Milena’s mentor stays on the case
CONSIDERING that her mother tried to throw her out a third-story window when she was 3, and that she spent five years in an orphanage in the destitute former Soviet republic of Georgia and five years in American foster homes, a psychiatric hospital and a lockdown facility for troubled kids, Milena Slatten, 20, is faring incredibly well.
Two years ago, she was homeless, but now she’s earned her GED and works full time as a clerk in the Los Angeles County courthouse. She has no criminal record. She doesn’t drink. She doesn’t smoke or do drugs, even prescription medications. When she was a child, the social workers had filled her with a cocktail of mood stabilizers that left her days blurry. Now she’d rather be depressed than zonked out.
Most important, she has a friend -- an impressive, reliable one -- which is a rarity for former foster kids. He is Thomas Higgins, 65, a career prosecutor responsible for almost all the arraignments in the city of Los Angeles. She calls him Tommy.
Although studies have shown the importance of positive adult role models for kids leaving foster care, a 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office described how difficult it was for states to recruit people to serve as mentors. Higgins, for example, has been spending 50 to 60 hours a month for the last 11 months essentially trying to rescue Milena.
For all her progress, there are continual pitfalls. For Higgins, it is a test of faith and fortitude; for Milena, it is a struggle to learn to trust. “I am the type of person to usually obliterate or basically ruin a relationship because I feel someone is getting close to me,” she says.
Milena met Higgins when he showed up at a mixer for potential mentors at Covenant House, a Hollywood homeless shelter where she was living. She called him the next day about a job, and he hired her for $8.50 an hour.
On most days, she works at the prosecution table in Division 30, one of the busiest criminal courtrooms in the city. The tumult there seems to suit Milena, a small tomboyish figure, with wide cheekbones, long blond hair and the walk of a construction worker.
One day a couple of months ago, decked out in slim black pants and a blouse bought by Higgins and his wife, Diane, she looked positively giddy as cameras crowded the courtroom for the arraignment of a fire captain accused of killing a woman.
Higgins watches over her from a cluttered office high atop the courthouse, with panoramic views of the city and evidence of a life well-lived, including professional citations and pictures of his eight grown kids. None of them needs him the way Milena does.
Higgins, former head of the district attorney’s sex crimes and juvenile divisions, didn’t start out to save her. Tall and lean from years of running, he looks like a G-man from the 1940s and speaks bluntly.
“I was just trying to get her a job,” he says, but then Milena showed up for the first day of work looking like a “trusty from the county jail,” a tiny macho spark plug in a man’s work shirt and bulky jeans. She was clearly bright, mouthy and a know-it-all even when she didn’t know it all. Yet he noticed how she flinched if he was too busy for her.
“She had this look of rejection like I’d kicked her,” he recalls.
In the early days, Higgins just tried to steer Milena through the day without mishap. He took her to lunch because she had no money and was always ravenous. He taught her table manners. He coached her on when it was appropriate to banter in the office and when it wasn’t, on politeness, and then moved up to more serious life lessons such as keeping one’s commitments and the importance of always telling the truth. He signed her up for classes at a community college, worked out her green-card issues, arranged for healthcare, and took her out on weekends with his wife to movies and dinner.
But even day-to-day devotion couldn’t trump the pull of the past. At the end of the summer, Milena announced she was quitting the district attorney’s office, leaving her Covenant House subsidized apartment and returning to Indiana to live with her adoptive father, Christopher Slatten. This was the man who with his wife had adopted her from the Georgian orphanage and who later was arrested and charged with neglect for allegedly locking Milena in a feces-strewn basement, and with battery for allegedly stripping her down and touching her “in an insolent manner.”
Slatten was acquitted of the charges, but that didn’t make Higgins feel any better about her going back to live with him.
HIGGINS tried to talk her out of going. But Milena persisted. “I can’t make a decision based on other people’s opinions. I’ll never be able to think for myself,” she said.
A few nights before her departure, she holed up in her apartment trying to download music onto a new iPod using a borrowed computer. Milena’s favorite pastime was to barricade herself in and listen to hard rock or watch martial arts and superhero movies.
