By Rick Kern
As most, if not all, of us have found, life can burn one-heck-of-a fierce curve ball across the plate — and you better know how to hit it. Author and Advocate Renee Howitt swung for the fences and knocked it out-of-the-park! And as she ran the bases of life and crossed Home Plate, Renee found herself with a new career — no, a new mission — in child advocacy. It all went down unexpectedly when a phone call ignited a four-year-fight for a couple of kids she and her husband treasured and wanted to help…
“My childhood was good, that was not what got me into child advocacy,” Howitt reflects. “My husband’s oldest brother had begun one hellacious mid-life crisis. He got involved with another woman who became pregnant with his child.” Subsequently, the man left his wife of 25 years and three sons and married what turned out to be a deeply troubled woman who already had a two-year-old.
Howitt and her husband wanted to help and opened their lives to the couple. “So, in the next three years, we will be the new support system for this couple and have these kids at our house three, four, five times a week,” she recounts. “It’s not day care, I’m just offering some relief for this mom who is clearly very troubled, and with a newborn and a toddler — that’s not a good combination! She has lost her career and my brother-in-law is restarting his career — it’s a very stressful time for them.”
Things went from bad to worse and push finally came to shove. “When these kids get to be about three and five years old,” she continues, “we make a family decision to ‘hotline’ what I’m seeing and let the authorities know that we will be their resource if they will investigate this. If they see what I see! We are willing to foster, we are willing to adopt…”
That was the phone call that sent the curve ball, “They will come to live with us for an extended period and we will always have to give them back to the mom,” Howitt laments. “That’s three different rounds in a four-year-period.”
As you may have guessed, that somewhat turbulent season ultimately led to the deeply impacting book/Bible study, “Family: It’s Complicated.” What you may not have guessed, however, is that this remarkable, unscripted drama brought Renee to pen a script that became the riveting true story of their family’s struggle to save those two kids from a life of abuse and neglect. This, her first book, was called, “Whose Best Interest? A Fight to Save Two American Kids,” and it was born out of Renee’s journaling through the arduous odyssey she found herself on.
“Throughout that period, because somebody advised me to journal, every day I would get up and journal on my computer,” Howitt explains. “When we had to give these kids back a second time, I was so appalled and confused about what I had learned — about the child welfare system mainly — that I took the notes that I had started writing and it developed into a manuscript. We partnered up with an editor and I submitted it around and it became a published book.”
The book began to open some serious doors that Renee never saw coming. “I was appointed to “Missouri’s Task Force for Children’s Justice,” which is called the C.J.A.,” she says. “That task force formed a sub-committee titled, the “Critical Event Review” and I was appointed to that committee as well. I’ve actually served on those two committees now for the last 12-years and I will term out at the end of 2019.” She continues, “But that has just opened a world of education for me because those committees are made up of judges and lawyers, social workers, detectives, doctors, nurses — just all sorts of stakeholders from our state that have their hands in this family dysfunction issue from different points of view. It has allowed me to get caught up to speed.”
As Renee grappled with the scope of the crisis, she realized that educating young people might just begin to stop the bleeding, so-to-speak. “I was seeking a solution and it just occurred to me that education is probably the pathway. If the children come into ‘care’ for any reason, the parents will have to go to parenting classes.” She continues, “Along with other issues like drug rehab, medication, and psychotherapy — there’s a whole host of things they may have to do to get their children back. Yet all of them have to go to parenting classes and it occurred to me that that was a great idea — but that child’s already been harmed! Why aren’t we making parenting and child education a priority in all of our high schools, reaching all of our students?”
Never one to sit on inspiration, Renee found herself doing the speaking circuit in high schools. “When I started reaching out to high schools and offered myself up as a guest speaker just to share my story, I got connected almost overnight to health, family, and human science teachers,” she recalls. “I spent five years of my life just going from high school to high school to high school and speaking.” She adds, “Turns out that teachers love guest speakers and I sort of had a knack for speaking. And so being connected to those folks, I started seeing which curriculum was available, what kind of text books were being used and I saw an opportunity.”
As time passed, she realized that the missing ingredient to the message was the Christian faith. “We’ve got to get our faith-based communities,” she thought, “because when I went into the schools, I couldn’t talk about faith. I couldn’t talk about any of that part.”
“Now, I’m sitting in a government office and it’s guiding me back to the church,” she laughed. “I was thinking, Wow! If I was going to get churches to bring me in as a guest speaker, I have no credentials. I’m not the clergy and pastors are very protective about who they’re going to let in and speak at their churches as they should be.”
The light went on! “It occurred to me that if we had a Bible study on the topic it might open that door for me to be able to share how important this issue is on a personal basis.” Teaming up with Tim Wesemann, a friend who was both a former pastor, and also a writer and author, “Family: It’s Complicated” was conceived. “I went to him with this project idea and he said, ‘I’m in.’ We spent last year, together, writing this Bible study and I provided the background on Adverse Childhood Experiences (A.C.E.), which is its foundation.
“Family: It’s Complicated,” was penned on the premise that the health of our families is the health of our nation. That from the first book of the Bible to the latest news headline, every household has its own generational story of how they interacted, reacted, and treated one another. And while some of the biblical accounts are encouraging, some are filled with unexplainable dysfunction — the same troubles that still plague modern-day families. Why are we angry? Why is there deception, or so many single-parent homes? Why do we suffer with addictions and violence? And on it goes…
The questions are answered with the inspiring reality that although we can’t go back and mend our broken childhoods, we do have the ability to break the cycle of brokenness. We can encourage our own children, and others, that they indeed have the power to live better lives.
“Family: It’s Complicated,” is a penetrating, and thought provoking small-group or individual Bible study. It offers both responsive solutions and enlightening information about ACEs by discussing dysfunctional similarities between families found in Genesis (such as Adam and Eve and what happened to their sons) and today’s families. Its anecdotes, Bible commentary, and study questions enable readers to proactively dig to the roots of their own personal struggles and become empowered to rebuild healthier, stronger family relationships.
In the demanding throes of her growing groundswell of advocacy, Renee has established a non-profit 501(c)(3) status organization called COPE24 (Changing Our Parenting Experience). Their mission is to “Significantly reduce incidences of child abuse and neglect.” They are committed to achieving their goals by providing parenting and child development education to all high school students.
“Based on the results gathered from the renowned ACE’s Study (Adverse Childhood Experiences),” the COPE24 website notes, “we know that the majority of children will grow up in homes with some level of dysfunction. Most of us wouldn’t even be aware that this is dysfunction but rather the norm. Education allows us the ability to create healthier families. Healthy families will lead to healthier communities. More than 80 percent of our youth will become parents. How can we expect them to do better if they don’t know better?”
That the new normal is just an old problem run amok is a more than fair point from a woman who has spent the last nine years speaking into the lives of over 23,000 students in more than 240 schools and universities across the country.
For more information about COPE24, or to contact them, visit their Internet site located at www.cope24.com. You may also purchase all their DVDs and books there, including “Family: It’s Complicated,” which is also available at www.Amazon.com.