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World & Nation

From life on the streets to life as a mom

Their time together was so brief.

Michelle Mitchell was at a sober-living home here, trying to halt a two decade-cycle of crack cocaine and prostitution. Her daughter Miracle, a bundle of energy in pink Velcro sneakers, tornadoed through the kitchen.

A curvy woman with a dusting of freckles, Mitchell bear-hugged the 5-year-old. Studying Miracle was like peering into a mirror: same brown eyes, mahogany skin, wide smile. A teasing nature that belied a childhood full of indignities. A capacity for forgiveness that was repeatedly tested.

“I miss you,” Mitchell said.

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“I miss you, too,” her daughter replied.

Miracle was Mitchell’s sixth child; the other five lived with relatives in Ohio. She’d been placed with a foster family while Mitchell, 36, struggled through a court program aimed at cleaning up adult female prostitutes.

The women were fighting to overcome addiction and abuse, poor education and the stigma of sex work. In the specialty court known as Women In Need, or WIN, their jail sentences were suspended while they soldiered through the lengthy program, which offers counseling, housing and employment assistance.

In April 2010, when Mitchell had been clean for nearly five months, she was allowed this pre-Easter visit with Miracle. Just 30 minutes. No time for holiday traditions, such as dying eggs. They bounced a basketball outside, fiddled with a karaoke machine, giggled through “That’s What Friends Are For.”

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But there was an underlying wariness, an uncertainty between them. When Miracle was taken back to her foster family, Mitchell’s face froze. She tried to hide her sadness.

Miracle was her last chance at being a mom.

***

For Mitchell, Alcoholics Anonymous — and her sponsor, Cathy Buckley — served as a steadying force.

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Mitchell was tall and black, with a sometimes-brash presence and loads of street smarts. Buckley was petite and white, with a counselor’s placidity and a suburban mom’s life.

For months, Buckley had not only helped Mitchell work through AA’s often-wrenching 12 steps — No. 4: Make a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of yourself — but she’d also accompanied Mitchell to court hearings to monitor her progress. Once, outside the courtroom, Mitchell thought she spotted a guy she used to smoke with, who she said had touched Miracle inappropriately. Mitchell squeezed Buckley’s hand as the elevator descended five floors.

One day in June, Mitchell felt particularly wobbly. Miracle was about to move in, temporarily, with Mitchell’s brother in Ohio. She met Buckley at an evening AA meeting where, for the first time, she shared her story with the group.

Mitchell grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the oldest of six. The adults in her life were neglectful; there were harsh put-downs, lots of drugs.

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“You know, um, I didn’t have very high self-esteem,” Mitchell said. “I was, um — I never felt pretty. I was overweight, so you know, um, I did whatever I did for boys to like me and I drank because it was easier for me to do that.”

Mitchell sat with her arms crossed, as if bracing for a pummeling. She said she gave birth to her first child, Sonia, at 16.

“I had her because I felt that nobody else loved me and she would love me unconditionally. So I had her and I was working the street. Eventually, I got into drugs. Real, real heavy.... At 17, I lost custody of her.”

Mitchell ended up in rehab nearly a dozen times and prison twice. In 2003, she followed a co-worker to Las Vegas, leaving behind Sonia and four younger children —Derick, Carolynne, Anthony and Ashley — from various fathers.

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Miracle was born here. Mitchell continued offering sex for $20 and smoking the money away in a 3-inch pipe.

“What kind of work you do, Mom?” Miracle once asked.

“Customer service.”

Buckley locked eyes with Mitchell, as if to say: It’s OK. Keep going.

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Mitchell jumped to Nov. 14, 2009. That night, when she started to crawl into a car, the driver gave her the creeps. Then she noticed his passenger seat was covered in plastic. “And I knew if I got in that car he was gonna kill me.”

Mitchell intentionally got herself arrested that night — she thought it was the only way to get help — and entered WIN. She’d tried the program once before and failed. (Of the 185 women who’ve started it since 2007, just 14 have graduated and had their cases dismissed.)

Mitchell told the AA group that, earlier that day, Miracle had blurted out: “Mom, you love me now. You love me now.”

Mitchell was rattled. “You didn’t think I loved you before?”

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“And she said yeah,” Mitchell told the group. “But she didn’t or she wouldn’t have said what she said.”

Mitchell paused and fought back tears.

***

As her recovery inched forward, Mitchell would speak of her addiction as a person — a bully who prodded and taunted in hopes of breaking her resolve.

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In early summer, Mitchell was riding the bus when a craving gripped her. She felt a taste in her mouth — acrid, just like crack cocaine. She didn’t have a phone to call Buckley, so she prayed until the urge passed.

Mitchell hung on, in part, by thinking of the people invested in her sobriety. Buckley. Everyone at WIN court. Miracle. Her five children in Ohio. She’d had particular success rekindling things with Sonia, who was now 20 and pregnant with her own second son.

One July afternoon, Mitchell pulled out her phone and showed off a picture Sonia had sent: On her beach-ball-sized belly, she’d scribbled: I LOVE YOU. Mitchell talked of buying outfits for the coming baby. Years ago, she’d purchased clothes for Sonia’s first son, and traded them for crack.

