Home at last

Toni Cain emerged from a life of pain to finally find her place in the world

December 15, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

For the longest time, home was a tent city under a bridge. It was the public housing projects. Or a prison cell.

Toni Cain knew there were people who lived in nice houses, people who owned their homes and took good care of them. People who had chances in life. She knew just as well that she wasn't one of them.

"I believed people were born into stations, and there was nothing they could do," says Cain, 40. "Some people live in houses on a hill, and some people live down with the roaches."

The roaches will miss her. This weekend Cain moves into her own house in Brooklyn, purchased through Arundel Habitat for Humanity. She is the eldest of 10, and she is not only the first of her siblings to own a home, but the first in her family going back to her great-grandparents.

For Cain, and for anyone who knows her, it is proof that your station is not your destiny. She was molested as a child, started drinking at age 9 and was placed in foster care at 12. She attempted suicide at 14, was married at 17, and abandoned by her husband at 19. That was when she started using crack cocaine.

The state took away three of her children, after a daughter was born two months premature with cocaine in her system. Cain was homeless, a streetwalker, a Dumpster diver. She was raped, beaten and arrested so many times that jail guards would say "Welcome back" when they saw her.

"She was the kind of woman that people didn't make eye contact with on the street," says Joan Gillece, who started a prison counseling program that saved Cain. Gillece, who lives in Annapolis, thinks she must have driven by Cain countless times and never given a thought to the ragged woman on the side of the road.

Now she turns heads. Cain wears smart power suits and receives standing ovations when she lectures on the dangers of addiction. She's a single mom, caring for a 3-year-old daughter and buying a house on her own. And when she goes to the red-light districts, it's to hug the women who sell their bodies, give them warm clothes and shoes, and tell them someone cares.

Sometimes in bed at night, after Orlandra has gone to sleep in the pink room with the Dora the Explorer sheets, Cain cries to think of how far she's come.

"How do you go," she wonders, "from living under a bridge to flying around the country?"

Cain was a textbook case of trauma, but she never knew it until a state therapist's diagnosis. In mental health, trauma is an early experience that terrifies - abuse, neglect, homelessness, witnessing violence. It was Cain's life for too many years.

She was born in Annapolis in 1967 to a mother who would live in the city's public housing and be supported through welfare. Cain's father was not a part of her life. Her mother's male friends molested her, she says, and she turned to her mother's liquor stash to deaden the pain.

Cain's mother couldn't care for her children, and the state put them in foster care while relatives sorted it out. Cain ended up with an aunt, but the drinking didn't stop. She realized she was an alcoholic when she began sneaking liquor bottles into Annapolis High School and drinking in the bathroom.

At 17, she married a man who was 24. "I was a child bride," she says. Her mother signed the papers, since a 17-year-old isn't allowed to marry on her own. Maybe there's a good reason for that, Cain says now.

She had a son, Keith, and then her husband left after two years of marriage. One weekend, her husband picked up Keith and never brought him back. Cain figured she was in no position to fight, though over the years she would look for her boy.

"She was a prostitute, a crackhead, a streetwalker," says Annapolis police Detective John Lee, who arrested Cain at least a half-dozen times over the years. "Somebody like that doesn't even have a life expectancy."

Cain gave birth to a boy, Brandon, in 1988 and a girl, Whitney, in 1989. The girl was two months premature, born with cocaine in her system. She spent 10 days in the hospital, and the day that Cain could finally take her home - to her mother's apartment - police showed up and took both children away.

The children entered foster care and were adopted. Cain let them go.

"I didn't want to drag them through the lifestyle I was dragged through - alcoholism and drugs," she says. "I couldn't give them the love and affection they deserved."

Another boy, Joshua, was born in 1991, and he, too, was taken away. That decade was marked by a descent into addiction and lawlessness. Her criminal record shows a score of charges, for drug possession, prostitution and disorderly conduct. Her mug shots show a woman who had reached bottom.

In 2003, Cain learned that she was pregnant again. She was devastated. "I couldn't imagine losing another child," she says. "It's a horrible, horrible thing, and I just couldn't survive that."

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