Caught in the System: Jessica

Chaotic Childhood

"My mother and stepfather would torture me and my little sister. When my mother was in one of her moods, which means she was high on meth, my mother used to tape my little sister up to a four-poster chair and have her sit in a closet alone for hours at a time, cut all her hair off because she didn't want to deal with it," remembers 24-year-old Jessica. She continues recounting the horrors from her childhood. "My mother's addiction became out of control, and she thought we were demons and vampires, and she had to exorcise the demons and vampires out of her children. She would take an eye dropper and she would put bleach in my sister and my eyes and ears. They made us drink bleach three times a day for eight days straight. My mother would mix the bleach with ice cream and other spices to make it easier to take."

When Jessica was 12, the unthinkable happened. "I witnessed the death of my sister. She was being tortured in the bathtub with an enema. I was sent out to have my bleach cocktail. The last I saw was my mother bringing her out and laying her limp body on the hallway floor, attempting to resuscitate her, and then smiling when she couldn't. After that, she placed my little sister into a garbage bag and placed her into our freezer for about a week," she recalls.

 

[AD]"My mother came to me and told me they were going to get rid of the body. They made me go into the master bedroom and stand in front of the closet, where her body was laid out. My mother and stepfather used a pruning saw and a meat cleaver to cut my sister up into pieces that were smaller than oatmeal. I had to stand there and watch, and all the while they were telling me, ‘If anybody asks, tell them she's in Chicago with her father.' They had all of her remains and took them out handful by handful and burned them in the family fireplace, while my mother sat watching and eating ice cream. We all took a family trip to the Sacramento River, where she and my stepfather tossed [my sister's] ashes into the river."

"About three months after my sister's murder, my mother came into my bedroom and told me I needed to sleep outside in our dog shed. In the middle of the night, she and my stepfather came out. She poured bleach straight out of a bottle all over me while I was sleeping in a lawn chair," Jessica says. "The next day I went to school, my hair was falling out and turning bright white. I told my math teacher that I was scared to go home, because I was being abused."

Tami, her former teacher, recounts that fateful day. "She just said, ‘I can't go home. I can't go home.' And I'm like, ‘OK.' And then she said that they had poured bleach on her and made her sleep in it," she says. "She showed me just part of her arm. Her bra had been burned into her back. I took her up to the counselor, and we made the whole CPS report."

"She got the authorities involved. The police actually took me away and put me into a children's receiving home. I never went back to my parents after that," Jessica says.

The young woman recalls being bounced from one foster home to the next. "In my first foster home, it was deemed that I would be potentially violent toward children because of my past. Since there were children in the home, they moved me. I felt very rejected. I was scared. I thought maybe I was going to have to go home," she says.

 

[AD]"In the majority of the foster homes, I felt like a paycheck. They figured the more they had, the more money they could make. I was like a maid, a babysitter, a nanny, a chauffeur once I got my license. The biological children got to sit around and do nothing. My fourth foster home, I thought it was great, because my foster mother let us do whatever we wanted. I was allowed to be gone for a weekend. If I wanted to drink, she would allow us to drink. Once the social workers caught on the foster kids were removed from the home. You kind of have to be a really good actress because you have to figure out what each foster home wants from you, so that way you're not moved."

Dr. Phil praises Jessica for her courage. "I just think it's amazing what you have survived and the way that you have handled and conducted your life. I'm proud to meet you. I'm proud to know you," he says. "Where do you put this in your mind and your heart, what you've been through, not only with your parents but all of this foster [care] experience that you've been through?"

"A lot of the things that I went through, I just tend to block out. When people ask me things about what happened in my childhood, even the good things, I tend to not be able to recall. I don't want to remember. I don't want to go back there," she answers. "The most horrific things that happened to me, of course, are seared into my mind forever."

[AD]"You never have any emotion about it, certainly, outwardly. You don't cry about it. How do you handle it?" Dr. Phil probes.

"I don't cry about it anymore. I've had to tell my story to so many different people through the years with the trial and everything. I looked at it as it happened to somebody else. I saw it on TV, and it was a movie I was telling somebody about."

