After nine years, a mother who placed her children in the care of Department of Social Services has the chance to get one of them back. But the obstacles she's faced haven't made her journey easy.
In 2000, Rebeckah Armistead was homeless, uneducated and unemployed -- and she had four children. She says she had been doing the best she could to support her family since the passing of the children's father, but she and her kids were living in the car and going to friends' houses to shower. One afternoon in March, she knew she had to do something.
Years later, as part of a class at National College, she would write an essay about her tough decision -- one that she hadn't told many people about. In her essay called "A Mother's Heartbreak" she wrote:
"It was a mother's worst nightmare. She knew the decision she was about to make would affect her, the rest of her life. She had run out of options."
In that essay, her professor learned that Rebeckah, who was then in her early 30s, had been battling through the foster care system for nearly a decade. Her fight began that March afternoon when she sought help for her children, who ranged from ages nine months to nine years.
"That's not the life I wanted for my kids. I wanted more," remembered Rebeckah.
So Rebeckah called the Department of Social Services and talked to the on-call worker about what to do. The worker suggested the Salvation Army. Rebeckah was hesitant about going there with her children because one of her girls had medical conditions she thought might be worsened in that environment. But Rebeckah called anyway, only to find out that the Salvation Army shelter was full.
No beds meant she was back to working with DSS. She went to the DSS offices with her two boys but left the girls with her daycare provider, Townley.
"And they started the paperwork then of what they would call 'temporary foster care' and that's where the kids would just go in for a little while until you hopefully can get yourself together," said Rebeckah.
It wasn't easy for her. Rebeckah wrote about that moment in her essay:
"Then she had to let go of her children for the moment. She thought it would be only a few weeks. 'Til she could get some help with housing."
But Rebeckah was in for some surprises. At the time, she wasn't aware of all the conditions of voluntarily putting her children in foster care. She thought DSS would help her with housing, employment and transportation.
Rebeckah rememberd, "At that time, I knew not of all the different types, all the different types of organizations, the types of services that could have been offered to me."
She thought she had more time to get it all together. She was wrong.
Rebeckah describes what happened next as a nightmare. Her children were split up and put into different homes. Her two girls, the youngest of the group, weren't put into foster care. Rebeckah says Because of their ages they were adopted. Rebeckah didn't know the system and her rights to them were terminated.
"I didn't know then what I know now," said Rebeckah.
Rebeckah says she learned later that in the state of Virginia, you have 18 months to get a job, have housing and reliable transportation or you face termination of parental rights or your child being placed in permanent foster care. She was working towards it but didn't make the mark in time.
Fear set in, and she wrote: "Her babies would never come home to her. Even though she had been doing what the system had asked of her. Her babies were caught in the system now."
Rebeckah, even in her sorrow, was down but not out. Rebeckah kept fighting. She was determined she'd be a part of her children's lives and that she'd overcome her obstacles.
Rebeckah got her GED, got her CNAs, became employed and secured housing. She also made sure she stayed in contact with DSS, showed up for court appearances concerning the foster care plans for her children (by her estimate she's only missed three appearances in nine years), and kept in contact with her children and their adoptive and foster families.
Surprisingly enough, Rebeckah was also fascinated with the law and research. So she decided to continue her education at the National College. She enrolled in classes to become a paralegal and has been gaining the knowledge that she wishes she had years ago.
"I've always wanted to be in law. If I can't be a attorney, then a step down," shared Rebeckah.
And her law and other books have come in handy.
"You know I've taken a lot of my classes, and I've applied them to the boys. Of, if they going through this or they're going through that, then I'll look in my books and see if that can pertain to my child or if that can pertain to the situation, which it usually does," said Rebeckah.
The knowledge she's gained, she's been sharing with others as part of a support group she's formed called "Healing Hearts." She holds the group's meetings in Augusta County and it's made up of other parents who have lost their children to the system.
Rebeckah shared why she started it: "It's just the fact that there are so many people out there that have lost their kids to the system. And it's sad because I was in court last week and there was this mother that came in and you could tell she hadn't saw her child in probably five or six months or so. And I could see myself back nine years ago, in this lady's eyes, I could see the whole thing."
And, sometimes when you give back to others, you get something in return. Rebeckah didn't have the support group she needed back in 2000 when she made her heart-wrenching decision, but because of her hard work and dedication, she has that support from the others in her group, her professors, her former daycare provider and others.
Some of that support was at the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court August when she got the most startling and encouraging news in years. The foster parents of her youngest son dissolved their rights.
Rebeckah hopes she'll get him back, and she has an idea about what she'll do if that happens.
"Once we go to court and they say, Zachary, you can go home with Ms. Armistead, The first thing I'll do, is I want to take him to AJ's doorstep and I want to knock on the door and I want to say, 'J, 'here's your brother,'" said Rebeckah.
Rebeckah goes to court on Monday concerning her son, Zack. We hope to update you on the rest of her journey soon.
Reported by Meta Pettus