The path to prison often begins in the early years of life. Child abuse and neglect raise the risk that someone will commit violent acts and crimes in adulthood, as lots of data points out. Child maltreatment affects over a million children each year, and those children are about twice as likely to commit a crime, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Most incarcerated felons suffered physical abuse or neglect as children, according to studies from the National Institute of Justice. So, what happens to people when they are very young can predict whether they live productive lives or wind up in a prison cell.
It can also affect how they raise their own kids and “lead to a poverty cycle that goes on for generations,” as Amber Johnson explains. She’s seen the faces behind the alarming figures on child abuse and neglect because she worked in a Michigan prison before going into the early childhood profession. “I went into the field of corrections when I was 19 because I wanted to help people,” she recalls, “and I worked there for about seven years. During that time, many of the inmates told me their stories, and it was clear that their problems all started when they were little kids.”
Some of the prisoners were old, some young, some men, some women, but their stories had recurring themes that stuck in Amber’s mind. “They told me their dad wasn’t around or their mom wasn’t around,” she says. “They felt alone as children, and they had gone hungry. No one talked to them, no one read to them, no one loved them.” And when they went into the outside world, whether they were with relatives or at school, they felt like outsiders. They didn’t know the things that other children knew, like their numbers, colors or ABCs. So, they felt ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb'”—words Amber remembered after switching fields and finding a new way to give folks the support they so badly need.
She was also missing an important source of support after her mom passed away, leaving no one to watch her two-year-old daughter while she worked. “I thought to myself, this is a dangerous job,” Amber recalls, “and I can’t be in this type of environment while I’m trying to raise my child. So, I stayed at home and earned my real estate license while I was raising my daughter. I also watched a lot of my friend’s kids while they continued to work. That gave me the idea to also earn my child care license, and gradually early childhood education turned into a profession for me.”
In 2009, Amber started her family day care, Buzzy Bees, at her home in Flint, MI, and she kept on growing in her profession. “I went on to get my AA and my BA,” she explains, “because of all the stories I had heard in the prison. I wanted to be sure I was doing a good job for the families who were trusting me with their children. I wanted to be sure that I was feeding the children the right way, that I was educating them the right way and that I was doing the best I possibly could.”
Her sense of commitment mattered because she served many folks who were struggling. “At the time, my community was going through the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the Flint Water Crisis,” she says. “So, I saw an influx of children who were at risk because the parents couldn’t meet their needs.” The children were hungry, as she quickly came to see while watching them eat their meals. “When children are small,” she explains “and not being fed on a regular basis, they’re hoarders. They’re protective of their food, and that’s the way these children were. They’d put an arm around their plate like they were afraid someone was going to take it away, or they’d gobble their food and ask for more. So, I made sure they could relax while they were eating and even gave them some food to take home.”
She also reached out to the families and helped them feed their kids nutritious meals. “I would call the moms,” she says, “and ask if there was anything they needed. “I’d make up bags of food and coupons, tell them how they could make meals that lasted longer and explain how to cook things in a crockpot. I passed on these tips because there wasn’t just a lack of money. There was also a lack of knowledge about how to prepare a meal. So that was something I worked on with the parents.”
As she came to know these families better, she found herself thinking back to the people who she’d met while working in the prison. “I found out that these Michigan parents didn’t have family support and their own parents weren’t there. They didn’t have the education and resources they needed to keep a job and they didn’t believe in themselves,” she recalls. And she felt she had to address the parents’ problems because “when you take care of children, you also have to take care of their families.”
So, she partnered with a local elementary school to do parent resource nights for the families she served and their friends. “I had someone come in from the Michigan Works Association to give a presentation on how to find jobs. I had someone come in from Jo-Ann Fabrics to show them how to mend clothes since their children’s clothes were often torn and needed simple repairs. My husband, who’s been doing tax returns for over 30 years, talked to them about tax issues. And I talked to them about child care and how to raise credit scores, which tend to be low among young parents,” Amber relates.
She hoped to start doing resource nights like this after her husband’s job led them to move to McKinney TX, last year. By December, she had restarted her child care business, Buzzy Bees, and was getting to know the parents. Then the pandemic struck and put her plans on hold. “Enrollment is way down since parents are scared to bring their children back to child care. But I’m doing everything I can to continue doing my job and keep the children safe.” Of course, wearing a mask makes it harder to interact with the children, but she’s found a way to adapt. “I tell them to look at the corners of my eyes,” she explains. “When you see them crinkle, I’m smiling.” And she’s still finding reasons to smile despite the challenges she’s faced in recent months.
The kids in her care are doing very well and that inspires her to keep doing her best and stay hopeful about the future. “For a teacher,” she says, “there’s nothing more joyous than when you have a child who’s three, four or five and you have taught them their colors, shapes and numbers—something they didn’t know before and that you can’t take away. It’s like a light bulb literally clicks inside them at that moment of understanding. When I see that they have learned something new and come to believe more in themselves, that’s my reward.”
So, Amber refuses to feel let down as she waits for more children to return to her program. In the meanwhile, she’s trying to rebuild her business by working with new families. Granted, it’s hard to meet with parents when she’s wearing a mask. “It creates a barrier,” she says “but I’ve found something helpful to bridge the gap. When parents are outside waiting to come in, I take off my mask and tell them to look through the glass. I want to show them my face because I think it’s important for parents to know what their child care provider looks like. Though the pandemic has changed everything, you still need to connect with people.”
Despite the passage of years, Amber still feels a connection with the people whose stories she heard in prison. “Many of them had children, but they came out of prison with no skills and no education,” she says. At the present time, few inmates are eligible for the federal Pell Grants that would let them earn college degrees while serving time. And Amber thinks it’s high time for Congress to rescind the federal ban on Pell Grants for the prison population. “I’d like to see that happen so more people can rehabilitate themselves and come out of prison with skills to care for their children and bring their families out of poverty. If we did, I think there would be fewer children like the ones I’ve seen hunched over their food—stressed out and struggling for survival.”
It will take new policies to break the poverty cycle that Amber has witnessed firsthand during her career. Until that takes place, she’s doing her best for the children and families she serves. “I’m committed to showing them I believe in them, pouring all my love into them and making them feel special, which is something everyone needs. I know I can’t change the world all by myself, but I can make a difference one child and family at a time.”