"The reason I wanted so much for you to share your story is because I want people to understand that there are different stages of trauma for a child who goes through what you've been through in the foster care system," Dr. Phil tells Jessica. 

The first stage is the event that requires the children to be removed from the home. "You went through some terrible things in seeing your sister murdered. This bleach business was because she thought there were demons, correct?" he asks.

[AD]"Somewhere in her twisted delusions, she found that the way to exorcise us from the demons was a bleach cocktail," Jessica confirms with a wry smile.

The second stage is the trauma children face when taken away from people they know and are relocated with strangers. Stage three is the unfortunate experiences these kids encounter when they're in the foster care system.

 

"It's like there's never a day to breathe," Dr. Phil says.

"We never have a day to feel relaxed and feel comfortable and content," Jessica agrees.

"Going through the abuse, watching my sister be murdered, and then being bounced from foster home to foster home has made me a very strong person," Jessica says on videotape. "I'm currently living with my aunt and uncle. My daughter, Alexia, is 8 months old. Right now, the only thing that's helping me take care of her is what I get from unemployment and the help of my family."

She shows Dr. Phil cameras her bedroom and the portable playpen that her daughter sleeps in. "My goals are to be the best mother I can be, so I can support my child without having to be on assistance."

Addressing Jessica in his studio, Dr. Phil says, "When you hit 18, what happens?"

[AD]"It depends on what type of foster home you're in. If you're in one that has treated you like I was, as a part of their family, they were kind enough to allow me to stay after I turned 18 until I got my own apartment," she replies.

Dr. Phil turns to Tami, the teacher whom Jessica confided in about the abuse she endured at home. "When you heard this, Tami, what was your reaction?" he inquires.

"Once I took her into the bathroom and saw the burns, I knew at that moment, I was going to cross the line of just sending her off to CPS. I knew at that moment, I would go to the hospital with her," Tami responds.

Dr. Phil introduces L. Wallace Pate, a civil rights attorney who specializes in pioneering laws and cases for foster care. "This system is broken, true?" he asks.

"It's broken because the focus should really be on protecting the children and giving them the least restrictive environment possible. But that doesn't seem to be the case. It turns out to be a very punitive system," she replies. "Half of the children who age out of the system are functional illiterates. They are unable to read, unable to write. They're completely unable to function, and then they're kicked to the curb when they turn 18."

[AD]"Within four hours of being taken from parents, foster care children suffer six times more post-traumatic stress syndrome than children in Iraq, veterans or solders, because it is really difficult to be ripped out of your home and put with strangers," Dr. Phil observes. "Talk about the relationship between foster care children and prison and mental institutionalization."

"In the state of California, 70 percent of all the prisoners came from the foster care system," the attorney points out.

Dr. Phil observes that Jessica struggles financially. "You've got to figure out a way to get a career, you've got to figure out a way to support your child and do the things that you need to do," he says. "We know that you're unemployed right now and are struggling, so we want to really help you get back on your feet."

Dr. Phil has several surprises for Jessica. He says he will introduce her to Tony Beshara, whom he considers the number one career counselor in the country. "He has said that he personally wants to get with you, and pave the way for you to get where you need to get, to have not just a job but a career that you can take care of things and carry your own weight in this world."

JCPenney contributes a $1,000 gift card toward a professional wardrobe for the young woman. They also provide a crib for Jessica's daughter, Alexia, along with bedding, shoes and toys.

eLearners.com, an online education resource that provides information on more than 2,000 online degrees and certificates and more than 6,000 courses from accredited online colleges and universities, wants to make sure that Jessica keeps pursuing her associate's degree. The single mom is presented with a full scholarship, valued at $20,000.

[AD]Dr. Phil turns to Terrence Thomas, EVP of Marketing Operations for eLearners.com. "You're going to hook this girl up and get her moving with this scholarship, true?"

"We'll definitely get her hooked up with the scholarship and give her the money so she can finish school," Terrance says. 

Dr. Phil thanks Jessica for sharing her story. "I know it's a lot easier not to, but I think it really helps draw attention to what the needs are. I so appreciate that," he tells her.