Milena has never simply acquiesced to Higgins’ advice. “Basically the air between Tom and I can get sometimes pretty steamy,” she said, as in steaming mad. “I just don’t agree with some stuff he has to say, and I pout and, as he would say, ‘have storm clouds on my face.’ But I guess that’s what makes our relationship work.”
Milena still speaks with a slight Georgian accent, although she no longer remembers her native language. She doesn’t know some of the most essential facts about herself -- such as her parents or even her age. She was arbitrarily granted the birthday of June 1, 1986, by the authorities at the orphanage. She might be only 18 or even younger.
She recalls little about her early life except for her first mother trying to coax her out the third-story window. “She told me, ‘You want to jump or do you want me to help you out?’ ” said Milena. Neighbors rescued her, which is how she ended up in the orphanage. She said that while there, she was beaten with a rod and molested by one of the female workers, which cemented her distrust of women.
A video was taken of her and other orphans, and at the official age of 10 she was put on a train to Moscow and told she was going to meet a new mommy and daddy.
Her first prospective mother paid $30,000 in orphanage fees but then refused to take her after Milena kicked her in the shin. Then came Chris and Beth Slatten, a devout Christian couple who’d seen how pitiful she looked in the video. They picked her up at a Moscow train station and brought her back to live with them and their three daughters in Hawaii, where Slatten was stationed as an accountant with the Army.
According to Milena, her relationship with Beth Slatten deteriorated almost immediately. The first week, her adoptive mother spanked her with a hairbrush because she refused to wear a dress to church.
“I grew up in a religious home in which spanking your children was the practice,” said Beth, who now goes by her new married name, Plumley. “I was spanking Milena for bad behavior.” Once, after Milena was bruised in a spanking, the punishment continued, but on the bottom of her feet. “People would not know that and not look for bruises,” Beth said.
In January 1999, after the family had moved to Indiana, Beth Slatten had had enough of her turbulent marriage. She packed her five biological children into a car and drove home to West Virginia, leaving behind her husband, Milena and four foster children, siblings ages 9 to 16 whom the Slattens had been in the process of adopting. A few days later, Chris Slatten tried to kill himself. The police investigated. Two weeks later, Child Protective Services removed Milena. Chris Slatten lost the foster kids as well.
According to court files, the basement of the house was saturated with animal waste. A social worker took a photograph of Milena’s bed with a dead rat on top.
“She lived in that room,” said retired Det. James Fouch, who investigated the case. “He let her out once in a while. She was disciplined in the nude in front of the other kids.”
Milena spent the next five years tossed from foster home to foster home, with a stint in a psychiatric hospital, and eventually in a facility for troubled kids. For almost three years, she waited for Slatten to go to trial.
On the stand, Milena testified that her parents had locked her in the basement.
At the trial, Plumley testified that the basement bedroom was clean. “There were times when she was sent to her room and asked to stay down there for a timeout period, but we didn’t lock her down there.” (Today, Plumley clarifies that “the kitchen door would be locked,” blocking Milena from the upstairs of the house, “but she could go out the back door.”)
“It was mostly to keep her from getting into trouble,” she said.
Milena testified that Christopher Slatten had spanked her, then stripped her. But when asked whether he had been looking at her body, she said, “I don’t know.”
Slatten pleaded not guilty. He did not testify in the trial and was acquitted.
Slatten sought to regain custody. Milena, then 17, agreed. She said it was preferable to the lockdown facility where she had been living. Five months after her 18th birthday, Slatten moved to Virginia. Milena did not want to go, so he took her to a motel and left her with $200. That’s when she bought a bus ticket for California, carrying only a backpack and a poster of Evanescence singer Amy Lee. After living on the streets of Los Angeles for a week, she landed at Covenant House and eventually met Higgins.
HIGGINS knows what it’s like to face a furious adult. His father, a Sacramento Valley mechanic and a farmer, never seemed to like him much. The oldest of six, Higgins was a smart-alecky kid, and his father beat him.
