By Karen Middleton
Shoppers going through Jessica Walker’s checkout line at Publix will see a smiling, friendly face ringing up their purchases.
They would never guess the road she traveled to the present was heavily mined with misery. Jessica, who will turn 29 on Nov. 7, entered the Jefferson County foster care system as a child of 8 in 1992.
She brought her story to The News Courier in observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month to dramatize the plight of its youngest victims.
She lived in silence as she suffered abuse, first at the hands of her stepfather and then her mother’s boyfriend.
“I was in school and a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer came and spoke to us,” she said. “Of course, the topic was on drugs but also abuse. He said, ‘If anyone ever abuses you, you must tell a trusted adult about the abuse.’
“By this time I had been abused for two years by my mother’s boyfriend, Robert — sexual, physical and emotional.”
Jessica said she hadn’t spoken up because like so many other perpetrators, her abuser told her if she told he would harm her family.
“I had a little sister, and I never wanted him to hurt my Mom,” she said. “After the D.A.R.E. officer spoke to us I knew what I had to do. I wrote a note and taped it to the school counselor’s door. They came and pulled me out of class. The police were called, the DHR was called, my Mom was called.”
School officials told her she was through with classes for the day and to go outside and wait in the car for her mother.
“Robert — who is deceased now — came up there with her and was waiting in the car,” she said. “Fortunately, there was a social worker not far behind me.”
However, officials allowed Jessica to return home with her mother and her abuser.
“Mom told him what was going on and he pulled a knife out and stabbed the dashboard and screamed, ‘I told you not to tell!’ My Mom made me sit down and apologize to him and to everyone for lying.”
But officials knew the truth when they heard it and she and her little sister were removed from their mother’s home.
“My very first foster home was horrible,” said Jessica. “The people had marital problems and were always fighting. I don’t remember much about the foster homes after that. There were several, but they wanted to keep younger children that maybe they would adopt.”
For a time she landed in a Salvation Army home in Birmingham when she was about 10 or 11.
“It was very institutional, not a home,” she said. “It felt more like a detention center. I was scared most of the time.”
It was when she turned 12 that she began to find hope.
“I was placed in the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home in Gardendale,” she said. “I always say they saved my life. Even though they were a group home, the foster parents showed love in a healthy way, and for the first time I was introduced to church.
“I got to live a normal life that every child should live. The hardest thing about living in a group home was how everyone else viewed me as a foster child — ‘an orphan.’”
Jessica said her abuser was sent to jail and the court ordered her mother to take parenting classes.
“She never took the classes and she never terminated her rights so I could go up for adoption,” she said. “I would love to go back and view my case file, but you have to get a judge to issue an order. I need closure. The person who abused me died in jail.”
Jessica said that while in the Baptist group home her foster parents pushed for her education.
She enrolled in college, but then quit for a time because she married and had two children. She and her husband divorced after seven years. She is now the single mother of two children, 6 and 7, who attend school locally. She said her ex-husband, who is in the military, supports the children.
In the meantime, she enrolled at the University of North Alabama and on Dec. 14 will be awarded a bachelor’s degree in social work.
“I am interning at the Juvenile Probation Office in Decatur and I work at Publix on the weekends,” she said. “I took some time off when I had the children, so it has taken me some time to get my degree. But I told myself I would never stop.”
She said she has applied to the University of Alabama for graduate school to earn a master’s in social work.
“I want to be an advocate for foster children,” she said. “There is nothing odd about a foster child. The smallest thing you do for them will light up their worlds. I tell my children every single day before they leave for school to ‘be kind’ because you never know what someone is going through.”