Mother’s ordeal feels likes TV drama, but it’s not all that simple
Last of two parts
Shanell Walton felt a mix of dread and relief when her cell door opened and she was released. The ordeal of a weekend in jail had ended. But the next odyssey was just beginning: getting her kids out of foster care.
Walton was arrested on April 7 after Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies raided her South Los Angeles home, suspecting a link between her boyfriend and an Altadena gang. She was booked for child endangerment, and then freed three days later with no charges filed.
One problem: When she was taken into custody, a social worker summoned by deputies had placed her five children in foster homes.
I wrote a column about Walton on Saturday, prompted by an anguished email from Babs Greyhosky, a college professor and TV writer. She has known Walton, now 30, for 14 years. They met when Walton was pregnant and doing time in Juvenile Hall. Greyhosky became her mentor, then her friend; now she calls Walton her “goddaughter.”
Since her release from jail, Walton has been making the rounds, collecting the paperwork she needs from the Sheriff’s Department, the schools, the speech therapists, the doctors. She is trying to prove that she is not a criminal; that her children are healthy and well-tended. She has offered to get counseling, be drug-tested and take parenting classes, she said. “I thought for sure they’d give my kids back to me.”
But the Dependency Court system hasn’t budged. The children are still in foster care — they’ve been scattered from Compton to Hesperia — and Walton is restricted to monitored visits.
That outrages Greyhosky, Walton’s cheerleader. But Walton, a single mother since she was 16, has seen enough to know that outrage has its own cost.
She entered foster care herself at age 11, rescued from a drug-addict mother. And in 2006, Walton said she temporarily lost custody of her children — she had three then, ages 8, 2 and 1 — after someone called authorities. A social worker found them home alone.
Walton described the circumstances for me: She was off trying to rent a U-Haul truck to move the family from their cramped apartment. “I got there and I didn’t have a credit card, so I had to call my uncle and wait for him to come.” She’d asked a neighbor to watch the kids, but the 15-minute errand stretched on past an hour, and the neighbor went back to her own apartment.
“I’m not making excuses,” Walton insisted. Her children were dirty, her house was a mess, there were roaches in the empty cupboards. She was working and taking classes. “I let things go. I couldn’t keep up.”
She called on Greyhosky, who helped her move to a better apartment and bought her groceries and furniture. Walton enrolled in parenting classes. One month later, her children were back and her life seemed in order.
But order is a fragile commodity.
Lawyers and social workers connected with Walton’s case aren’t allowed to discuss it with me. But her situation is a window into a larger reality: the cascading effects of poverty, social isolation and inadequate personal resources on the stability of a family.
“Dependency Court is all about disappearing safety nets,” one veteran lawyer told me. Dysfunction isn’t the province only of the poor, but most of us are allowed to flail in private. People wind up at the system’s mercy when they have no one to break the fall.
Walton said she realizes now that deputies aren’t trying to set her up, and social workers aren’t out to get her. She admits that she has been the architect of some of her problems. The skills that ghetto life seems to require — being fearless and loud and bossy — aren’t always the best for solving problems.
Her relationship with Greyhosky has helped teach her that. “When I was talking to the social workers this time, I was using words I didn’t even know I knew,” she said, laughing at the incongruity. “My vocabulary wasn’t all that extensive before. I couldn’t always decipher what they were telling me.”
What they are telling her now, she said, is that she is choosing the wrong men for father figures, like the boyfriend arrested with her last month: a paroled ex-con and ex-gang banger. But that, she said, is a harder problem to solve than roaches in the kitchen.
“They say I’m rolling with the wrong people,” she said. “But that’s all that’s in my neighborhood. Everywhere I go, there are gang members. Everywhere I go, there are criminals. I can’t avoid it, unless they’re going to move me to Beverly Hills, somewhere nice like that.
“That’s South-Central. Unless they’re going to fix that, what am I going to do about it?”
Walton goes back to court Tuesday, armed with all she hopes she’ll need. Her house is clean and vermin-free. “I’m going to parenting classes, I’m in anger management, I’m in therapy,” she said. “I’m doing everything in my power to get my kids back.”
She hasn’t seen the boyfriend. “I’m not associating with him at all,” she said. “I’m trying to focus on my children. That’s all I care about right now.”
Walton doesn’t sound like the fighter I met two weeks ago. She’s tired, worried and frustrated. “Babs says it sounds like I’m numb,” she said. “It’s like a bad TV show, and I’m living it.”
She hasn’t heard what the folks who make Dependency Court run sometimes say. How many of us might end up in the system if social workers showed up at the house on the wrong day — when the laundry’s piled up, the kitchen reeks, you’re yelling at the kids over the TV.
I thought about that as I cleaned my house, from top to bottom, this weekend. I recalled my own near-misses as a frazzled single mother of three: The baby-sitter arrested, with my toddlers in tow, with a phony prescription at the drugstore. The black eye my daughter suffered in a trampoline fall, while I was in Vegas and a teenage neighbor was in charge.
I saw the chances I took, the choices I made, the sitters I trusted, and the men I dated. And even with my safety nets — caring neighbors, trustworthy friends, a well-paying job — I didn’t always come out looking so good.
Greyhosky said her “middle-class friends can’t believe that life can be such a soap opera. They think it’s ‘those people’ … and their eyes glaze over. But people are people. Shanell’s not the only woman making a bad choice in a man. If they punish her for that, then what about Maria Shriver?”
We might laugh, but the truth isn’t really so funny.
We’re human. We have messy lives. But do we want all the world to see?
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