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Unemployment's Youngest Victims

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Detroit--For decades, the Goodyear Tire Company's automobile production "tote board," which sits atop a building in a gritty industrial corridor where Interstates 94 and 75 cross, has been one of this city's most famous landmarks.

The board, like a thermometer jammed permanently in a patient's mouth, constantly gauges the health of the nation's auto industry. Not long ago, passersby would stare in fascination as num-bers clicked up on its face every second. Today, minutes pass before the numbers on the board edge upward. Some days the numbers don't move at all.

Lagging automobile sales and layoffs among automobile workers have been a way of life here since the Arab oil embargo of 1973. And as the recession has deepened and the unemployment rate in Michigan has climbed beyond 17 percent, the strains of that economic distress have become increasingly visible, even among children.

A few years ago, a guidance counselor at an elementary school on the city's west side found a disturbing pattern in the growing numbers of children being referred to her for counseling.

"Children who always received good grades were falling behind," recalls Artie M. Morris-Vann of Carver Elementary School. "Some couldn't keep from daydreaming in class and others were simply coming into school in tears."

After speaking to the children about their problems in school, she realized, she says, that they had only the vaguest notion of the meaning of "big words" like "unemployment," "layoff," and "budget." And they were unable to make connections between those words and the family tensions they themselves were being buffeted by.

Ms. Morris-Vann's talks with the children of Carver provided the groundwork for a children's book she wrote entitled My Dad Is Unemployed ... but it's not the end of the world. The book, which is published by the Aid-U Publishing Company and now in its second printing, is intended to help young children understand the effects of unemployment and to help them and their families adjust to it.

"I've found that parents aren't telling their children everything, and children don't know enough to ask the right questions," Ms. Morris-Vann says. "For example, a parent comes home one day and says that he's been laid off. Few children in kindergarten or the 1st grade understand what that means."

"Just the other day, I had a 4th grader come in crying her eyes out because the day before she heard her father tell her mother that he had only two more unemployment checks coming," she continues.

"She was worried sick that she and her parents would be thrown out of their house. She had no idea that her parents could apply for adc [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] or some other assistance."

By Ms. Morris-Vann's estimate, at least 25 percent of the 650 pupils at Carver have at least one parent who is out of work. Approximately 60 percent of the children at the school, located in a blue-collar neighborhood a mile or two north of Ford Motor Company's massive River Rouge auto complex in nearby Dearborn, are eligible for free lunches through the Agriculture Department's school-lunch program.

Swamped With Calls

The school, she adds, has been swamped with calls this year from parents seeking forms allowing them to pick up free holiday food baskets provided by the Goodfellows, a local service organization composed of former paperboys for the city's two newspapers.

Conditions like these foster the breakdown of previously secure families, and the effects on young children can be disastrous, she says.

"Quite a few children begin to believe that they are the direct cause of arguing and fighting between their parents," she says. "One child came to me because she had asked her mother to buy her a pair of designer jeans. Her mother bought them without telling her father, and when he found out he blew his stack.

"Another girl had asked her mother to bake something for a fundraiser for the local Brownie troop," she continues. "When her dad found out, he yelled at the mother because he said the family couldn't afford such a luxury anymore."

'In the Same Boat'

Children like these "tend to focus only on the ways that they might have caused problems," Ms. Morris-Vann explains. "It isn't until they can sit down with a group of children like them that they can discover that other children are in the same boat and are carrying around the same kind of guilt."

Ms. Morris-Vann explains that her book is intended for use during "bibliotherapy" counseling sessions, in which children are encouraged to read about and identify with problems portrayed in books.

"Generally, we'll read the book together from cover to cover, then go back and focus on individual pages," she explains. "We might start with the first page, which talks about how the father in the book used to go to work every day, and ask the children what their fathers or mothers used to do for a living. Or we might spend the session on the page where the father and mother are arguing, then talk about the times when their parents argued and why the argument started."

Examples of family discord in the book were taken directly from talks Ms. Morris-Vann had with former students. In one scene, the main character is slapped by his mother because he says his favorite fruit punch "tastes yucky" and "needs more sugar."

In another scene, the father hits the mother for no apparent reason, something he has never done before, and the child cries so hard that his head begins to hurt. In another, the child fantasizes about whether he and his family will starve or whether his parents will be forced to sell him because they can no longer afford to take care of him.

'Not the End of the World'

"The bottom line in the book is that although Dad may be out of work and times are tough, it's not the end of the world," says Ms. Morris-Vann.

"The book suggests that parents and their children use the extra time that comes with unemployment to get to know each other better and to do inexpensive things like jogging, reading, or watching television. The main point the book tries to bring out is that having a loving family is the most important thing in the world."

Although counseling cannot help an unemployed parent find a new job or put food on the table at home, it can help "take the hurt out of a miserable child's heart" and possibly can help avoid more serious mental-health problems in the future, says Ms. Morris-Vann.

"In 1978, the President's Commission on Mental Health issued a report that documented an increase in the 70's in the number of children being admitted into state mental-health facilities," she says. "They said the reason for this increase was that children today have to deal with more crisis situations than ever before, but their needs aren't being met adequately."

"Why is it that we have to take action only after the crisis occurs?" she asks. "I'm a strong believer in preventive mental health and in providing children with some knowledge about problems like unemployment."

Schools, she adds, are logical points of intervention because "teachers are in a good position to spot problems because they see these children on a daily basis."

In addition to referring children to counseling sessions, Ms. Morris-Vann suggests that teachers or other school officials contact parents and inform them of their children's uncharacteristic behavior.

Parents, she says, have been quite receptive to her counseling, and to the book as well, "because it simplifies and explains the problem of unemployment for children" in a way that many parents cannot manage.

Several organizations, including the United Auto Workers, have also taken note of the book and have placed bulk orders for it so it can be distributed to laid-off workers.

But most important, says Ms. Morris-Vann, children seem to enjoy reading the book because they can relate to the problems and the people portrayed in it. "I read the book to the girl whose father's unemployment checks were running out," she says, "and when we finished she smiled and said, 'This is just like my life story."'

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