Mona's Story
and the Friendship of
Nellie & Tony O'Brien

This story concerns the unique support and encouragement provided to Mona White and her children by Nellie and Tony O'Brien. The O'Briens were willing to take a personal risk, opening their hearts as well as their home to help Mona and her children through a difficult time in their lives. Mona had some enormous problems to face and overcome. The O'Briens were there to give her the emotional confidence needed to work things out for herself. With their help, Mona was able to attempt a better way of life and to achieve some success. The two families came together and, with open hearts and a lot of hard work, built a friendship that eventually resulted in the children's return to a more stable home. The Agency was so impressed by the efforts and achievements of Mona White and the O'Briens that they were invited to tell their story to a training class of new foster parents. I asked to interview them.

The early darkness of a late December afternoon glowed in the twinkle of familiar Christmas lights which spread their reassurance and warmth over the city. Nellie O'Brien ushered me into her home and introduced me to Mona White. A small, active ferret playfully made my acquaintance and scurried away. I seated myself in the O'Brien kitchen. Mona and Nellie appeared to be in their late twenties. Both had medium brown hair and slender builds. They joked a little between themselves as we settled down to the interview.

"Let Mona tell her story," Nellie began, "I'll chime in along the way." Mona's background is typical of many other parents whose children have been in foster care. "I am one of six children," Mona said, "I come from a dysfunctional home. Dad was an alcoholic and Mom was a nurse who worked nights from eleven to seven in the morning. She buried herself in her work and we didn't see much of her. I had to write her notes if something was wrong. We were afraid to bother her. Dad was in charge. He had spent twenty years in the service as a drill sergeant and he was very strict. He punished us with a belt and I remember being made to stand in a corner and having to balance books on the back of my outstretched hands sometimes." Mona's father was abusive to her mother. The children in this family were brought up to "look good" to the community so that no one would sense the family's problems. They were taught family loyalty "no matter what" and to protect family members. Mona remembers acting as a shield to protect her mother from her father's blows. "I thought this was just normal family behavior," Mona remembers, "My friends' families had similar incidents."

Mona's parents marriage was in trouble. Dad entered therapy at mother's insistence. Valium was prescribed. Mona was thirteen by this time and the effects of family dysfunction were beginning to show up. She began to use drugs, first stealing her father's medication, then graduating to cocaine use. She rebelled against her father's "old fashioned southern" values and dated a black teenager. "Dad found out about it and threw me against the wall, right through the sheet rock," Mona recalled.

To complicate things, doctors told Mona's parents that her sister, Elaine, had a terminal illness and would probably not survive childhood. What spare time her parents had was devoted to Elaine. The other children were not told about Elaine's condition. Mona thought that Elaine was "spoiled" and she resented her. Elaine did survive and Mona was an adult before she learned about the "fatal illness."

When Mona was sixteen years old a major change occurred in her life. She began to date Jack. The relationship deepened and Jack wondered why Mona seemed so "skittish" in response to his advances. She told him a secret she had never told anyone else. She had been sexually molested, since she was nine years old, by her brother-in-law, Roy. Mona wanted it to stop. Roy claimed that his wife, Vicki, had watched them, to discourage Mona from telling her. Discussing it with her parents was out of the question, her mother was unavailable and her father would just blame her. Jack was very angry, but not at Mona. "You have to tell your mother," he said, holding her. "I can't," Mona sobbed. Roughly, Jack took her by the shoulders, forcing her to look at him, "If you don't, I will!" he said. Mona did tell her mother, but nothing was ever done about it. Mona was sent to therapy. The victim took the blame. Mona felt that her opinions didn't count. No one listened. Children were expected to be "seen but not heard" in her family. She was expected to obey at all times, no disobedience was tolerated. The therapist did help Mona to, at least, understand that she was not at fault. She hinted that the family problems were not all Mona's fault, but that was as far as it went. Feeling hopeless, Mona ran away from home. She was gone for about two or three days. Her mother called the juvenile authorities and she was placed in a foster home. She ran away again and was returned to her parents by the authorities.

Mona began to date Mike. She was sixteen, he was twenty and in the process of divorce. They had an off and on relationship for about three years. Mona went along with the crowd. She partied a lot and used alcohol and drugs to lessen her emotional pain. "Mike was `together' then, he made me stop using drugs and alcohol, at least, for a while," Mona said.

