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Case Narrative

Carly Easton, Adult Student in Madison Family Literacy Program
“When I first moved to this neighborhood and started coming to the family literacy program, things were really difficult for me. It was really hard to sit still and read or think about math, and nothing seemed to make sense. I wanted to shut everyone and everything out. But … after a while, talking to Lena, my GED teacher, things started to get a little better. She and I talked a lot. I told her about how violent and crazy my ex-boyfriend was, and how he hurt Junie and me. Being here, I see other women studying for their GED, getting out of bad relationships, and raising kids by themselves. Now I can say to myself, I'm know I'm not the only one.”

Madison Family Literacy Program
The Madison Family Literacy Program is a small program run by Madison Community Center which serves residents of a low-income urban housing development. The program has been running for about three years. In response to a community needs survey, which found that many residents needed GED instruction and childcare services, the Community Center applied for a family literacy program from a city collaborative of public and private funders. The family literacy initiative is the first educational program to be provided by the Madison Community Center.

The program offers an adult education class, an early childhood program for preschool age children, parent-child activity time, and parenting education workshops. The teaching staff includes Lena Parsons, adult education teacher, and Noreen Tinsley, early childhood teacher. Eight women and 10 children are currently enrolled in the program.

Myra Simpson, Community Center Director
“Setting up a family literacy program on site was really difficult. I was happy to get funding for a literacy program because there's a need in the community. But I definitely had no idea there would be so many administrative hassles with the literacy program, more than I've ever had with other programs at the Center.”

“My biggest complaint has to do with the program funders—they're always asking me for program reports, and then the teachers get frustrated with me that I'm asking them to complete these weekly reports because they have enough to do with teaching and program planning, and so on. Wouldn't it make more sense for the funders to just come out here and see the program for themselves?”

“I usually don't get involved in the management of the family literacy program because I trust the teachers to run things on their own. I know there's been some tension lately between the parents and teachers, and maybe part of the problem is that the teachers aren't from the neighborhood, and have a hard time connecting with the parents.”

Noreen Tinsley, Early Childhood Teacher
“I wouldn't describe Carly this way now, but when I first met her, she seemed very distant and hardly said a word. I would try to talk to her about the wonderful progress Junie was making in the preschool, but she always seemed reluctant to engage in a conversation with me. It's helpful to have Lena around to help understand the needs and concerns of the adult students.”

“Soon after Carly and Junie joined the family literacy program, I noticed Junie had a stuttering problem. I immediately contacted some of my colleagues in speech therapy, and was able to arrange free services for Junie at a very reputable clinic downtown. I was anxious to get Junie into therapy as soon as possible, so I approached Carly with my idea right after class.”

“‘Hi Carly, could I talk to you for a minute? I wanted to let you know that Junie's doing a great job in the preschool,’ I began, taking a seat next to Carly at the table.”

“Carly nodded but didn't say anything.”

“‘I noticed Junie has a stuttering problem,’ I continued. ‘I really think it would benefit Junie to bring her to speech therapy twice a week. I already talked to someone who is willing to see her for free.’”

“Carly flipped through her GED workbook but still said nothing. I started to feel a bit agitated. I thought to myself, ‘What's going on here? Why does this have to be so difficult?’ I finally broke the silence and asked her, ‘So Carly, what do you think?’”

“‘Um, yeah, I guess so,’ was all Carly could say.”

“I couldn't believe she didn't jump at the offer. But in any case, we eventually worked out a plan to get Junie to her appointments. I would take Junie on Tuesdays and Carly would take her on Thursdays. Lena agreed to organize parent-child activities when I was gone on Tuesdays, which was really great of her. The plan went smoothly for about the first month, and we even began to see small improvements in Junie's speech.”

“Lately Carly and Junie have stopped coming to the program on a regular basis—at most they show up twice a week, instead of the full four days. We call or visit their apartment to see if they are okay, and Carly usually says she doesn't feel well or she doesn't feel like getting out. I'm not too sure how to respond when she says things like that. What's ended up happening is that I'm taking Junie myself on both days, even on days when Carly doesn't show up for class. This is a problem—we have a policy in the program that we're not childcare. We're an educational program for parents and kids. Parents aren't allowed to just drop their kids off and not come to class.”

“I know Carly has had a rough year, dealing with an abusive ex-boyfriend and taking care of Junie on her own while trying to go to school. I hoped that we would get to know each other better over time by working with Junie, but things only seem to have gotten worse. I don't think she gets it—that a stuttering problem can seriously affect a child. Junie might even get held back when she starts school.”

