Our suffering began well before we were born.
My younger siblings and I were all exposed to prenatal drug and alcohol use at birth, and each of us suffered the long-term effects. My sister and I were born with severe cleft palates leading to speech disabilities; my younger sister was born without arches on her feet and was in need of leg braces; and my younger brother was born with a severe case of fetal alcohol syndrome.
For the first 12 years of my life, I was never allowed to be a child. My mother would trade the government assistance that was intended for our food, diapers, clothing and bills for alcohol and drugs. I resorted to stealing and stashing food stamps, which I would take to a nearby grocery store and ask the clerk to help me maximize the amount of food I could purchase.
My story does not stop at neglect. My mother beat me every day - sometimes so severely I thought my last breath was imminent. While all of us were neglected, I bore the brunt of the physical abuse.
By the age of twelve, I was desperate to find help.
I approached my dance team coach and confessed the abuse I had kept hidden for so many years. She was able to convince my biological mother to let us stay with our paternal aunt and uncle temporarily. Shortly after, we entered the dependency system.
Though our lives had greatly improved, I struggled with giving up the caretaker role. I was always the "parent" of my siblings and I could not understand how complete strangers could even attempt to rationalize the neglect we suffered. I was the one who was there when my siblings took their first step or spoke their first word. I was the one who was there when they needed to be bathed, fed, groomed and looked after.
Our CASA volunteer was our voice.
My siblings and I lived in limbo for five long years, as my aunt and uncle fought to gain permanent custody of us. After at least two reunification plans failed, my mother's rights were severed and my aunt and uncle adopted us. I consider us lucky, as we were not shifted from foster home to foster home. However, we lived in a constant state of fear, thinking that at any moment we could be released back into the hands of the person we desperately needed to escape. The only one we could turn to for answers was our CASA volunteer. She tried to comfort us and guide us through the process. She was a constant in our lives and our voice in the courtroom.
I believe my focus and my worldview - that it is not the falling that matters, but the rising every time we fall - is in large part due to the attention that my siblings and I received from our CASA volunteer. I thank her for showing me that my biological mother may have taken away my childhood, but I was in control of what I would do with the rest of my life.
The support of my loved ones and my CASA volunteer enabled me to see my past as a source of strength. It allowed me to leave a life of suffering behind, graduate valedictorian of my high school class, receive a bachelor's degree with honors and complete law school. Driven by a desire to save others from the abuse I endured, I was a prosecutor of child in need of care cases for the Shawnee County District Attorney's office in Topeka, KS, for 5-1/2 years. I am now giving back to my country as a member of the Judge Advocate General Corp with the Kansas National Guard.