When he was 11, there was an incident so violent that his mother finally pulled his father off. “I was crying. I was scared. I just said, ‘Never do that to me again.’ I threatened him, which was sort of stupid for an 11-year-old kid in his underwear who’d just been disciplined harshly, but to my dad’s credit, it was the last time he ever punished me physically.”
Higgins thinks often of his father, who died in 1995. He still wonders why he was so brutal. Higgins himself became the kind of kid who never backed down from a fight. He became a cop and eventually a lawyer, and learned to channel his aggressiveness through the law.
Helping Milena is a way of helping the child he once was, but the pair generally don’t dwell on bad memories. Most of their time is spent bantering and teasing each other, like rebellious schoolkids.
Higgins and often his wife have taken Milena out on weekends, to dinner or a USC game. One day they took her shopping for work clothes at the Glendale Galleria. “Milena asked if she could walk between us, holding each of our hands, and asked, ‘Do you think people would think we’re a family?’ ” recalled Higgins. When they were not in the office and strangers assumed she was his daughter, Higgins never corrected them because it made Milena so happy.
“When she gets that look of joy, it just lights everybody around her,” he said. Last summer, Milena came to spend a weekend with Higgins and his family at a rented house in Newport Beach. “Everything was different for her,” he said. He showed her how to boogie board and dig for sand crabs. After she dug one up herself, “she was gleeful. She had this wonderment you see in little kids, and most of us lose it, particularly by adolescence. It’s not cool to be joyful.”
The day Higgins returned from vacation, Milena announced that she was going back to Slatten.
Higgins wonders whether the pressure to succeed was too much.
“Up to nine months ago, she’s a victim,” he said. “She’s no longer a victim, but with that comes the liability of responsibility.” There have been small setbacks of late. She fared poorly on a civil service exam.
At first, Milena insisted that she was returning to Indiana only because her adoptive father had promised her money if she helped him renovate a Victorian home he owned.
The night before she was to leave, she finally admitted why she was going. “I basically feel that he [Slatten] owes me something,” she said. “An apology. Which I’m probably never going to get ... but
Higgins took the day off work to drive Milena to the airport. He acted jovial, teasing her about the 30 Amy Lee posters she was having him keep in his garage. But when it was time for her to pass through security, it was clear that he was afraid he’d never see her again. He hugged her for a long time, kissed the top of her head and whispered, “Be safe.” He watched her until he could not see her anymore.
A week later, Milena in T-shirt and jeans emerges from a motel off an Indiana freeway. She’s been staying up all night and sleeping during the day. “I’ve been depressed,” she says in a flat voice, as if it’s slightly obvious.
Over stew at a Russian restaurant in Indianapolis, Milena explains that she and Slatten began fighting almost from the moment he picked her up at the airport. She says he was angry that she still spoke to his ex-wife and was irritated by her relationship with Higgins. When she revealed that this story was being written, “he basically freaked out and kicked me out of the house.”
After being contacted by this reporter, Slatten confirms Milena’s account of their visit. Seated at an Applebee’s restaurant with Milena and his fiancee, he contends that he is the victim of a biased court system, incompetent social workers, his ex-wife. “I never did anything abusive to Milena. If I did, it would have come out in the court trial.”
Slatten explains how the house ended up so dirty. After his suicide attempt, he took Milena and the foster kids to Virginia for the weekend, and the neighbor’s son neglected to walk their dogs. Asked about the charge that he touched his adopted daughter in an “insolent manner,” he explains that he was checking for bruises after a beating by Plumley and merely “glanced” at her naked body to try to ascertain her true age. “If she was 12 years old, she would be showing signs of pubic hair,” he says.
Milena fumes as Slatten gives the account and angrily interjects that he doesn’t even have the time right -- the alleged touching incident occurred after his ex-wife left (an allegation corroborated by Plumley).
According to Milena, the district attorney kept asking her before the trial whether Slatten had raped her, and she said no.
“That’s one of the things I’m most grateful for is, despite all this stuff, you never lied,” Slatten says in Applebee’s. “About the sexual stuff.”
“And yet, he still accuses me of lying on the stand,” Milena sneers.
Slatten doesn’t respond to Milena’s fusillade but sits sheepishly.
