She's found happiness, but her struggle isn't over

September 15, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

I hadn't heard she was pregnant again. That threw me a little. Jackie Thompson's story had been billed as a positive one, and indeed it is: Woman charged with child neglect loses her kids, then works to get them back, re-establishes her family, grows up, finds true love and happiness. I just hadn't counted on the addendum: And then she gets pregnant with her fifth child in 10 years. You see how it is.

So I'm telling you right up front: What we have here is a story of a young woman who pulled herself and her kids out of a mess, with the help of a hard-working guy who did the right thing and married her. But what we also have is another child on the way. Jackie's due in a month. As I sat in her neat and remarkably quiet house in Dundalk the other day, three of her four beautiful kids at my feet, I had to shake my head about that.

Jackie knows what I think. I told her it would have been smarter to wait a few years before having another child. She heard the same from social workers.

But let me stop here and back up a bit. Let me tell you what I know about Jackie Thompson.

She's 23, with a sparkle in her eyes. She comes across not only as a pleasant person but actually one with some smarts. Listen to her and you find yourself thinking: There's a lot of heart and intelligence here; had she not become pregnant when she did, had she received a decent education and used it to pull herself out of poverty, she probably would have known a lot less trouble during the past few years.

She certainly wouldn't have become bogged down in a life that went like this:

Gave birth at 13 to her first child, a daughter. (The father of that child was murdered two years later.) Lived with her mother for a few more years in Baltimore. Shipped off to New Jersey to stay with a grandmother. Got pregnant again at 17. Had a son. Eleven months later, gave birth a third time. Had twins, a boy and a girl. (The father of the last three children is in prison in New Jersey.) Came back to Baltimore, lived temporarily in a shelter for the homeless, settled in a small apartment in Dundalk with the four kids.

And that's when things fell apart.

"I was overwhelmed," Jackie says. "I was under a lot of stress, and I had too much pride to ask anyone in my family for help. I wanted to do it all myself. It just overwhelmed me, the four kids in a two-room apartment. I didn't really know how hard it was going to be, being on my own like that."

Apparently, some people in Jackie's orbit - neighbors, a welfare case worker - perceived that she was failing as a young mother. After Jackie's children missed a couple of scheduled doctor appointments, a social worker filed a report with child protective services in Baltimore County. One night, in September 1995, county police showed up at her door and found the children unattended.

What happened? Jackie says she had merely gone outside the apartment to throw trash into a bin, but had been delayed from returning by some women who lived nearby and with whom she had been having petty arguments. (She thinks they're the ones who called police while she was outside her apartment.)

Jackie was charged with neglect. Her kids were taken from her. Her landlord evicted her from the apartment a month later.

"That was definitely a wake-up call for her," says Marcie Drimer, the social worker with Baltimore County Department of Social Services who worked with Jackie Thompson after her children had been placed in foster care. "Jackie realized, at that point, that she needed help."

She stopped making excuses for her behavior, went to court, listened to a judge, listened to Drimer. Her four children had been placed in three foster homes; she made regular visits to each. She took a court-ordered parenting class and a nurturing class in Essex. "I only had to go six weeks to the parenting class, but I went four months," Jackie says. "I really got a lot out of it. I really learned a lot. It was helping me, and I liked it."

She hated being away from the children.

"But, I'll tell you, that time gave me a chance to grow up," she says.

It forced her to grow up.

She got a job at a fast-food restaurant. She met a guy named Fred Finnerty. He was young - only 19 at the time - but he soon made a huge difference in Jackie Thompson's life. He supported her, boosted her spirits, helped her get around to visit her kids, took her to the nurturing classes. Fred's mother gave Jackie a place to stay.

"She really took advantage of the help that was offered to her," says Drimer. "She was really motivated, she wanted to get her kids back." And social workers can rarely boast of such star pupils.

By June 1996, DSS allowed Jackie's eldest daughter, Ebonee, to return to her mother. In November 1996, a son, Taalid, came home. The twins, Taliyah and Khalid, came back one year ago this month. Jackie married Fred. He's 20 now and hustles from a full-time job at a car dealership to a part-time job at a mall to support the family. They all live in a comfortable rowhouse in Dundalk.

Alas, the struggle isn't quite over. The happy ending comes with an addendum: Jackie's fifth child is due in a month. (Makes you shake your head a bit, doesn't it?) Fred, Jackie explains, is the new man in her life and the first one truly committed to Jackie and her kids, and he wanted to have a baby with her. She says this one will be her last. She says she's ready. She says she can handle it. She says she's a better mother than she was two years ago. I hope she's right. I'm still shaking my head a bit. But I hope she's right.

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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