Ericka was overcome with remorse and guilt after losing her dream job as a nurse’s aide at a well-respected hospital when she was sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempting to distribute a controlled substance. Despite only having to serve satisfactory probation to offset time behind bars, Ericka felt lost.
She’d experimented with pain killers and marijuana in the past, but this abrupt life shift not only helped thrust her back into chemical dependency, but did so with brutal intensity. Ericka and her boyfriend began using cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines.
When she found out she was pregnant, however, Ericka refused to get high. She asked her boyfriend to do the same, but the battle between family and drugs soon came to a head and he chose the latter.
“He kicked me out when I was eight months pregnant,” she said.
Another relationship began to take shape soon after her daughter was born and was more or less a positive experience until her new boyfriend began using drugs a year later. Ericka again faced the difficulty of presenting her partner with the same ultimatum, but this time her entire life was consumed by a wildfire that conversation set in motion.
He hit me in the face,” she said with cutting focus. “He told me if I ever left him, he would kill me and my daughter.”
Ericka knew he meant every word with unwavering sincerity because he’d already spent time in prison for beating a man to death.
She went on to suffer multiple concussions, had teeth knocked out, was punched unconscious on occasion, and was even strangled. “It was terrifying,” she said, “but I stayed because I always feared something much worse.”
Ericka began searching for a way to guarantee her daughter’s protection, but knew she couldn’t just send her to live with family without drawing his suspicion. In the end, it was a tiny pill intentionally placed in the floorboard of her car that did the trick one fateful afternoon during a traffic stop.
“When I was arrested they took my daughter and I signed guardianship over to my mother,” she said. “I knew that they would eventually let me out of jail because I had a prescription for [the pill they found], but I also knew I was going to have to sit in jail for a while.”
A while turned into three months, but Ericka insisted it was worth it to keep her child safe and to experience a reprieve from the violence she was enduring at home. The abuse finally came to an end several months after being released from jail when the authorities arrested her boyfriend in Florida.
Ericka ran into more trouble of her own when she was arrested for shoplifting while trying to secure food for her daughter. Her probation triggered the previous 15 year sentence and Ericka ended up serving a third of it.
While incarcerated, she again took on the role of a care-giver when she began assisting dying inmates. Ericka said she also drew closer to God in that span, thanks to a prison ministry provided by a local church. In the end, her good behavior helped solidify her release after five years.
Ericka later fell in love and the couple had a child. That relationship eventually deteriorated, however, and ultimately left the single mother of two looking for yet another place to start over.
Even though her children were never a target of the physical violence in the home, the emotional and psychological damage they suffered did take a toll. Both of them were prone to outbursts that made finding a permanent home all but impossible.
The trio lived with family, friends, acquaintances, and in two different shelters. Behavioral problems continued to wreak havoc on several living situations and her oldest daughter eventually moved back in with Ericka’s mother. After a few close brushes with absolute homelessness, Ericka and her youngest daughter Gracie ended up at Jessie’s Place.
The workers here told me they’d help me with my daughter, but I was skeptical,” she recalled. “I mean, I’d been kicked out of places before that had told me the same thing. But I can’t tell you how much I’ve accomplished since I’ve been here.”
The staff followed through on their promise to help with Gracie. In fact, the change in temperament has been so fast and dramatic that even the workers were a bit surprised.
“When Ericka was able to release the guilt of being somehow responsible for what was out of her control, she was able to be more firm with Gracie and she fell right in line,” said Antoinette, Ericka’s case manager. “Gracie is doing play therapy and Ericka is doing parenting classes and they will sometimes have combined sessions in an effort to work on some of these issues.”
Ericka is also on the brink of landing a new job in a medical-related field. She admits that with everything that has transpired she thought that that door was “nailed shut for forever,” but is overwhelmed with joy at the prospect of returning to what she loved doing.
“When I got here I was manic and my anxiety was through the roof,” she said. “I thought everyone was out to get me and there was no hope. But everybody’s focus here is on God. And that’s what it took to get me back to God.”
Ericka is still hoping to reunite with her oldest daughter, but other family relationships are proving to be difficult obstacles to surmount. Through it all, however, Ericka remains steadfast in the pursuit of rebuilding her life and knows that “all of that will work out in the end.”
“Now that I have hope I’m getting my fight back,” Ericka said confidently. “I’m not going to let anyone tell me that I have to be the convict I used to be. No one is going to tell me that my past determines my future. The only person’s will that I care about is God’s and that’s the only thing that’s going to take me anywhere in life.”