Anatomy of a runaway
by WILLIAM WRIGHT
May 30, 2012 | 1744 views | 0 0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
NICOLE AND MATTHEW PRICE have put the past behind them and are looking forward to using their experience to help others. The Cleveland couple has been together now for 10 years. Banner photo, WILLIAM WRIGHT
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In a recent presidential proclamation, President Barack Obama said, “Childhood is a time for our young people to grow and learn, protected by their families and safe in their homes. But for almost half a million children who are unable to remain at home through no fault of their own, childhood can be a time of sadness, pain, and separation. These children need and deserve safe, loving, and permanent families who can help restore their sense of well-being and give them hope for the future.”

The president went on to proclaim May 2012 as National Foster Care Month, stating, “I encourage all Americans to observe this month by dedicating their time, love, and resources to helping youth in foster care, whether by taking time to mentor, lending a hand to a foster family, or taking an active role in their communities.”

Nicole Price, a Cleveland resident, knows all too well about childhood angst due to family pain, sadness and separation. Growing up in McMinnville in a dysfunctional family due to an alcoholic father, Price lived a teenage nightmare that took her into foster care and on the run for a better life. In a candid interview, Price shed light on the plight of children in broken homes and the need for more attention in foster care.

“My father was a very selfish man and throughout my life it was all about him,” Price said. “I was about to turn 15 at the time. I remember I was so angry at my father. He would get drunk and just give up on being a father. I guess he thought since he was there he was being enough of a father. But he was never a dad to me or my brother in the whole time I was growing up. We didn’t have that pleasure of running away from the hurt and running from this man.”

Price said she remembers one night in particular when her inebriated father embarrassed her while she was visiting a friend. Before that evening was over, she was introduced to a life in foster care.

“I was visiting a friend across the street, then suddenly I heard my father yelling for me,” Price recalls. “I rolled my eyes, thinking what in the world could it be. He yelled for me to come home and fix him a plate of food. He was being so mean. My mother was at work and that was her way of getting out. I was so mad. I felt humiliated. So I went into the kitchen and fixed him some spaghetti. I felt angry that a grown man couldn’t prepare his own food because he was too drunk. Then he started hitting the walls!”

The police were called and Price says when the officers showed up, “My father said he would blow their brains out if they touched him! He claimed he had a gun! That was the start of my life in the system.”

Police arrested her father that night and child protective services entered the picture to safeguard the children and monitor the situation, according to Price.

“They asked me what I wanted to do at the time,” she said. “I told them I didn’t want to see him again. I had never felt so sure about anything in my life. My mom, however, was easily swayed to whatever my father wanted her to do. He was in jail numerous times before but this time was because of me! I felt as though I had done something wrong and right at the same time. I wanted to teach him a lesson. I wanted to get back at him for all the wrongs he had done to me, my brother and my mom! But then again, I felt bad because he was my father. Everything just felt so crazy.” Soon afterwards, her father was allowed to visit with her in the presence of a case worker. Price said she believed everything would go back to normal once her father realized he needed help and was damaging his own family. But she was wrong.

“In my father’s case he didn’t care — much less want to change to please anyone,” Price said. “I later found out through visiting the principal’s office in school one day that my father had been telling my mom to file unruly [conduct] papers on me and my mom did just that. I was in my French II class and I was told to come to the principal’s office before my next class and it was important.” Price was met in the office by the school principal and an officer who had some papers for her to sign. She admits she was confused and wondered what could be so important.

“It turned out to be a Petition for Unruly Behavior,” she recalled. “It was signed by my mother and I had to sign it, showing I was made aware of the situation. I wondered what in the world was my mother thinking at the time. When I got home that day from school my mother sat me down and said if I do anything out of line she was going to have me sent off.”

Price confessed she was truly scared and later realized her father had “weaseled his way” back into the house. “He had totally went against the rules to stay so many feet away from the house. Instead, he was back living in the house! My mother was still being mentally and physically abused,” Price added. “And of course we were there hearing it all once again! My father was supposed to go back to court. Instead they decided to run off with us. I told my mom that I wasn’t going with them — that dad should face court, go back to jail and learn his lessons! “Mom felt torn, but went with him instead of staying there with me. She packed up what they would need and left me there. I thought for a minute they will be back but they were not. I panicked. I was alone in the house and didn’t know what to do or where to go!”

The then 15-year-old said she called the mother of a young man she was dating, hoping she would know what to do. The woman came and got her and tried to contact Price’s mom but to no avail. Price was on her own.

“There was a court date so I went to court,” she said. “The judge asked me where my mother was. I told him I didn’t know. He asked, ‘Who is taking care of you?’ I thought I would be OK staying with my friends but the judge told me I would have to be put in a home. I was so scared — so panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I cried. I felt like I was being punished for something that I didn’t do! That was the day that I first got put into the system.”

It was 1999, and Price said she could not stop wondering, “Why did I get locked up as though I was a prisoner when my parents got to run away from their issues and problems? Why did I have to stay where I didn’t know anyone? For all I knew I could end up back where my life had started all along.” Being placed in a new location while in foster care, and attending a new school, Price said she had no idea what people would think of her. She explained, “I was so insecure from how I was raised. I felt so alone. I wanted to just leave and never come back. The lady in my first foster home was mean and didn’t allow me to do much socially. I felt secluded. I really didn’t understand why I had to stay there. It felt like I was being punished. So, one day I decided to run away.”

