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Escape From the Dungeon: Jennifers Survival Story
Have you ever been encountered with a trauma in life and not know how your life would be after it was all said and done? This is a story of my trauma and how I survived and how I am taking an extreme tragedy and turning it into something spectacular.
This is a story of psychological terror brought on by the hands of my mother. I am the second oldest of 16 children and the stories I am about to describe relays what it was like to live under the terror and reign of our mother. The abuse started about 35 years ago in 1970 and who knew there would be 16 direct victims and many other people affected by her manipulations when all was said and done. Hind sight is truly 20/20 and I think if things were handled differently with the 1987 felony child abuse charges in Waukesha County, there wouldn't be this tale to tell today in 2005.
There are two distinct time periods in this story: the 17 years prior to 1987 and the 18 years after 1987. Unfortunately for all us children involved, the story reads nearly the same with only the children involved changing. You will find parallels in both sections that I still can't believe today and I was part of the situation from the beginning and a catalyst for this coming to light. What you will see is a very large break in the system but above all, the master manipulation that would rival the greatest minds. By manipulating her children, the social workers, the lawyers, the prosecutors, mom got off with nothing in 1987 when she was facing 18 counts of felony and misdemeanor child abuse charges, $180,000 in fines and 30 years in prison. Her ability to walk away from that without a scar only enabled her psychotic manipulating mind and that allowed mom to abuse again without fear for the next 18 years. It is heartbreaking to know and live with the fact that these actions have been addressed in the past and she ended up inflicting the same thing on my brothers and sisters as soon as the Department of Social Services stepped out of the situation in the late 80's. You often hear that history repeats itself, but I never would have imagined to be the exact same acts of manipulation, terror and intimidating abuse over such a long period of time.
September 14, 1987 - This is a day that I will never forget, it was the day that I looked into my mothers eyes and saw my own mortality. It was the day that I wanted to give up trying and just pass away to the next world. This day, is engrained in so many of the kids minds that each one that witnessed it can tell you a story of psychological warfare, utter pain, mental anguish, and overall defeat. This day was worse than anything I have faced in 14 years in the military. This day was worse than anything I could imagine, it was the day that my mother tried to kill me and was the day that I saw the devil in her eyes. So much of the last 17 years have built up to this moment and this day was merely the straw that broke the camels back.
This day started like any other day in our house, but it ended being a day that changed our lives forever. After school that day I was walking to my babysitting job which was a couple of miles away. One of the sneaky things I did as a teenager was to switch my clothes and hair when I got to school. Mom always made me wear skirts and two pigtails in my hair up until this day (I think she was reliving her high school years through us) and I snuck a pair of pants to school and a brush. When I got there in the morning after being dropped off I would go to the bathroom and switch out of my skirt and comb out my hair. Ted knew what I was doing but he never said much, he knew the deal. Well I took my skirt along with me when I was walking to the house I was to baby-sit at but I was still wearing my pants. Unbeknownst to me, my mother was following me in the car. She came up to me and found that I was wearing a pair of pants and had my hair down and not in pigtails which was one of her number one rules I wasn't allowed to do. She shoved me in the car and refused to let me continue to the job and she made me take off my pants in the car and she threw them out the window. To this day I do not remember how Mr. Maloney found out I wasn't going to be working there anymore, I think I was in too much shock to remember that. She started to beat me in the head, a 17 year old girl, in the car and saying things that I just can't write down on a piece of paper without cringing. All I could do was cry to myself but knew it would be over soon, until she stopped at the hair cutters. She said that since I cared so much about my hair and that I wouldn't wear the pigtails that she would have it cut off. She had my father take me in and say "cut it short" and then they left me there to get it cut. I cried in the chair the whole time and told the lady that mom was forcing this. She cried too and said she would try not to cut it too much. My dad came back to pick me up and he immediately looked at my hair and said "your mother is going to be mad". I tensed because I knew what was coming. I got home and no sooner did I walk into the door that the bug eyes my mother is so famous for came out and she went straight for my hair. She was so mad she ran over to me and started pounding on my head and my back. I screamed in pain and disbelief and this went on for a while. Then she got even more crazy, she made dad get the other two girls down from the room to watch what was about to happen to me. Mom dragged me to the bathroom by my hair holding my face up to the mirror and screaming profanities at me. She took me by the neck with her forearm and strung me up on the wall with my feet dangling. She had freakishly strong grips that you couldn't get out of and she made the girls watch as she terrorized me. I was screaming, the girls were screaming for her to stop but she wouldn't. She pushed on my neck and put her face up to mine and simply yelled at me "do you want me to kill you, do you want me to kill you now" and the only words that would come out of my mouth was "yes, yes, yes just kill me now and get it over with". She dropped me and yelled at the girls to watch what would happen to them if they ever disobeyed her and she took the knife and started chopping off my hair to the scalp. Just chopped and chopped in her fit of rage and beating me to my knees. I drained of life in that very moment. When she was done she sent us all to our black prison cells of our rooms and the girls cried for me that night. I slumped down on the bottom bunk, curled to the fetal position and prayed to God that I wouldn't wake up.
