Judi Brown King, 26, addresses our most ancient cycle of violence, that of the sins of the fathers being visited upon their sons. "We have had cases," she says, speaking of her volunteer work at the Lane County (Ore.) Relief Nursery, "in which people have tortured their children. They did it because they had been tortured as children."
We know what physical and sexual abuse tells children: that if their parents or guardians and, by extension, the world punish them, then they must, somehow, deserve it. Some abused children grow to identify with the abuser, seeing this as a way to avoid remaining victims themselves.
"We have a boy who can inflict injury without remorse," says King. "Without our intervention, I can see him becoming a Charles Manson."
By intervening, King sends her opposing message that children can be guided without ruinous pain. Delivered to her care, to her kiss, to her voice, husky with love and yet capable of clear, sure authority, a hurt child may—if the damage isn't too great—begin to heal. And in doing so, the child may see not only that he matters and is enjoyed, but he may also grow up and learn restraint.
King is the American record holder in the 400-meter hurdles, having run a 54.23 to win the event at last summer's Pan American Games in Indianapolis. Her hurdling and her mission to assist abused children are simply separate facets of a life constantly turning among academics, sport and service. "A woman of many hats," she says, "but no masks. It's not that I cover up track, but I want to keep everything in proportion."
But she does cover up track. In the summer of 1984 she told her neighbors she was going to Southern California for a quick business trip. She came back with an Olympic silver medal.
She grew up Judi Brown in Milwaukee, Kokomo, Ind., and East Lansing, Mich., the daughter of an electrical engineer and an elementary school teacher. "From birth, I was the one the puppy followed home or who turned up with the broken-winged bird," she says. "I baby-sat for the problem kids no one else would sit for. I was always an advocate for the unhappy."
At Michigan State, where she majored in audiology (hearing science) and speech therapy, she was a Big Sister to seven-year-old Janice Adams. During her senior year she met one Garland King, then a graduate student in business administration and a third-generation graduate of Hampton Institute in Virginia. "Saw him on the street," says Judi deadpan, "and picked him up as a project." Janice was the flower girl at their September 1984 wedding.
After Judi won the 1983 NCAA 400-meter hurdles, the Nike-sponsored Athletics West Track Club offered her a coach and a training stipend if she would move to Eugene, Ore. "I had no ambition to be in the Olympics until then," she says. "It wasn't long before running, only running, became a bore. I needed more stimulation. I had a block of four hours a day between morning and afternoon workouts, so I thought I'd get into community things. There was the Lane County Relief Nursery. I went down to see and started the very next day. It was a natural. I'd always been their defender. Now here they were, all in one room...and they were wild animals."
These were children who had been forced to develop feral survival skills in one or two years of life. "It was unbelievably gratifying to see them begin to trust, to love," says King. "It's amazing the damage that can be done in a short time. That's the scary thing. But what seems to hurt one, another shakes off."
What King has shaken off is the urge to condemn most abusing parents. "When people find where I work and react with horror and say, 'How could anyone hit a child?' I know they aren't around kids much," she says. "Kids can be infuriating. But most people don't set out to injure their children. Abusing parents are often people who want a lot for their kids. It's just that they don't know how to proceed, and when there are setbacks, they get frustrated and take it out on the kids. We don't have a school that teaches parenting skills. We have to fall back on the way we were raised. And the fact is, you're only as good as your teacher."
The eternal cycle. "You have to break into it somewhere," says King. "You have to teach parents a new set of responses."
King is effective, her coworkers say, because of her remarkable ability to make struggling parents feel they have everything in common with this tall, funny, elegant, commanding woman. King asserts that they really do.
"You have to understand that under the same circumstances, in the majority of cases, you would act the same way," she says. "We, the lucky we, by accident of birth, money, genetic gifts, love and sport, are fortunate in our circumstances. But beware. Things can change.
"We're all one human animal," she concludes with force. "We just live in different jungles."
So good was King in the nursery that Sister Agnes Bachmeier, a Vista volunteer, recruited her for a home visiting program to assist parents of the relief nursery's children, many of whom are poor, without transportation, and therefore isolated from family and community. "She gives her all to her families," says Bachmeier. "And she can find the humor in very difficult situations."
"That's because I'm a candidate to be an abuser myself now," says King. "I took my work home with me." In 1986 it was one-year-old Tyson, a methadone baby. "At first we just had him for foster care," says King. "We expected him not to stay. I was working with his mother to solve drug and personal problems and create a home life. But after six months, I couldn't imagine the house without a child. So we adopted four-month-old Michael. Then Tyson's mother's troubles took a nosedive, and Tyson, now 29 months, evolved into our son."
King spends less time in the relief nursery now, but is a lay member of both the Oregon State Children's Services Review Board and the Lane County Juvenile Services Commission. After the 1988 Olympics she will go to law school to specialize in juvenile law. "I'd love to rid the juvenile care system of some of its injustice," King says. "To help shift the emphasis from just keeping the family together to really looking out for the welfare of the child."