Shevone Torres and her two sons lived in her grandmother’s old Victorian home in what she describes as a very segregated South Jersey neighborhood. “We were one of the first Black families on the street,” Shevone said.
Living in a multi-generational household with her two children, her grandmother, her brother, and her brother’s children was challenging, but on most days it was a blessing, according to Shevone. Like many other single moms, she relied on the support of family members and friends as she raised her two young boys. It wasn’t until her five-year-old nephew went to the doctor for a routine test that the nightmare that rattled her household and changed the course of her family members’ lives began.
Her brother told her that her nephew had lead poisoning. When Shevone found out about what had happened to her nephew, she knew she had to get her two sons tested, too.
After a doctor’s visit, Shevone was informed that her older son had lead in his blood, but not at elevated levels. Her younger son, though, had absorbed high levels of lead and was considered lead-poisoned by federal standards. “I didn’t know how to feel,” she said. “I didn’t understand what [lead] was really, how it affected children, or how the kids in my house could’ve gotten poisoned.” After testing, she found that the home’s paint, flooring, and soil all contained lead.
About a week later, someone from the board of health arrived at Shevone’s home. She and her family were told that they had to have the lead removed from their home and were given a list of resources to utilize for help with the cost of the expensive removal (according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the average remediation cost per unit is $13,000).
“As we reached out to each one of those ‘resources’ our situation became more dire,” Shevone said. “Everyone we reached out to told us either we made too much money to get help, or we didn’t make enough.” To make matters worse, the house was considered historic, as are most homes where lead is found. Although lead has been banned from paint, pipes, FDA-approved cosmetics, and other sources—which has greatly limited the risk of exposure—legacy lead remains in paint and dust in pre-1978 homes, in lead pipes that were installed before 1986, in soil, and in other materials. For Shevone, this meant that based on rules determined by the municipal historic preservation commission, the family faced a variety of restrictions on what they could do to alter the home in order to get the lead out.
While the family was doing all they could to try to remove the lead paint, the board of health was becoming impatient. “We were trying to get help, but the non-stop calls and pop-ups frustrated my grandmother to the point that one day, she was fed up,” Shevone said. “She told them to stop coming by the house, and that’s when everything took a turn for the worse.”
Shevone vividly remembers what happened next. “I was at work when I got a phone call. It was from children’s services. They told me to come to the house and find another place for my kids to live, or they would be taken by the State. My heart sank. I did nothing wrong, but they wanted to take my kids.”
Her children went to live with her sister, but that put her sister at risk of losing her housing assistance if the state found out that she had additional occupants in her apartment. Shevone bounced from couch to couch, struggling to get housing help and raise her children from afar. In the meantime, her grandmother lost her home.
Shevone’s homelessness began with the realization that lead was present in her family home, and that realization placed Shevone and her family in a whirlwind that changed the course of their lives. She did not find stable housing until a few months ago—10 years later. Thinking back, Shevone recalled that “all of the trauma and pain stemmed from lead in my home.”
Although a lot has changed since Shevone first found out about her son’s diagnosis, much remains the same. Every year, nearly 3,500 children in New Jersey are poisoned due to lead exposure. Lead disproportionately affects young children, most of whom are lower-income and Black, causing serious medical and behavioral issues into adulthood. Both Shevone’s son and nephew have since been diagnosed with autism, and doctors say that this may have been the result of lead exposure.
Shevone believes that her experience was directly related to the color of her skin and her income bracket. “I think this was an issue because we’re Black and don’t have much money,” she said. “If I had the money to get the lead out, I believe I would have been extended more respect that is not afforded to people that live on or below the poverty line, and that it’s less likely that child services would have been called.”
Given her experience, Shevone is excited to know that several new laws have been enacted that would help others maintain healthy, lead-free homes. Still, she believes that more needs to be done. That’s why she joined Lead-Free NJ, a group of advocates and community leaders working to ensure that New Jersey’s children are free from lead poisoning and that our environment is lead-safe by advocating for changes to state and local policy.
“Children and families in our communities are hurting. Shevone’s story is just one of many unheard tragedies, and it’s up to all New Jerseyans to work together to push for lead policy change,” said Rashan Prailow, Camden resident and Lead-Free NJ co-chair.
Shevone thinks a lot needs to change: people need to be more aware of the dangers of lead, large-scale inventories need to be conducted so that we all know where the lead is, home buyers need to be notified about the presence of lead when purchasing a home, access to resources needs to be more equitable, and the approach to remediation needs to be more proactive. “Government has to do more,” Shevone said.