Children of Flint: Inheriting anxiety, giving up hope

Story highlights

  • Young children say they worry about impact of lead in water
  • Residents fearful after children test positive for blood in lead
  • Parents worry what future looks like for children in Flint, Michigan

Flint, Michigan (CNN)Eight-year-old Nadia Baylor sits on the floor in her home in Flint, Michigan, playing with her toys, giggling and chattering -- until she talks about the water.

"This water is poison," she says, without skipping a beat. "If I drink it, I going to die and I don't want to die. Nobody want to die."
    Nadia's mother and others across the city say they repeatedly, bluntly tell their children they can't drink the water -- they want to make sure they don't sneak a sip of lead-tainted water that flowed through their homes after government officials switched the supply to the highly corrosive Flint River.
    8-year-olds Nadia Baylor and Julian Folgham worry about the safety of water.
    Eight-year-old Julian Folgham's mom told him he wasn't allowed to use the sink or drink the water after they learned it was contaminated.
    "It has lead in it," Julian says.
    And what does that do to those who drink it? "Kill people," he says.
    If they have a choice, these children say, they don't want to grow up in Flint. Their anxiety is palpable. They know all about the boarded-up and burnt-out homes, the gunshots they hear at night and now, the water they're terrified to drink. There isn't much for kids to do here, in part because of the blight around them, says Cheryl Farmer, Nadia's mother.
    Nadia remembers all of the times they practiced sheltering in place in school in case of a shooter. She counts the number of homes on the blocks that she calls "dead houses," abandoned and left to decay in the elements.
    A Flint childhood now means carrying the weight of tainted water, of parents' fears, of policies failed. The city is a shell of its former self, a prosperous, manufacturing stronghold that's now struggling to retain its residents. These are the children who will inherit it.

    'Flint is going to die away'

    In Flint, one in 14 homes is vacant. For three consecutive years, ending in 2013, Flint had the most violent crimes per capita. More than 40% of residents live beneath the poverty line.
    Flint used to be a wonderful town to grow up in, Beverly Davis says.
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    Like many blue-collar Michigan towns, it was fueled by the auto industry. General Motors plants kept it afloat for much of its prosperous history. But when plants began to close their doors, the jobs left, and so did many of the people.
    There used to be opportunity for the next generation, and with that, excitement and pride in the city, says Davis.
    Now she worries about a future in Flint. She still loves the city, but every murder, every new crime report, every new horrifying news story about the city makes her cringe. She struggles between hope and despair.
    "I just feel like Flint is going to die away," Davis says. "My kids have nothing to do here, period."
    Davis says the nostalgia of more prosperous times makes her hope there will be a change so her children can inherit a city that is "something better than what we have now."
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    Her daughter, Dai'Chane Norris, is in eighth grade and doesn't hold back when asked about Flint.
    "I think no innocent person should have to experience this. I think it's a bad place, but I grew up here this is my hometown," she says.
    Dai'Chane described the spirit of the people here as downtrodden -- and that was before the water crisis. Now, it's even worse, she says.

    Anxious about their future

    The water is just the latest in a long assault on the economy of this town, and the residents. They worry about what it means for their children to call Flint home, knowing the water crisis has potential to do the most damage to the next generation.
    Children are the most susceptible to the contaminated tap water, and any sign of a medical problem immediately makes people here worry it is related to the water, whether it can be proven or not. The water has made them so worried, they hold onto folders of tests and hospital visits, and try to construct timelines to trace their ailments to the water.
    Dominique Absell and his family worry about their future in Flint.
    That's especially true for Davis' 18-year-old son, Dai'Chane's brother, Dominique Absell.
    Dominique looks like someone who has his whole life ahead of him. He planned to fight for his country on the battlefield after graduating. But last year, Dominique says he began "getting headaches, passing out, [having] seizures, missing school."
    His family says doctors can't pinpoint exactly why Dominique began blacking out, sometimes several times a week. But it means he cannot join the U.S. Army. He can't even drive. Blood test results show he has very low levels of lead -- but that's enough to convince his mother the contaminants in Flint's water are to blame.
    There is no medical proof, but Davis says once she stopped cooking with the water, her son stopped passing out.
    Ask Dominique about his future now, and he breaks down. He puts his hand on his face, unable to compose himself. His mother hugs him, his sister sings, trying to keep his spirits up.
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    But he believes he has no future ahead.
    "It was my dream to go to the Army and now that I can't ... it's just hard, it's really hard," he says, tears streaming down his face.
    Dominique and his family might never know what's caused his medical problem. That anxiety, they say, has taken over their lives. And it is part of what makes it so hard to imagine what a future looks like here or anywhere else.
    "It completely changed me," Dominique says. "You're scared to go to sleep at night and scared that you don't know if you are going to wake up the next day."
    After seeing what her brother and her city have gone through, Dai'Chane says she doesn't believe Flint will be her home when she is older. She hasn't given up on the town, but expects "it will come soon."
    "I would come back to visit," she says of her hometown. "But I don't think it's a place I will stay my whole life."