“I love Milena,” he insists.
Now a lawyer in Indiana, Slatten says he doesn’t remember much of the emotional abuse Milena says he singled her out for -- such as an incident in which Milena says she was forced to strip to her underwear and stand with a board across her shoulders.
“I don’t remember,” he says, “and nobody else does either.”
In a telephone interview, Plumley later backed Milena’s account.
“He had seen this form of discipline in a military book. It was a means to humble her, and humiliate her, and make her more willing to be cooperative,” Plumley says. “He tormented her quite a bit.”
MILENA has another sleepless night. The next day, she goes to see the home where she lived with the Slattens. Located in the working-class area of Lawrence, the house is small and rundown. The woman who lives in the house invites her in.
The basement is exactly as Milena remembers it, a tiny dark cell, about 15 by 10 feet, with one window the size of a legal pad. There is an overpowering smell of mildew.
That afternoon, Milena begins to complain about physical ailments. Her chest hurts. Her throat feels clogged.
By dinnertime, she can barely eat.
“I can’t get the smell of the basement out of my nose,” she says.
By now she has called Higgins, who has paid for her return flight to Los Angeles, as well as her motel. The next afternoon, Higgins and his wife pick up Milena at the airport. They’re relieved to see her, although Milena appears somewhat embarrassed.
They’re not taking her home -- where four grown Higgins children still reside -- but back to the Covenant House shelter.
UPON her return, Milena intently buys up everything she can find with Amy Lee’s face on it. She trolls EBay looking for souvenirs, meets other girls on the Evanescence chat room, buys an $80 ticket for its L.A. concert.
Her spending is out of control, and her caseworker at Covenant House gets angry when she realizes that Milena has spent about $10,000 on ephemera. Forced to live again in the group home, Milena seethes about its rules. She knows she’s depressed but is reluctant to use a Covenant House therapist. She’s frustrated by her own inability to make her life go forward.
And she’s angry. Mostly, inexplicably, at Higgins. He got her her job back, accepted her back unconditionally. Yet she punishes him as if he chastised her. At one point she refuses to speak to him for several days.
Higgins tries to be sanguine about the whole episode, but her surly behavior worries him. Covenant House has asked her to move out -- ostensibly because she refuses to adhere to its spending rules. He’s been helping her look for apartments, but it’s hard because she makes so little money. He’s promised to put up her security deposit.
His wife has been asking him of late what he’ll do if he can’t ultimately help Milena, or if she ends up back on the streets. “Part of leadership,” he says, “is the will to take things on against long odds. It’s kind of the approach I take with Milena. If Milena ended up hating me or really taking a bad turn, or didn’t want to work with me, I’d be very sad about that. I’ll cry a little bit.”
He pauses. That’s not exactly true. “I’ll cry a lot, but ultimately I can look myself in the mirror and say I gave it everything I had.”
ALMOST three months later, Milena is standing on the corner of Hollywood and Western, at the multicolored subway station, waiting to speak at a Covenant House rally to raise awareness for homeless kids.
Higgins intervened with the organization, so Milena was allowed to stay in the shelter.
She did her part -- agreeing to submit to the Covenant House’s strict saving plan. She has started seeing a therapist and has begun smiling more, that unexpected, incandescent grin.
In a crowd of several hundred formerly homeless kids, she is the only one wearing a business suit. Milena is also trying out her first pair of high heels and holding on to Higgins’ shoulder as she totters about. When she begins twirling unsteadily on her feet, she teases, “Catch me, Tom, I’m falling!”
She insists that Higgins stand in the front row, center, so in his black suit, black shirt and lime-green tie, he’ll be easily visible from the lectern.
She is the first resident from Covenant House to speak. Reading from her neatly typed speech, Milena is poised and self-assured. She talks about her past, her stint on the streets. “Because of my difficulty in trusting people I do not know, I found it hard to acknowledge that I needed help,” she says, adding that she’s learned how to “see beyond what is in front of our eyes.”
Afterward, she rushes to throw her arms around Higgins. Clearly proud, he leans down to whisper, “I started to tear up a bit, kid.”