September 15, 1987 - the day I left home and never looked back - After falling asleep in my locked black room in an endless pit of sorrow and despair, the time came to go to cleaning. I was to continue on like nothing had happened. My dad called into my room to get up and get into the car to go to work. I hadn't seen my hair myself yet because I had no access to mirrors after the assault. I felt my head not sure if what happened was a dream or if it really happened. I cried, I just kept crying. She took the one thing from me that I adored, my long beautiful hair. I looked like a boy and to this day I can't bear to have short hair because of the memories associated with it. I sat in the car with my head on the window feeling lifeless and I had no ounce of hope. I was done, I was finished, I wanted out of my life. I continued on with cleaning, just working through my silent tears unable to look at my father who allowed this to happen to me. How could he let this happen to his daughter? After cleaning my mother made me wear a wedding type dress to high school with my tattered hair. So there I was, 17 years old, tattered hair in a fancy dress, most assuredly used to distract from my head. She slapped me a few more times when she saw the tears on my face and cut my hair so more, to even it out she said. I just stood there, emotionless, feeling dead to the world. I got dropped off in front of school, tears in my eyes as I was stared at walking through the halls. I walked to my homeroom and then walked right past it. I didn't know where I was going but I wasn't going to class like this. I hid in the sixth floor bathroom staring at my hair, I crawled under the sink in the fetal position and just started to cry. People came in and asked me what was wrong, all I could say to them was, "go get Meg - I only want Meg". Someone listened, someone got her. To this day I don't know what I told her. I blocked so much of what happened. Someone gave me a bandana to put on my head and she took me to the chapel in the basement. She stayed with me all day - she is my hero, she saved me. She brought in Father Reiney and I told them everything. I was hungry and pulled out my lunch and was eating my spaghetti sandwich that was packed for me, Meg and I shared a laugh on that one. After I told the Father about everything he brought in a Nun and they told me what my options were. I had to find shelter for that night, somewhere where I would be safe, before I even got to say a word Meg said she would take me home with her that night. I was so scared at what was about to unfold before the both of us. We ended up getting on the bus to get to her house in Wauwatosa and she and I were embarking on our first adventure. She laughed at me on the bus because as we left Pius and traveled through the town I remarked, "oh my gosh, the street signs are blue". I never knew that the street name signs were any color other than green. We never left our little area in New Berlin. That night Meg and her mom welcomed me with open arms but the peace did not last too long. My mother found out that I was at Meg's house and she camped out in her front yard and started yelling at the top of her lungs. The police were called and I sat upstairs crying and in complete terror that she would take me back home. Meg and her mom did everything they possibly could to console me and they said that they knew someone down the street and that they were going to get me there. Poor Jane, Meg's sister, was left to endure mom's psychotic ranting and raving on the front lawn. They just got a small taste of the life I was living everyday. I was snuck out the back door and we ran down the street like we were really in hiding from the enemy. We ended up at that other house where I made a very important phone call. I hadn't talked to my dad's family in probably a decade when I called Uncle Butch and Aunt Judi in tears. I told them who I was and that I ran away from home could I stay there for the night. I can't remember what else I talked about but I ended up at their house where mom would never suspect my whereabouts. From what I was told my mother stayed on Meg's front yard for most of the night. I can't remember reintroducing myself to my relatives but looking back, I am so grateful that they opened that door for me. They have been suedo parents to me for the last 18 years and I just am in awe at their selfless acts of kindness that night. As the next day started there would be no school for me. I got up and had breakfast like a normal person. I sat at the table and served myself a meal, something that I had not done in 17 years. Aunt Judi and Uncle Butch listened as I poured out my life story at the breakfast table and they told me some of the things that I never knew about my extended family. Later that day, Father Reiney came to get me. They worked through the night for an option that would save me. This was the only option I had and ironically enough, mom's escapades from the night before at Meg's house were enough to get a restraining order. Fr. Reiney told me that they would take me to a home for runaways called Pathfinders in Milwaukee and they would protect me for two weeks. I started to cry. I just started to cry and couldn't stop. I think I said yes I would go and off we went. Fr. Reiney drove me there where I told them about the story of everything that happened in my home and then they gave me another blow. They said that they could only let me stay at Pathfinders if my parents gave permission. My world sank again, how could I escape? She would never give permission, I would be found out, I would be in the most trouble I have ever been in and I don't know what would happen. I told this to them, I told them every word that she would say to make me out to be the liar and the evil one. Word for word I described how the conversation would play out, I even shocked myself at the level of detail I provided. They called her on speaker phone, and word nearly for word it played out exactly how I explained. Somehow, someway those administrators convinced her to let me stay. I was still in my dress, she demanded it back. She demanded the clothes on my back, I borrowed some of theirs that were donated and they handed the dress over the next day. I don't remember where I slept that night, I don't remember much of anything except that was the first time in 13 years I hadn't had to get up to go to cleaning.
