State of the Union speeches are notorious for being forgotten within a week. But I hope we never forget the faces of the six grieving parents who sat in the balcony as the President said the names of their slain children. I’ve seen that look before: a veil of composure shattered instantly at the sound of a beloved’s name. It is a kind of agony that is as visible as a gut punch.
It’s almost unbearable to think about what it must be like to wake up every day after your teenage daughter is horrifically murdered by a gang like MS-13. Elizabeth Alvarado, Robert Mickens, Evelyn Rodriguez and Freddy Cuevas of Long Island, New York have been living that nightmare since 2016. Fred and Cindy Warmbier were also there as a testament to loss. Their son Otto was returned to them last year with devastating injuries and near death after being being imprisoned and tortured in North Korea.
And then there were the parents who weren’t there but whose pain was on display nonetheless. Crystal Champ is the mother of Hope Holets, who was adopted at birth by Ryan and Rebecca Holets, a generous couple who stood before the country holding the baby girl. The Holetses offered to adopt the girl after Ryan, an Albuquerque police officer, found Crystal homeless, addicted to opioids and eight months pregnant. Champ is now in rehab and calls the couple her guardian angels. And certainly they are. But their kindness doesn’t erase the essential tragedy of a mother separated from her child by an addiction that has ravaged tens of thousands of other families across the country.
The unvarnished sadness of these families was an achingly real moment in the surreal presidency of Donald Trump. As the Long Island families wept and tried to hold themselves together, the President turned to them and said: “320 million hearts are right now breaking for you.” Yes, our hearts were broken, stricken by the rawness of their grief. But then Trump seized that delicate moment to insert ugly divisive rhetoric into his address. He managed to entwine the feeling of fury and sadness that the girls’ deaths provoked with immigration policies that would affect all immigrants.
It was a political master stroke. But it doesn’t erase the thousands of other children whose lives have been blighted or lost to homegrown violence across the country. The grief of their parents is no less worthy of a response. Evelyn Rodriguez knows that. She has spent the time since her daughter Kayla’s murder fighting against cuts in funding for after-school programs and services to keep kids off the streets and out of the kind of gang that killed her child.
On the eve of Rodriguez’s trip to Washington for the President’s address, she told the New York Times that she didn’t come for anyone’s political gain—she came because she wanted Donald Trump “to ensure that we’re going to get the proper funding for the resources for our kids.” No word yet if the President is taking action on her plea (which she’s also shared with Attorney General Jeff Sessions), or whether he’s still intent on slashing education funding. His 2017 budget proposed more than $9 billion in cuts to the education budget, including a $1.1 billion reduction in after-school and summer learning programs. Congress voted to keep the after–school funding, but it’s not clear whether it will survive the next budget in the wake of the massive tax cuts enacted in December.
And what of the other baby Hopes out there? There aren’t enough couples like the Holetses to adopt or foster the flood of children whose parents have been incapacitated by the opioid crisis. Many foster programs were already struggling; now ravaged states like Ohio are seeing as much as a 10 percent increase in kids needing care. Yet while the President declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency last year, he stopped short of designating it as “a national emergency” which would unlock rapid funding for strapped medical services across the country and slow an epidemic that caused more than 59,000 deaths in 2016.
The Warmbiers’ suffering at the hands of North Korea is uniquely cruel. Trump said the couple has born witness to the “menace” of that regime. That is true. But the administration’s talk of a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea is terrifying no matter how great the urge to punish that regime. Trump’s candidate for ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, said his name was withdrawn after he opposed the idea of conducting a preventative strike. In an oped for the Washington Post, Cha writes that a such a move could escalate the conflict rather than deter an attack on South Korea, where more than 230,000 Americans, not to mention 51 million South Koreans, live: “To be clear: The President would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-sized U.S. city.”
If an escalation like that were to happen, the Warmbiers’ tragedy would be multiplied by an unfathomable factor. We don’t, however, have to imagine what the aching, unending grief of a parent looks like, thanks to the courage of the families on that congressional balcony. We should remember their faces as we decide how to spend our time, money and military force this year.