Summer cooled to fall. On Nov. 14, 2010, Mitchell celebrated one year of sobriety. Her WIN graduation neared.

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“Sometimes I be sittin’ outside and my disease will say, ‘Michelle, when you graduate you’ll have money. You can go get you some dope, take you a hit, hop on a plane and nobody gonna know.’ But I’ll know,” Mitchell told a visitor outside her new apartment. “And I’ll tell my disease, ‘Shut ... up.’”

Over the phone, Mitchell had rejoined her children’s lives. Miracle shared knock-knock jokes. Sonia cooed over her newborn, Jayden, and made plans to celebrate her 21st birthday in Las Vegas. But Sonia also confided that her boyfriend had pushed and berated her.

Then, on Nov. 16, Mitchell’s mother called. She wailed that Sonia’s boyfriend had “thrown the baby” — and then she hung up.

Mitchell pieced things together in a blur of other calls: Sonia’s boyfriend had purposefully smashed 3-month-old Jayden into the pavement.

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“How’s the baby? Is he OK?” Mitchell shrieked.

At last, someone told her. Jayden was dead.

Mitchell dropped to her knees and howled: “Dear God, dear God —" But she refused to dull her heartache with alcohol or crack.

That night, she talked to Sonia. “It’s not your fault,” Mitchell reassured her. “You’re 20 years old. You didn’t know he was capable of this.” (Sonia’s boyfriend later pleaded guilty to killing Jayden and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.)

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About a week afterward, Mitchell’s voice was strained as she and Buckley sat at the courthouse, talking about her grandson’s death.

“The old me would’ve made this about Michelle,” Mitchell said, almost to herself. “I would’ve gotten loaded. For what? A 10-minute high? It’s not going to solve anything.”

Buckley put an arm around her friend and leaned her head on her shoulder.

***

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On a brisk December morning, an anxious Mitchell stood at a courtroom lectern. Her graduation from the WIN program had arrived.

“I hated myself. I hated the person I had become. I felt like a piece of dirt,” she told Judge Cynthia Leung, who oversaw WIN court. “I don’t feel that way today, though.”

Compared with a year earlier, Mitchell was more poised, her speech more refined. With her purple jacket and calf-length skirt, she looked like a member of the court staff.

Mitchell didn’t quite realize the extent of her own transformation until Leung pulled out one of her booking photos. Mitchell gasped. The woman in the picture had dark under-eye circles and a vacant stare.

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Mitchell shook with sobs.

Leung shared some things Mitchell had told her in court over the last year. Taken chronologically, they showed how Mitchell’s thinking had changed:

“I’m tired of feeling like I’m going to die.”

“I want to not just exist. I refuse to go backward.”

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“I want to be the woman God created me to be.”

At that, Leung said: “So guess what, Michelle Lynn Mitchell? You already are that person.”

***

Two days later, at the Las Vegas airport, Mitchell juggled a chocolate rose, some balloons and a cardboard sign: WELCOME TO VEGAS SONIE WONIE.

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A decade had passed since Mitchell had seen her firstborn. Now, she spotted a young woman in a puffy green jacket coming down an escalator. Mitchell screamed. Sonia looked as if she was struggling to breathe.

“Did you know it was me?” Mitchell asked.

“Yeah,” Sonia said. They embraced.

They resembled a pair of Russian nesting dolls, with Sonia’s shape a smaller version of her mom’s. They stood at the baggage carousel in near silence: Mitchell’s hands on her hips, Sonia clinging to her own jacket.

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The next day, the awkwardness had mostly vanished. They went shopping, then returned to the apartment complex, where unbeknownst to Sonia, Mitchell had festooned a common room with pink and white streamers. A chocolate cake said HAPPY BIRTHDAY. Mitchell’s friends hid until Sonia walked in.

“Surprise!”

Sonia gasped. Mitchell had never thrown her a birthday party.

The rest of Sonia’s visit whizzed by. One night, at the Cosmopolitan hotel, she froze up.

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“What’s wrong?” Mitchell asked.

“I miss my baby,” Sonia said.

Amid the hubbub of slot machines and tourists, Mitchell held her grieving daughter close.

***

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By April of this year, Mitchell had notched 17 months of sobriety. She was working at a limousine service and as a manager of her apartment complex. Her place would have looked bare if Miracle’s pastel T-shirts and Disney Princess games hadn’t been strewn about.

Miracle was back from Ohio. Though she was living temporarily with a foster family, she sometimes stayed overnight with her mother. Mitchell bathed her daughter, helped her with homework, cooked her pork chops. This Easter, she’d boiled eggs for Miracle to decorate.

“Do you know what Easter’s about?” Mitchell asked.

“The Easter Bunny?”

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“Well, it’s about Jesus, too.”

“And the Easter Bunny!”

Mitchell laughed, and plopped eggs into cups of red and blue dye. There would be plenty of time in the future to tell Miracle about the story of rebirth.

ashley.powers@latimes.com


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