Abuse, Foster Care, Meth, Poetry and Redemption

By Maggie Ethridge 07/08/16

After even a social worker didn't believe her, I asked Lacey what she needed to hear: “Do you want to be taken where someone will help you?” 

I Believe You
Lacey (right) and the author.

“I had Amelia and I just didn’t look back,” Lacey says quietly and firmly. Her red hair is pinned back, and freckles glitter on her cheeks when she smiles—a wide open, busting out thing, that smile. But Lacey isn’t a child with the world ahead of her. She’s a grown woman with a vulnerable but determined grip on both the horrors of her past, and the possibilities of her future. 

There, I could respond to teens in crisis, often simply saying words they couldn’t hear anywhere else: “I believe you.”

Lacey grew up in a ramshackle mobile home park in San Diego, California, primarily with her younger sister and mother. By the time she was an older child, Lacey had already endured years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of various adults. She was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. “My mom acted like she didn’t know what was going on. She knew. One time she said, ‘It happened to me too, I’m so sorry.’ She never apologized or mentioned it again.”

Lacey’s biological father was living in another state, and her mother was addicted to methamphetamines. This drug abuse combined with serious heart problems led to frequent hospitalizations. “We’d stay with my aunt or my grandparents—that was always a fun escape. But at home, it was a different story,” Lacey says.

At home, Lacey was hurt. She recalls matter-of-factly, “In the fifth grade I went to school with a slap mark on my face and my glasses broken. Because my brother’s crib sheet wasn’t on right. [My mother’s boyfriend] was arrested and bailed out, and back the same night.”

Lacey was a bright child with a prodigious memory, straight As, and a knack for language. She loved reading poetry, and wrote poems herself in a small lined notebook she kept hidden in her room. At ten, Lacey says, “I started cutting. I needed to cause the pain myself, versus someone else causing it. At the time, that’s how I felt.”

At thirteen, Lacey began skimming the Internet, looking for a place where she could post some of her poetry. She found the now defunct Bolt.com, a place with message boards for young people. One of those message boards was for abused children. 

I was in my early twenties, a single mother to my little boy, and proud of the growth in myself since becoming pregnant at eighteen. I wanted to give back to teens stuck in emotionally dysfunctional households, and online message boards seemed like a good place to start. There, I could respond to teens in crisis, often simply saying words they couldn’t hear anywhere else: “I believe you.” Lacey was one of those teens. Her poetry was vivid and raw, and it was obvious that she had a sharp intellect and a determination to connect with other people. I moved quickly from responding to Lacey on Bolt weekly to daily, then moving offline to phone conversations. 

I listened day after day as Lacey described her anguish. The effects of abuse began for Lacey, predictably, to become uncontrollable. The depression, rage and helplessness was not being assuaged with words anymore, not even with razors. 

I wanted to meet Lacey. I was becoming emotionally entrenched, thinking and talking about her frequently, worrying for her safety. I asked her to meet me at a local mall, somewhere public and safe. Shorter than me, trembling with nerves, and incredibly sweet-faced, there she was at the agreed meeting place, looking anxiously for me. We hugged, and talked until Lacey had to sneak back home. I saw in Lacey an unusually bright spirit. This was a girl with the potential for enormous love and important achievements. Despite her life, she shone.

After meeting Lacey, I became obsessed with getting her out of her abusive home. I had the intense and constant burden of emotion that, if I didn’t help her now, no one would be able to later. After weeks of anxiety and heated internal debates, I called Lacey. “Do you want to be taken where someone will help you?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. 

We worked out the plan: Instead of going to school, Lacey would meet me down the street from her mobile home, and I’d take her home with me while I figured out where to take her next. I pulled up on the crunching gravel, parked, and waited. Just as I began to think she wouldn’t show, there was a bright red bobbing in the corner of my eye, and Lacey appeared from behind a car, backpack on, a terrified look on her face. “Let’s go,” she whispered, sliding in the car. “Let’s go, please.”

Once home, I began calling organizations and groups that I thought might direct us. Each time, the person on the other end reacted with bafflement and irritation as I laid out the circumstances: teenage girl is being physically and sexually abused at home, needs help. Where should I take her? No one knew. I’d be given a new phone number to call, where the next person in line would give me another new number to call. I was furious and close to tears. Only twenty-three myself, I had the naive idea that there was an organized system of caring people in place who could help Lacey. Instead, there was a cluster of frazzled, overworked and underpaid adults, in a system without a system.