“For three straight weeks now, I've been taking Junie both days, and it's getting annoying. We had an agreement that this would be a joint effort, but Carly's not coming through on her end.”

Carly Easton
“I was 14 when I met Junie's father, and it was a short romance which turned into a nightmare relationship. He began to question everything I did—he'd yell, ‘Where are you going? Who're you going to see?’ I have no idea why he acted like that or why he treated me like I was sleeping around or something. Things only got worse after Junie was born. I'd always end up with bruises all over my arms after one of his fits.”

“One day he found out I had visited my mom's place across town, and he turned all hysterical and violent. He grabbed my arm and accused me of sneaking around and lying. He took out his knife and threatened to kill me and Junie. I grabbed Junie and ran out the door as fast as I could. I ran to a neighbor's apartment and banged on the door, begging her to let me in. Someone called the police and they came and got him.”

Carly fell silent for a moment. “I hate thinking about all that. All I know is that part of my life lasted way too long.”

“Sometimes there seems like there's too much going on, and I don't know how to manage it all. I've known for some time that Junie stutters. Noreen's all worked up about getting Junie to therapy, but you know, this therapy business was all her idea in the first place. Noreen's just so intense—always asking me too many questions, like what do I think about the speech therapy, whether Junie seems to be talking more and doing better, stuff like that. It seems like that's all she wants to talk about with me.”

“I guess I just want everyone to know I'm doing the best I can. As long as I keep doing that, I think Junie will be okay.”

Lena Parsons, Adult Education Teacher
“I've seen tremendous growth in Carly's progress and self-confidence as a learner. But at the same time, I feel like she's all over the place emotionally. Carly always seems to be in ‘survival mode,’ like she's constantly up against a crisis and dealing with it as headstrong as she can.”

“Several times, often right in the middle of class, she'll announce that she needs immediate help with really difficult matters, like getting help with a restraining order, or she needs someone to babysit Junie while she goes to the doctor. She'll burst out in a panic, ‘Lena, I have to be at the police station at 10 tomorrow morning, who can take care of Junie? Can you come with me to file for the restraining order?’ And I'd reply calmly, ‘Let's talk about this during break, okay, Carly?’ Later we would talk, and she would reschedule so I could go with her, or one of the other students would agree to go with her. Sometimes she would just get mad and storm out of the classroom.”

“I'm a teacher, not a social worker or a psychologist. Sometimes Carly looks so desperate for help that I don't know what to say. All I can do is just listen to her, and hope that helps a little. Sometimes I wonder if enrolling her in the program was the right thing to do, knowing full well we didn't have a counselor on staff.”

“I don't think Carly expects Noreen to take care of everything when it comes to Junie's therapy, but the fact that Carly isn't taking Junie to therapy anymore is a clear sign that something's wrong. I know Noreen means well—she'll do all she can for the children. But, I just wish she had discussed things with me before coming up with such an elaborate plan for Junie. Maybe the two of us could have worked something out together with Carly.”

“The whole situation raises questions about how we go about working with the families in the program. Maybe in this situation, what's best for the child doesn't always mean it's best for the parent.”

Things Get Worse
One afternoon, Noreen parked her car in front of the community center, and turned to Junie in the backseat, “You ready, Junie? Your mom should be inside waiting for you.” Junie nodded with a small smile and slid out of the car.

“Where's Carly?” Noreen asked Lena as she walked into the preschool room where Lena was cleaning up after a parent-child activity.

Lena shook her head. “She didn't show up for class. I called her apartment but nobody answered. Maybe we should try her again.”

Noreen walked quickly into the family literacy office and firmly shut the door, flinging her car keys down. Feeling angry and frustrated, Noreen dialed the Easton's apartment. The answering machine picked up.

Noreen said firmly, “Carly, it's Noreen. We need to talk. You know you're supposed to be here when I bring Junie back from therapy. This is something that DSS wouldn't be too happy about. I expect you to be at the family literacy program tomorrow, or I just don't know what we're going to do,” and hung up.

The people and events in this case are based on a real life situation, but the names of all persons and places have been disguised to protect confidentiality.



Discussion Questions

  • How would you describe the relationship between Noreen and Carly?
  • What is Noreen and Lena's working relationship like?
  • What do Junie and Carly need from the Madison program? How do these needs get in the way of each other?
  • How can Lena and Noreen coordinate and balance support for both Carly and Junie?
  • How could Noreen have responded differently to Carly's absence?
  • How do you think Carly will respond to Lena's message?
  • How can Noreen repair the damage to her relationship with Carly caused by her message?
  • What roles are there for Lena and Myra in resolving the situation?

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project