Friday, May 22, 2009

N.J. mother reunites with children after 17 years

by Barry Carter/Star-Ledger Columnist
Wednesday May 20, 2009, 5:00 AM

Theresa Ellis lost her child 17 years ago. The Division of Youth and Family Services took Yasmean away when she was 2 and placed her in a foster home. It's just one more tragedy Ellis brought on herself through heroin and cocaine addiction when she was young.

The agency, she said, deemed her unfit, terminated her parental rights, barred her from any contact until Yasmean turned 18. Ellis had no idea where her sixth child was or if she would ever see her again.

For a while, DYFS was in Ellis' life so often that most of her children were removed from her because of neglect. All except two were placed with relatives. Yasmean and another daughter, Michell, went to foster homes. But as she regained control of her life -- getting off drugs, completing parenting classes, finding employment -- Ellis began to get her kids back. Six of them are on their own now. Three live with Ellis. The youngest, Raquan, who would be 8 now, died when he was 2 after falling 17 stories from a window with faulty window guards.

Ellis doesn't sugarcoat her addiction. Getting high cost dearly. She says she doesn't beat herself up anymore, realizing that her past is not pretty but that it does not have to continue to define her.

She got off welfare, and she has a job heading up Newark's Family Success Center at Bradley Court, a public housing development where she lives and is looked upon by many as the mother of the neighborhood.

As she regained her life, Ellis began looking into the faces of young girls she met, wondering if one of them was Yasmean.

"That one might look like her, could it be her?" she would say in her travels. "Will I notice her if I walk past her on the street?"

Ellis wanted to ask passersby whether they had been adopted, had they ever heard the name Yasmean. Having Yasmean back would make her family whole again.

Unbeknownst to Ellis, the reunion began to take shape six years ago when Yasmean was watching the evening news at the home of her foster parent in Newark.

Ellis was being interviewed about Raquan's fall from the high-rise building in Newark. Her foster mother told her she thought that the woman on television was her mother, but Yasmean said she couldn't be certain. They did have the same last name.

At 13, she didn't know how to go about finding her mother. Five years went by until she met and shared her story with Naimah Golden last year. At the time, Yasmean was staying in Newark with Golden's aunt. When Golden heard her story, she said she was convinced Ellis was Yasmean's mother and encouraged the teenager to seriously look for her family.

Yasmean followed up on two leads that didn't pan out. One tip led her to a laundromat but Ellis no longer worked there. She tracked a sister down to a fast food restaurant, but she was gone as well.

"I always grew up thinking my mother gave me up and I didn't know why," she said.

The mystery began to clear last month when Golden and Ellis' niece, Shakira Pivot, bumped into each other in the Orange Municipal Courthouse building. As Pivot waited to speak to a clerk, Pivot saw Golden, who was there to be a witness for a wedding. The two had not seen each other in six years. After they said hello, Golden began to tell Pivot she talked to her "cousin" a few days ago.

Pivot was confused. She didn't know who Golden was talking about. What cousin? Golden didn't know Yasmean's real name and kept referring to her by a nickname that Pivot never heard before.

Everything was cleared up when Golden phoned her grandmother.

"Is her name Yasmean?" Golden asked Pivot.

"I just started crying," Pivot said.

Pivot said the family had been thinking of ways to find Yasmean. They even contemplated contacting the Locator, a television show where loved ones are reconnected. When Golden left the court building she went looking for Yasmean and found her at a polling site in East Orange. She called Pivot by phone and told her where to come.

When Pivot arrived, Golden told Yasmean that the woman approaching was her cousin. Yasmean was so nervous she ran inside. Pivot went after her, the cousin she remembered playing with as a child. They hugged and cried.

Pivot then took Yasmean to see her mother in Newark, where she was working at the Family Success Center.

"I hugged her and touched her," Ellis said. "I started crying, and she started crying."

Family members filled Ellis's office. Friends, too. Yasmean got passed around from one sibling embrace to another.

"I felt complete right then and there," Yasmean said.

No comments:

Post a Comment