My father dealt illegal drugs and stolen cars. He threatened people with loaded guns. My dad was part of riots and Ku Klux Klan rallies, and he was hired by several women to kill their husbands.
He is my hero.
You see, my father was Commander of Special Investigations for the Indiana State Police. He dressed up as the bad guy for 27 years as an undercover detective. Every now and then, I dust off the family videos: blurry crime surveillance tapes of my dad in the line of duty. I used to watch them on repeat as a young boy.
During one scene, as dad wrestles a criminal on the hood of a van near impoverished South Chicago, a child stands motionless in a distant doorway. In my childhood mind, she was the criminal's daughter, and I cheered every time her father was handcuffed.
Today, though, nearly four decades after that arrest, I worry about that little girl.
I'm one of America's newest pediatricians. My clinic, an outreach of Boston Children's Hospital, sits a snowball's throw from inner-city projects. Last winter, my four-year-old patient who lives there, I'll call him Matthew, built a snowman next to the steps of his family's apartment--the same steps where his teenage brother would be shot by rival gang members one week later.
Picture this: Matthew's stick-armed snowman, the symbol of a little boy's innocence, fenced by yellow police tape and blood-spattered snow.
I'm a pediatrician asking Americans concerned about our country's future to consider those who will be living in it. Children exposed to violence and poverty, like Matthew and the little girl in the video, experience stress, and a growing body of medical research tells us this physically damages the structure and function of the developing brain. Physician-scientists assert these changes may exaggerate a child's impulsivity, ultimately deterring the adulthood decision-making process. In other words, children like Matthew and the little girl in the video may make decisions as adults landing them imprisoned, poor, or dead because of violence or poverty they experienced as kids.
Nowadays, I can't ignore the fact that one in three of the black, newborn boys I see in clinic will end in up jail before his 18th birthday. I can't ignore the increased likelihood of drug addiction, teen pregnancy, dropping out of high school, and homelessness for any of my patients growing up poor. And when I'm listening to the heart of a young man living in a single-parent home, I can't ignore that his heart is twice as likely to stop because of suicide.
I recently met Bryan Stevenson, the inspiring lawyer and author of the New York Times bestseller, Just Mercy, who knows these statistics all too well. Mr. Stevenson represents youth, often black teenage men, on America's death row, and he, like me, believes history judges a society's character by how it treats the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.
So how we treat America's most vulnerable people matters, which means children, especially those growing up poor and near violence, should be front and center in American political discourse.
The 2016 Presidential election consumes today's media, and once again, party lines divide us. We argue the role of welfare and whether black or all lives matter. We disagree about gun safety legislation and when life begins. We place blame on the size of government, too big or too small, when parents make poor decisions, when our schools lose to China's, and when prisons overflow.
But perhaps we can remember--even if only during this election season--that child suffering transcends political debate. Surely the danger facing Matthew and the other 16 million children in American poverty is unworthy of the richest nation, unworthy of our ethic of pluralism, unworthy of those who fought before us to make our country the envy of the world.
I write in search of America's Advocate-in-Chief--the candidate of compassion, the future leader of the free world who will stand for America's children, her most precious resource, and boldly carry their stories and importance to debates, campaign websites, town halls, and policy proposals. Super Tuesday is upon us. Mr. or Madame President: show yourself.