them the truth.”

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