Finally, I landed on a state-run facility that offered temporary housing for children in crisis. Lacey and I headed to the center, a half hour away. The woman at the front desk let us hug goodbye and immediately separated us. I began answering the woman’s questions; her manner struck me as annoyed until I realized that she was angry. At me. Why? She was firing accusatory questions at me. Why had I done this? Did I even know this girl? Why would I pick up someone I didn’t even know? How did we meet again? I realized she didn’t believe a word I said.

Lacey, by now taken deep inside the center, questioned, and told her mother was being called, was faring the same. “The social worker didn’t believe me,” she remembers. “That was really hard. That pushed me over the edge. I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt like no one was listening. I didn’t know what to do.”

The facility returned Lacey to her home that same day. Soon afterward, Lacey called me and told me that she was so sorry, but she had slit her wrists, and she was going to die. As I asked a few rushed questions, I heard an ambulance. “Is that for you,” I asked, almost yelling. “Is that for you!?” It was.

Another friend Lacey had called had alerted 911. Lacey was hospitalized for three months. “They were going to send me back to my mom’s house because I wasn’t a threat to myself anymore. I told them, ‘If you send me back I will kill myself.'”

The state finally intervened, and Lacey was put into a long-term foster care group home, with the second highest level of care in California. Here, Lacey could be given medication, therapy, attend group, and be monitored for her suicidal tendencies. I wasn’t allowed to see her. Her mother, who hated me as her daughter’s “kidnapper” (I suppose I was), had me put on a "no contact" list, so Lacey gave me a pseudonym: Sarah. As Sarah, I called and visited Lacey.


It was here, at the long-term facility, that Lacey met the woman she would name her daughter after. Amelia was the director, and interacted with Lacey on a regular basis. Lacey recalls, “At first I saw her as another adult who didn’t give a shit. But…she had this way about her. It’s like she picked up the broken pieces that I left behind me and helped me to glue them together. She would sit for hours on end and talk and listen to me. She was okay with letting me cry, or yell. There were times where I would be so pissed off at the world and I just couldn’t handle it, and she’d come in my room and sit and I’d be cursing and yelling, and she’d start laughing. I’d say ‘What are you laughing about,’ and she’d say ‘Because you look like a little girl trying to be hard.’”

And Lacey did have this way about her, of course. To stay soft and vulnerable completely when inundated daily with all forms of abuse, coarse language, hate speech, and complete apathy would be not only impossible, but dangerous. Harm reduction in a home full of fear means that a child must reflect back a character that the people around them understand: to be too different would be to incite their shame, rage, and abuse. Lacey stayed out of the way as much as possible, but she also took to constant cursing, smoking cigarettes and screaming and mimicking the phrases of adults around her when angry or overwhelmed. 

Lacey says of Amelia, “The biggest thing that I’ll never forget about her is, one time (she actually helped me to stop cutting) she used to always tell me that I was her baby bird and she was my mommy bird. She’d say, ‘One day you will leave the nest and fly on your own but until that day, I’ll catch you. I don’t care how long it takes you to learn how to fly.’ I’ll never forget that.“

At Christmas that year, Lacey began having debilitating flashbacks and nightmares. Overwhelmed, she started cutting again, and got caught with a staple in her mouth, a piece of glass in her hands. It took seven staff to restrain her. “I felt like I couldn’t live through the flashbacks. It was too much.”

Lacey was placed in a psychiatric hospital, and during the weeks she was in treatment, the group home held meetings to discuss her future. Most of the members of the home thought that Lacey should be placed in a group home called Long Term 14, the highest care group home in California, where, as Lacey says, “Those are kids that don’t communicate, throw poop at the wall.” Amelia was the standalone. She didn’t think Lacey belonged in Long Term 14, or that the new placement would be good for her. 

Lacey later learned from a social worker who attended those meetings that Amelia risked her job to push to keep Lacey in Long Term 12. “She asked them not to give up on me,” Lacey remembers. “That is one of the most amazing things ever. She had that much faith in me that I would be okay. She took personal responsibility for me. If I had done something, it would have been on her.”

