Three years later, a troubled mother’s story is no brighter
Three years ago, Shanell Walton seemed poised to move forward. Her ex-con boyfriend had been hauled back to prison and her five children had returned home from foster care.
But it didn’t take long for Walton, 33, to begin spiraling down again. Now her children are back in foster care, she’s being evicted from her South Los Angeles home and the people who helped her the last time around have closed their hearts and wallets, fed up with her drama.
No one is more perplexed and disappointed than Walton herself. I could hear that in her plaintive phone call when she reached out to me this week.
“I made a mess,” she told me. “I lost my kids because I left them alone... I’m about to lose my home. I feel like I can’t function in life. I can’t pick myself up.”
She was hospitalized twice last month because she felt suicidal. That’s when the Department of Children and Family Services took custody of her children. Before that, she spent two weeks in jail for threatening a neighbor in a dispute. That’s why she lost the Section 8 voucher that helped her rent a house.
Walton worries about her 9- and 11-year-old sons, who beat up their siblings, bully kids at school and set fires at home. She misses her 16-year-old daughter, who moved out months ago because she was tired of seeing mom abused by a violent boyfriend, who is in prison now.
“Why do I pick men like that? Why can’t I manage my kids?” Walton asked me, her words slurred by her tears. “I feel like I’m drowning.
“If I could just learn something, get a job, stand on my own two feet, my kids would respect me more.”
I wrote about Walton in 2011, when deputies raided her house, arrested her boyfriend for a parole violation and found what they thought was cocaine. It turned out to be flakes of plaster. Still, Walton spent a weekend in jail for child endangerment. And it took two months of parenting and anger management classes to get her children back.
I’d often wondered about Walton since then. She had so much working against her.
She’d spent her childhood in foster care because of her drug-addicted mother’s neglect. She ran with hoodlums and gang members and landed in juvenile hall. She had her first child at 16 and four more before she hit 30.
But she could also be smart, tough and insightful. For years, she had a guardian angel — a screenwriter who met her when she was locked up and grew close enough to her over the years to treat Walton like a daughter. Now relations between the two are so strained, that woman won’t take her calls.
Walton understands why her mentor bailed, after 16 years of footing the bills for her bad choices. “She’s fed up with me. Fed up with my lies. Fed up with my life. I’m hurt, but I can’t blame her.”
Walton’s fed up with herself. “Sometimes I just sit in the house and cry. I can’t get out of bed.”
She seems to know what she needs: Mental health treatment; she’s been diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. Parenting help; three of her children have physical or mental disabilities. Job training, so she can support herself and her family.
She’s made the rounds of social service agencies. When I take her to lunch, she pulls from her purse a plastic bag of medications and a sheaf of notes detailing the waiting lists she’s on. “Everybody says they don’t have space, they’re too busy, come back another day.”
What she wants most right now, she said, is to get her children back. “I need to learn to be a proper mother. I want to get a job. I don’t want to be one of those mothers on the system all my life.”
But the system is all she’s ever known. It’s been a comfort and a crutch. Breaking free will be hard.
Roxanne Jordan sees women like Walton every day. She’s a chaplain at the Anne Douglas Center for Women at the Los Angeles Mission. The skid row shelter has a yearlong residential program that helps women break bad habits, heal old wounds and build self-esteem.
Most are dealing with childhood trauma, chronic mental illness and the fallout of bad choices. “They’re in a cycle that spirals up and down and they get stuck and can’t get out. They can have the self-awareness, but they don’t have the tools,” said Jordan. Recovery “is a long, intensive and often painful process.”
It’s hard to know whether Walton is ready for that kind of investment. In our conversations, she swings between recrimination and regret.
That leaves me struggling with uncomfortable questions: When does an explanation become an excuse? Is that “fog” she feels the burden of failure or a sign of mental illness? Is Walton the victim or the architect of her own misfortune?
And how much do the answers even matter when the lives of her five children are hanging in the balance?
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