Aiyana Smith, a social worker with the not-for-profit Alternatives East End Counseling, was recently leading a “Stress Busters” program at a local school. The course is aimed to teach students how to handle anxiety inducing situations. Smith stood in front of a fourth grade class filled with nine-year-olds and asked them to shout out stressful circumstances. Instead of responding with topics like homework, making friends or lunchroom politics, the children offered responses that included parents having to pay bills or losing jobs and even the war in Iraq.
Above: Local children finish their homework at the Southampton Youth Services After school program.
“At first, it shocked me,” recalled Smith in an interview at the Alternatives center in Southampton. “But then I realized they are very aware of what is happening. They see the Internet and the newspapers.”
The recession, reports staff at family organizations across Southampton and East Hampton towns, is not only taking a toll on parents and caregivers but local children as well. With steep cuts to youth services proposed in the tentative Southampton and East Hampton Town budgets, counselors worry children’s support networks will dwindle at a critical time.
“We are seeing the risk factors increase for our youth and we are seeing the protective factors decreasing,” reported Alternatives executive director ChristineEpifania. “Are we just saying that ‘Yes, the world is filled with ups and downs and there aren’t many things you can count on?’”
At Alternatives, parents say they worry about paying for gas to drive their children to sporting events. In the last six months, the Southampton Youth Bureau has experienced an uptick in the number of inquiries for services like free school lunches, low costhealthcare for children, food pantry locations and financial assistance programs. Now, says youth bureau director Nancy Lynott , kids balk at paying for programs or trips, whereas the youth bureau was once able to fill such activities. She says the kids (and their parents) simply don’t have the money. Several parents report to the Youth Bureau that their work hours have been cut and they have lost medical benefits for their families. Others say jobs in the construction and landscaping industries have evaporated and they can no longer afford health insurance for their children.
“We had one family with a mother, father and little boy. The little boy was very troubled and had a severe emotional disorder. They had to move out of the area because theycouldn’t afford to stay here,” said Carol Magee with the Family Service League, an organization offering low-cost counseling and programs. “I know the mother said she would attempt to find treatment for her son, but I don’t know if they will be able to.”
The youth advocates in the area report that these stresses have an effect on children. Magee explains that children who sense the financial burdens shouldered by their parents will often act out.
“Whenever there is stress in the home it is often the case that the children either start throwing tantrums or are not sleeping well. We are seeing that,” addedMagee.
Although it is often presumed these adult pragmatic issues don’t penetrate the young psyche, local child advocates disagree.
Epifania says, “Children see and hear a lot of things that the adult population don’t think they understand.”
For the parents who are feeling the economic pinch, Lynott suggested honestly explaining the situation to kids but using age-appropriate language.
“It helps a lot when the kids aren’t left in the dark,” says Lynott. “Create ways to help them become part of the solution. It will give them a sense of control and power in the situation. They need to know that if they have a question it will be answered.”
Lynott, who is also a social worker, stressed that there is a lack of data on a local and national level regarding the impact the recession has had on children. The last Southampton Town Teen Assessment Project (TAP) survey was conducted in December of 2008 and the next one will be released in 2011.Lynott mentioned that by December 2008 the economic downturn wasn ’t yet acutely felt by local families. She believed the stresses caused by strapped finances reached new levels in the last six months. The situation will likely be exacerbated by proposed cuts to youth services in Southampton and East Hampton towns, addedLynott.
East Hampton Town cut their contribution to Family Service League by $25,000 and Southampton Town completely wrote the League out of the budget. The funding cuts will most likely result in the loss of one position, added Magee, at a time when the community is calling for more service. In the 2010 tentative Southampton Town budget, the total expenditure of youth services is $405,711, with an overall decrease in spending by $90,762. This reduction in spending was mainly achieved through the elimination of two positions: the youth counselor and assistant director of the Bureau. The loss of these staff members would significantly alter programming offered by the Youth Bureau, notedLynott . These staff members oversee case management work, information distribution and referrals, the youth court program and a grandparents’ support group.
Lynott worries that a lack of programs will steer the youth, especially teenagers, towards riskier behavior. Of youth programming, Lynott said “Youth development is a theory of prevention. Positive youth development saves us a great deal of money down the road … in costs like treatments, services, incarcerations, detention, and loss of productivity … but there is also a cost in human suffering.”