Amelia won, and Lacey stayed at Long Term 12. As Lacey progressed through high school, she began showing some of the potential that I had seen in her. A lawmaker heading a bill under President Bush found Lacey’s poems about foster care and abuse online, and requested Lacey’s input on the bill. Lacey’s name is listed on that bill under "Contributors."

During Lacey’s senior year, Amelia was diagnosed with advanced, aggressive breast cancer. Lacey had all the kids on Long Term 12 write Amelia letters, detailing how Amelia had changed their lives. Lacey, of course, wrote one. Amelia’s husband told Lacey that Amelia read them, crying. Later that year, Amelia died.

That year, Lacey began using drugs.

At eighteen, Lacey was accepted to Nyack College in New York. She flew to the east coast with sky-high hopes and a determination to work hard, but soon was hospitalized with severe seizures. Eventually, the doctors figured out that when Lacey’s new psychiatrist upped her anti-depressant, it counteracted with a medication she was prescribed for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a pain disorder. The seizures caused short-term memory loss, and it was decided that it was best for Lacey to take time off from school to heal. She started smoking pot and drinking. After bouncing around, Lacey ended up back in California.

“I started smoking meth. It was downhill from there. I would put meth in my Mountain Dew,” Lacey says. Then, in 2010, Lacey almost died due to a rare type of encephalitis. The doctors couldn’t say how Lacey had contracted it. She was in a coma for months, and when she woke, was again unable to walk. She returned home to an abusive girlfriend, no money, and no way to work. She began using meth even more frequently in addition to other drugs.

I asked Lacey why she didn’t take me up on my offer at the time to move in with my family (by then, I was married with three children) and she sighs. “I’ve had people offer to help. A friend’s mom also offered to take me in. I didn’t want to be a burden. I know it’s stupid now, but at the time I just felt like a constant burden on every person around me.”

Lacey moved back in with her mother for the first time since she had left all those years ago. She slowly started walking again, and had some small income from disability. Her mother’s friend sold her meth, and taught her to do a "tissue issue," which is simply rolling a rock of meth in a tissue, and swallowing it. “I started realizing that my mom’s friends would supply my habit if I had money,” Lacey says. Her meth use became constant.

At this point in Lacey’s life, I thought she may be giving up. I called her but rarely saw her, and the few times I picked her up, she was lost within herself: incoherent at times, stumbling, inappropriate. I still sent her money here and there, but I wasn’t sure if I was supporting a drug habit or just helping her survive. She started losing weight, and sank into despair. 

And then, a stranger in a store almost bumped into her. “Sorry, didn’t mean to bump into a pregnant lady,” the woman said. Lacey had thought her belly was from gaining back some of the weight she had lost using meth, the same cause she attributed to her missed periods. May 8, 2013, Lacey peed on a stick, and got the surprise of her life. Pregnant. But that wasn’t the surprise—that came next, at the doctor’s, when they estimated how far along she was.

32 weeks pregnant.

“I was terrified,” Lacey says, her voice quavering, “of how this baby would be affected by such a high amount of drugs for so long.” The short pregnancy was a time of agonizing reckoning for Lacey. She had to come to terms with what is specifically psychologically painful for her: she had harmed a child. How badly, remained to be seen. Says the girl who was abused and abandoned since toddlerhood, “I have never cried that much in my life.” 

Lacey immediately stopped using all drugs. After a lifetime of interventions, medications, therapies, hospitalizations and caregivers, she did not choose to attend AA or NA, she did not go to rehab, or counseling. She simply buckled down, prayed, and waited.

Amelia was born July 22 to the welcoming arms of her mother. Lacey called me immediately after, and I’d never heard her voice so alight. I brought my two daughters to visit. Lacey beamed with pride from the hospital bed, her good friend and support, Carrie, by her side. She slipped the blanket away from the nursing baby, and I cried. I could see how beautiful and perfect Amelia was, and how transformed Lacey was. Only time would tell if the change could last.

Over two years later, Amelia is a gorgeous, happy and healthy little girl. Lacey lives with Carrie and Carrie’s husband, and Carrie is like a second mother to Amelia. Lacey has joined Carrie’s non-denominational Christian church, and the support and faith Lacey has found there has joined with her intense love and devotion to her daughter. She didn’t look back.

Lacey remains clean and sober.

Maggie May Ethridge is a freelance writer and the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From A Marriage.

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.