When the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) came to check on the children of Christina D., 32, after a neighbor reported unsafe conditions in the home she shared with her boyfriend, an alcoholic, they were shocked by the words of six-year-old Savannah:
“Mommy and Daddy are always fighting because Daddy won’t give Mommy her pills.”
Pills – Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycodone and others – were Christina’s problem from the time she was 21, when she was prescribed them for a back problem brought on by a pregnancy that ended in stillbirth. The doctor who gave them to her didn’t tell her they were opiates “easy to catch a habit from,” and within two weeks she was hooked. “I wasn’t taking them to get high,” she explains, “just to function.” Her boyfriend, the father of her lost baby as well as Savannah and an infant son, saw the pills as a “business opportunity” and began “holding” Christina’s, while getting his own prescriptions and enlisting numerous family members to do the same. Soon, he was reselling the pills for a hefty profit and that became their means of support. “That’s how we paid our rent.” At the same time, her boyfriend began physically abusing her, which she viewed as “normal” since her mother and father had beaten her as well. Before she found “Hope” – the organization and, through it, the state of mind – Christina was a scarred and scared young woman, whose life was going nowhere but down.
She hit bottom in 2007, when ACS did what she feared most: took her children away and placed them in foster care. “It broke my heart in two,” she says. “I had tried to be the best mother I could given the circumstances I was dealt.” What followed was an “overdose and nervous breakdown,” which landed her in and out of psych wards for the next three years, mostly for lack of anywhere else to stay. She wasn’t going back to her abusive boyfriend; her parents had died; her children were gone; and for the first time in her life, she was homeless.
For the first time, too, she was determined to get off pills with the hope of regaining custody of her children. “I knew I had to get myself and my life together or it wouldn’t be fair to them,” she says. She went on Methadone and was referred by a social worker to a rehab facility and, from there, to a residential “therapeutic community,” where she was given a safe place to live and weaned from all substances. After she was completely clean for eight months, a caseworker said the words to her that would raise her spirits and help her rebuild her life:
“Why don’t you go to Hope? It’s a job readiness program that will help you prepare to enter the workforce and give you the skills and tools you need to succeed and advance.”
What Christina needed, beyond basic work readiness skills and an updated resume (she had worked from the time she was a teenager) was confidence, self-respect, education, and interaction with positive people – people she didn’t have to fear would abuse her, but instead, would help her strive to become the responsible and productive person she had the potential and desire to be. She studied the computer becoming proficient on all the essential business programs, learned how to dress and conduct herself on an interview, brushed up on basic Math and English skills, underwent psychological counseling, and more. As she put it, “I became a person again. Every day I was here I learned something new.”
What had she learned on the day of this interview?
“Not to be nervous,” she laughed, a tall order when you consider she was scheduled to interview for an internship at the Mayor’s office later that afternoon. Every Hope participant is required to complete a period of on-the-job training before seeking a permanent position. Being sent to the Mayor’s office is a testament to the progress she has made in her months at Hope, progress she is determined to build on and hopes will eventually bring her children home to a safe place she provides for them. She was still a little nervous, she admitted, but her teachers, who she says approach their work as a “calling” not a job, assured her that everything was in place. She was ready.
Christina started her 200-hour-internship at the New York City Department of Labor Relations the next day.
Interview conducted and profile written by: Carol Tannenhauser