At nineteen, Mona married Mike and stayed with him for eleven years. After she became pregnant with Joey, Mike became abusive. He began to drink and use "pot." He became so badly addicted that he would have "flash-backs." In an angry rage, he would call out his ex-wife, Terry's, name and smack and choke Mona, thinking that she was Terry.

Mike came from a dysfunctional home. He, too, had seen his father beat his mother. He was in and out of foster care for much of his childhood. Finally, he had been placed in a "reform school" where he was abused.

By the time Joey was two years old things were going very badly. Both Mona and Mike were using drugs. Joey was showing the symptoms of hyperactivity. He had explosive fits of anger, much like Mike did. Mona had used drugs during her pregnancy. Joey was very hard to handle and neither Mona nor Mike were able to deal with him. The Agency stepped in and he was placed with relatives.

An automobile accident and the shock of Joey's placement woke Mona up. She dried out, became sober, and maintained sobriety for about three years. Mike had been arrested, jailed, dried out and finally placed in a half way house and then released. He returned home and Mona became pregnant with Patsy. As a result of a law suit, due to the accident, Mona received a sizable sum of money in settlement. Mike found the money and left with it. Mona was frantic. She called the police, posted flyers and walked the streets looking for Mike. When the police finally found him, the money was gone. He had spent it on drugs. Mona was in shock. She had been on an emotional roller coaster for some time now and she just couldn't handle any more. She resorted to drugs again. Mike was more abusive than ever, beating both Mona and Joey. Desperate for money to buy cocaine, he allowed both children to be sexually abused by his friends for money. "I was somewhere else `getting high.' I didn't protect them," Mona remembers. She feels very guilty. Because of Mike's abusiveness, the Agency intervened again, placing both children.

The children were returned to Mona after a lengthy stay in foster care and shortly thereafter, she and Mike reunited. One day, upon returning from a month's vacation at a relative's cottage, they found that their apartment had been ransacked. The police were called. Checking the apartment, they found used needles in the trash, felt that the children weren't clean enough, and the agency was called again. The children were placed in foster care where they remained for two years.

"I `lost it,'" Mona remembered, "I sold my car to buy cocaine." The social worker had little tolerance for Mona. He seemed "unable" to schedule visits for Mona with her children. "I felt there was no hope for me," Mona said. "Mike got worse. He beat me, chased me with a butcher knife and stabbed me with his needles. I hadn't `wised up.' I was still using drugs and I was addicted. I had to get money somehow, so I stole a lawn chair right off someone's porch. I didn't even know the people! I planned to sell it and use the money to buy drugs. I was desperate." Mona was caught soon after the incident and spent some time in jail.

Joey, now eight years old, was in four different foster homes and, eventually, was placed in a residential group home. His behavior had gotten worse, necessitating his many moves. Patsy, age four, fared even worse. She was placed in six different foster homes through no fault of her own. The local office had a shortage of foster homes and the only existing vacancies were in the temporary, short term foster homes. She was moved from one to another until she was placed in a long term foster home. This last home was really interested in adoption so Patsy was moved into another temporary foster home with a relative of Nellie O'Brien. Nellie heard of Patsy's situation and her need to move into a longer term foster home. She spoke with Tony about the possibility of their becoming foster parents and he agreed.

Soon after the O'Briens had accepted Patsy White as their first foster child, they met Mona. They talked a long while and realized that they had a lot in common with her. "My childhood wasn't problem-free," Nellie related. "My Dad was an alcoholic and I am also a sexual abuse victim. I was eighteen when I married for the first time. I had a son, Kevin, and was divorced in three years. I had a few relationships after that and realized that I was following a sort of pattern. I was choosing men who were very much like my Dad. I decided to make some changes."

Nellie met Tony and they immediately became "best friends." He had spent ten years in the military. She describes him as "strict, but not abusive." His upbringing stressed such values as; "We don't hit our wives," "We don't use drugs or get drunk," and "Our family comes first." Nellie and Tony are very happy. They have three children of their own; Bonnie, is nine, Maggie is five, and Matt is three. Nellie's older son, Kevin is thirteen and lives with his father.

"When Tony and I became foster parents, we were very cautious at first. We really didn't know what to expect, but, when we got to know Mona and her children and began to understand her situation, we relaxed and it just `worked,'" Nellie said. "I began to get back on my feet," Mona added, "The only thing that kept me going was being able to see my children. I went into a drug rehabilitation center and began to improve. Now, I've been off all drugs, including alcohol, for a year. I've really tried hard. I had messed up my life really badly and it has not been easy, trying to overcome it all."

