Hope's story: Neglected child wants to start support group for foster children

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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) (Aug. 17, 2015) When I first met Hope, I immediately thought that this 13-year-old girl is wise beyond her years. In some cases, that's a compliment. In her case, she lost her childhood.

Hope was forced to grow up very quickly, because she was severely neglected.

WDBJ7 isn't identifying this girl or the woman who adopted her, because of the nature of this case. We're calling this girl Hope, and the woman, Lavon. Both are fully willing and comfortable sharing their story.

Experts say neglect is a form of child abuse that is just as damaging as physical or sexual abuse.

"Neglect is not having the things that you need to survive basically," Hope said.

And neglected is not what she imagined her life would be.

"I lived in Colorado Springs -- very happy, and living in a good house and everything," Hope said. "We moved to Virginia. For the longest time, we were living in hotels. Hotels were horrible."

Hope says her biological mother found the family a house.

"That's where things really started to go wrong," Hope said.

Her biological mother and stepfather were always working to support their six children.

"With both of them working, nobody was really home all the time," Hope said. "It was really hard, and I was struggling with my school work, because to me it just didn't really matter."

Hope says she and her five siblings had no supervision, running around the neighborhood, doing what they wanted.

"My older sister was watching us, and she was 13 at the time, watching five other kids," Hope said.

Hope was only nine at the time.

Lavon, the woman who eventually adopted Hope, says the children were exposed to a large amount of pornography, and when the parents were around, the children's punishments were anything but normal.

Ramen noodles, cereal, peanut butter and jelly were most meals -- but not enough to go around. Child Protective Services caught on because of reports from neighbors, according to Lavon.

"They had been investigating this family for well over a year," Lavon said. "They had reports that children were running through the neighborhood, asking for food. There were reports at school where the children were stealing, because they didn't have food."

Lavon says the children were even caught taking ketchup packets from school, because they didn't have enough food.

"We really slept on the floor," Hope said. "I mean, the only bed in the house was in the master bedroom."

Hope didn't speak up because she thought these issues were just a part of life. She knew that not having enough food in the house was a problem, but not something considered neglect.

"You expect your parents to provide the needs that you have, so that was just their normal life," Lavon said.

One day, Hope's life changed.

"It was December," Hope said. "It was close to Christmas, that's what it was."

Hope says she and her siblings were home alone, when she say either a CPS or DSS official come up to the door.

"I guess it was a monthly check-up or whatever and she came, and my mom and dad weren't home, so we just pretended nobody was there," Hope said. "She ended up catching us."

Hope says her parents were called, they came home, and that night, she was put into foster care.

Lavon says it's typical for children who are pulled out of a home to end up with either another family member or a foster family all in one day. CPS officials say the situation truly has to be that bad enough where the children need to immediately be in a safer place.

Lavon started out fostering Hope and one of her sisters about three and a half years ago. Another family member eventually got custody of Hope's sister.

"To become a foster parent, you have to go through 8 weeks of training," Lavon said. "So, I completed my eight weeks of training, and a week to the day that I finished my training, I received a phone call. So that's how I got my daughter. "

Hope says she didn't understand what foster care was when this was all happening.

"All I knew was that they took you away from your family, and most of the time, you didn't come back," Hope said.

Hope came into Lavon's home underweight, dirty, in a shirt too small.

"I literally got her at 9 p.m.," Lavon said. "She came into my home with the clothes on her back and a tooth brush, so she had nothing. She and her sister I had, had absolutely nothing."

When CPS officials left Lavon's home, she needed the basics.

"I put them in the car, we ran to get dinner, I took them to Walmart, and I took them to get the things that they needed to get through the first 24 hours," Lavon said.

Hope was scared, angry.

"I was like, 'Why are you all doing this, I don't understand,'" Hope said. "Once people started explaining it to me, I was just like, 'Ok I see how this is wrong and everything, but I still don't understand why I had to be taken away from my family. Couldn't you fix this inside the family?'"

Even in a new home, Hope's old instincts remained the same.

"When she first came to live with me, she would eat seconds and thirds, and after everything else was finished, she finished off everything else that was on the table," Lavon said. "It was because in her mind, she wasn't sure when she was going to get her next meal."

Lavon says Hope hoarded food like granola bars and fruit snacks for about a year.

"She would take them and hide them underneath her bed," Lavon said. "She doesn't do that anymore."

Hope hardly told anyone about how her life was different.

"I was really good at hiding it," Hope said. " I didn't tell anybody. I made sure -- my best friends, my closes friends who were with me, I told them and they didn't care. They still liked me for me, they still wanted to be my friend, and they kept it a secret."

Hope had a new life with structure, supervision, food to eat and a place to sleep. She realized this may have been in her best interest.

"Out of the six children, she's the one who had grown more positively, had embraced the differences, the changes in her life," Lavon said.

Hope isn't allowed to have contact with her biological mother or siblings until she's 18. Lavon says Hope has very limited contact with her stepfather, who is now out of state.

Law enforcement says there are currently several protective orders against Hope's biological mother. WDBJ7 tried to obtain those protective orders, but court officials weren't able to release them.

Law enforcement also says there are no criminal charges in the system for either the biological mother or stepfather related to child neglect. That could mean that police may have responded at one point and deemed this case more of a CPS or DSS issue, according to a police lieutenant. Lavon says there also was no jail time for either parent.

Lavon says no one has heard from the biological mother for the last year and a half.

Hope wants to take her situation and make a positive difference in the community.

"She means the world to me," Lavon said. "I didn't give birth to her, but she's restored my hope in humanity. It excites me that she wants to start a support group for other foster children because I think she understands how they feel."

Hope encourages people who are in a bad situation, or a circumstance that makes them uncomfortable, to tell someone.

"That's not the life you should live," Hope said. "You're not alone. You don't have to be shy, you don't have to be angry at the world, and you can really just let it out, and live a new life."

Lavon understands it can be tough to speak up.

"When you're younger, I think it's probably easier," Lavon said. "But once you're 9, 10 years old, and you understand what foster care is, I think that, it's embarrassing."

Hope also wants children just like her to realize, that case workers, police, investigators, aren't always the bad guys.

"They're doing this to help you, and you may not see it, but through a time you will," Hope said. "It may take three years, it may take two years, it may just take a month. But you can see that they're here to help you, not here to harm you or your family or anybody."

Hope has already shared her story with potential foster parents and offered first-hand advice. She's met with these parents at orientation events for people who are interested in fostering.

"Give them what they need, and not what they want,"Hope said. "If you're expecting a child to come to your home being real happy, happy to be there and everything, then that's a 1 in 10 chance. If you're ready for a child that comes in there really angry, and scared and doesn't want to talk to you at all, then, be ready."

Hope has reached a new normal. She's been away to summer camp, and she loves music. Hope wants to grow up to either be a singer, lawyer, or some kind of superstar. She has a new love for the opera.

"I think I've been to at least six or seven operas," Hope said. " I mean, they're really cool. There's funny ones and dramatic ones. It's basically life in a song."

Lavon's adoption application came through toward the end of April. Hope and Lavon made the announcement to family and friends on Mother's Day.

And Hope is already a star, in her new mother's eyes.

"If I could take bad things and find good in them, then she has taught me and a lot of people, more than what we all need to know," Lavon said.