Price said she went to her after-school job at Arby’s like any other day and never came back. She stayed on the run for two years. She admits, “I felt so confused — so lost. I felt as though my life would never amount to anything — that I will always be known as ‘the girl who ran away’ and nothing more. I was totally off the grid for two years of my life. No one knew where I was or how to contact me.”

She left Tennessee to live in Alabama, making friends and getting odd jobs wherever she could. On the night of Aug. 17, 2002, however, the 17-year-old runaway said she was riding to a friend’s house in Cleveland with her boyfriend, Matthew, when they took a detour that would ultimately change everything.

“Matthew took a different direction to avoid a road block that was in the way of our normal route,” Price said. “We noticed there was a cop behind us and I started to panic. I thought, ‘Oh my God! What do I do if they pull us over?’ I was smoking a cigarette and I was underage — so what do I do? I threw it out the window while we were getting pulled over! It was the dumbest thing I could have done. The cop approached my window with the cigarette and said, ‘Ma’am, is this yours?’ I told him, ‘Yes it is.’ At this point every bone in my body was shaking! I felt sick. “He said, ‘Why did you throw half a cigarette out of your window?’ I said I didn’t want it. He went to the other side of the car and asked Matthew for ID and registration. He wanted ID from both of us. Since I was on the run I didn’t have any. He then asked me my name and date of birth.”

In an unconvincing tone, Price told the discerning officer her name was Misty from Alabama and she was visiting family in Cleveland. “He looked at me and asked, ‘When is your birthday?’ I told him some date to make me seem older. He then looked at me and said, ‘Ma’am, I am not stupid. You need to tell me your real name and birth date right now!’ I was sobbing at that point. I told him that my name was Nicole Stanley and I was born on April 8, 1985.”

When the officer looked up her information on his laptop in his patrol car, Price said, “He came back and told me that I needed to step out of the car. He looked me in my eyes and asked me why did I decide to come back here now? I said I don’t know and kept crying!”

Price said she was taken to the Cleveland Police Station, terrified and nervous, as she awaited the arrival of a case worker. “There was an older officer at the station that night and he said something to me that I will never forget,” she recalled. “He said, ‘It will get better ... I promise.” I thought to myself how could it get better? I was going back to a prison.” The following morning a case worker arrived with a van to carry Price to a foster home in Jamestown. Her experience with foster parents Shane and Bobbie Jean Wilson was a much better experience, according to Price. Through it all, Matthew stuck by his displaced girlfriend and married her. They are still together after 10 years and have a son.

“One day we went on a picnic and, on May 20, 2002, I told him everything,” Price said. “That started our journey till now. Matthew has always been there for me. When I was in foster care he would come and see me every weekend. He was there when I needed him in those tough times. I am very grateful to have him in my life. He is my support, my husband, my lover and my very best friend.”

Price has made peace with her past and enjoys a new relationship with her mother. Her late father, Charles Stanley, is no longer viewed as a bitter, haunting memory of an abusive, manipulative alcoholic. He sincerely apologized to her before his death in 2011, allowing his daughter closure. In place of pain, there is now forgiveness, she said.

According to www.fostercaremonth.org, “48 percent of all children in foster care were age 10 or older and 51 percent had reunification with their birth families as their case goal.”

With the help of dedicated people, many formerly abused or neglected children and teens will either reunite safely with their parents, be cared for by relatives or be adopted by loving families. Experts say many children would not have to enter foster care at all if more states provided support and services to help families cope with crises early on. Still, the total number of children in foster care has decreased over recent years, thanks to more advocates, child welfare professionals, elected officials and support groups around the country.

When asked what she would like the public to know about foster kids and their difficult experiences, Price said, “The foster care system is set up for those kids who have been put into situations that should never have been. Some of those kids who were in that system go everyday blaming themselves for the life they live now. That isn’t the truth. I want these youths to know that there are foster homes out there where people give love and show a whole new life to children who were once in the dark. Not every home is equal. My experience hasn’t been the best, but when I was placed back into the system the second time, it was like a fresh new start to life. I was scared, yes, but I stood my ground and came out a better person for it.”

Although Price feels the foster care system can still be improved, particularly in areas of bonding with frightened children during a sudden change of circumstances and medicating them during the transition, she also admits to having “a new-found respect for the family bond” and greater appreciation for facing problems head on.

“You can’t choose to run away from your problems all of your life, because in the end they will be there in your face,” she advised. “Still, I think a more pleasant environment for kids to ease into a home — instead of pushing them through it like a lineup — is the better way to go for the system.”

Price, 27, who graduated cum laude with an associate in science degree from Everest University, said she would love to be an advocate or a counselor for foster children. Every year, approximately 30,000 young people leave the foster care system without lifelong families — most at age 18. According to the latest reports, there are about 408,000 children and youth currently in foster care in the United States.

President Obama stated in his May 2012 proclamation, “National Foster Care Month is a time to reflect on the many ways government, social workers, foster families, religious institutions and others are helping improve the lives of children in foster care, and it also serves as a reminder that we cannot rest until every child has a safe, loving, and permanent home.”

For further information, visit www.fostercaremonth.org.