When the agency decided to reunify the White family things began to move quickly, perhaps too quickly. The children were returned to Mona after a few overnight and weekend visits. "Mona really wanted to take on the mother role," Nellie commented, "Joey didn't trust her. He was constantly `on guard.'" "He expected `druggie mommy,'" Mona continued, "He had never really known anything else and he didn't have enough time to get to know me and what I'm like without drugs." Mona was soon overwhelmed. She called Nellie in tears, "What should I do?" she wailed.

Mona was scheduled for all kinds of appointments. There were the therapist appointments which were necessary for each of them to attend separately several times a week. There were Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings as well as battered women's support group meetings Mona attended. All in all, there were more than fifteen appointments to be kept each week plus the trips to the laundromat and grocery store and the various school events and activities to attend. Somehow, housework had to be squeezed in as well. "Nellie and Tony were such a big help," Mona said, "I don't know what I would have done without them. They are really friends! Tony and I found out that we grew up in the same city and we attended the same school. We all have a lot in common. I had heard horrible things about foster homes. Now I know what it's really like."

Mona is separated from Mike. She has reconnected with some "good" friends. Through her friends, she met Luke and they are dating. He has offered Mona a lot of emotional support and the O'Briens like him. "He helped me get off drugs and his encouragement, along with the love and support I get from Nellie and Tony, gives me the courage to stay off drugs and alcohol," Mona added.

As we talk, children trickle into the house, little ones first, followed by older children. "Hi Mom! I got a good paper. Look at my star!" one of the younger ones says. The Siamese colored ferret hops out from his hiding place to greet the new arrivals. He is friendly and playful. The children respond to him lovingly.
The story might have ended here were it not for the fire which occurred last month. Caused by arson and set in the alley beside Mona's old wood frame apartment building, by a mentally retarded young adult, the fire spread rapidly to Mona's apartment at four o'clock in the morning when the family was sound asleep. "I heard the fire alarm go off, but it had a short circuit and often rang for no reason. We were all in bed. I heard a crackling noise and thought it was raining. Then I heard a `smash.' I rushed into Patsy's room. The flames had just reached her window and it broke. I got her out. I heard another `smash' and ran to Joey's room. His room was already a mass of flames and they were about a quarter of an inch from his bed. I was able to get him out, thank God! Luckily, no one was killed, although the entire building was burned. Joey is a hero. He found an old lady who lived in our building and comforted her. She was just wandering around. She had always said that she hated kids. She used to say, `the devil is in all of them.' Joey made her feel better. Later, she said, `what a nice young boy you have there.' We lost everything. We were dressed in our pajamas," Mona said.

The Red Cross put all the tenants up in a local hotel for the rest of the night. The next morning, Mona called the O'Briens and told them what had happened. Nellie rose to the occasion, rounding up clothing and shoes for them all. She and Tony, without a second thought, moved the White family into their home. "You stay with us until you find a place. We'll help you look," Nellie said. Nellie coordinated efforts to locate an apartment and all the other necessities of life the family would need. She and Mona worked together and they were successful. A week ago, Mona moved into a clean, new apartment in Nellie's safe neighborhood. She qualifies for subsidized housing now.

"Because of the fire, I'm ahead of the game materially," Mona explained, "People have been so generous! The foster parent association bought us twin beds. I received a double bed and a bureau as a gift from the social worker." The social worker believes that Mona is sincere, this time, in her desire to succeed, and he is willing to help. "In therapy session, I finally let myself cry. I cried for a long time. Nellie and Tony helped a lot," Mona recalled. "By letting Mona and the kids stay here, we were able to give her some emotional support, someone to lean on. I could help her coordinate what she had to do to get back on her feet," Nellie said, hugging her teen foster daughter who had just arrived. "Mona just needed some encouragement, to be with her kids, and to know what she was doing right. Joey knows his mom will protect him now. She saved his life!"

Mona realizes that she is at a crossroad. She says that she would like to go to college and become a social worker so that she might better understand the welfare system and be in a position to improve it. She has already taken the GED test to complete her high school education and passed with high marks.

As I left, I congratulated these two women for the progress they have made together and how much they have enriched each others' lives. They hugged and Mona and her children and I left together. She for her new home, a block away, and I for the New Hampshire Foster Parent Association's Christmas festivities.

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