March 23, 2004 - The day the kids were taken away? again!! - Another day in the history of our family that is difficult to forget. I received a call out of the blue from my sister saying the four kids whom I had never met or known before were taken away from mom. Jeffery had turned them in for abuse. My jaw dropped down to the ground in disbelief but more of relief. I immediately went to Annie's house and walked in and found the kids sleeping in the living room. I walked in and said "Hi, I am your sister Jennifer, boy I am glad to meet you guys!" Annie gave me a run down of what had happened. Much like myself at the very same age, Jeffery had enough. He knew that I was emancipated and made a legal adult at 17 and went to his guidance counselor to see how he could do the very same thing. From there, the police were involved and they took the four children from school and Annie took emergency custody of them. I spent that entire first day, just sitting with my brothers and sister that I never knew and just talked. I found out who they were and allowed them to meet me and know that I would be there for them. Over the course of the next few days, I became the permanent home for Nick and Jeffery. Charlie was diabetic and I could not care for him so he went to a foster home and Amber stayed with Annie. As you might imagine, these weeks became utter nightmares being brought to life all over again. Nick and Jeffery were thrown into a home with a sister they never met and I suddenly was responsible for four kids as a single parent. My rules were strict and as the emotions played out, Nick shut down on me. He left my custody after a few short weeks and went to live with Ted for a few months before moving to a permanent foster home only a mile away from my house. Amber became too much for Annie and her five children so she came to live with me and through a barrage of emotional rollercoaster's and a stint at Elizabeth's house, Amber went to a loving foster home, also just a couple of miles from my house. Jeffery had a few rough spots but now lives in his own apartment after graduating High School and loves it. As of today, the kids spend a lot of time at my house to give the foster parents a break and they are thriving beyond belief. We are hoping mom is held accountable for years to come so these last three can be given the best chance possible to succeed.
27 July 2005 - Mom gets hard time - she is in prison tonight! - Judge Dreyfuss was incredible, he not only allowed every child to make their victim impact statements, but said that it was critical as to the character of Linda Stephens and her propensity to abuse again and to take advantage of her children. Each child got up there and gave their statement; each child described how they are affected today because of what mom has put us through. Each child spun their tale of manipulation, abuse and control that mom exuded over them and how they are affected today. Mom sat their stone faced without caring just staring ahead with her jaw clenched.
Then the judge said his piece and then he sentenced mom. He admonished her for her 35 years of manipulation and stated that she was brilliant in her schemes and manipulations. He stated that prison can either be a punishment or to protect society. Judge Dreyfuss stated that he didn't feel she was threatening society but the threat she posed to her own children were too great to not recognize. Judge Dreyfuss sentenced her to 3 years in prison with no possibility of getting out early and then 8 years of extended supervision and probation. During those 8 years she would have to get a fulltime job (which she has never had) and pay back the people she has stolen from. She will not be allowed to have a credit/debit card, credit/debit card numbers, a computer, internet access or checking accounts due to the extent of her fraud and financial crimes. The Judge stated that she was to have no contact with the minor children ever via any means until they reach the age of 18 (the youngest now is 13). She was instructed to have absolutely no contact with the adult children in any fashion or form unless they wanted that contact and requested it and on their terms. This is so important to all of us who want nothing to do with her. Today was our closure.
Jennifer has lived a truly extraordinary life. As a child, she endured the horrors of child abuse, which included physical torture, mental cruelty, and near starvation. Upon Jennifer's escape in 1987, her family was identified as one of the most severe child abuse cases in Wisconsin's history. At age 17, Jennifer's teachers risked their careers to notify the authorities and saved her life from certain death. Upon Jennifer's escape, she was made a ward of the court and placed in foster care until she became what would be her lifelong quest for higher education and she enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1991. As a young adult Jennifer was determined to better herself--no matter what mountain or land mine laid in her path and is currently a Major in the United States Army and continues to be an extreme advocate for social services, foster care, law enforcement, and prosecutors. In her off duty time, Jennifer offers programs for corporate groups, human services, Child Abuse Prevention Fund in Milwaukee, youth-at-risk, and continues to mentor for women's achievement potential.
Jennifer Stephens can be reached via email at WisconsinVision@aol.com or www.jenniferstephens.org
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