Biloxi woman shares painful story of surviving foster care

Biloxi woman shares painful story of surviving foster care
A photo of Chapman's family the last time they were together. (Photo source: WLOX News)
A photo of Chapman's family the last time they were together. (Photo source: WLOX News)

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The pictures on the walls of Donna Chapman's Biloxi home bring her joy, but one picture always triggers a flood of tears - a black and white photo of her smiling mother surrounded by five children.

It was the last time her family was together.

"This was court day. It was such a shame to separate these boys from these girls," said Chapman.

Chapman, her two brothers and two sisters grew up in Watertown, S.D.

"My dad and mom were divorced, so we lived with my mother. My mother had an alcohol problem," Chapman said.

A problem that threatened to tear apart her family.

"She'd go out and not come home for weeks, because when she started drinking, she forgot everything else. She forgot us," said Chapman.

Chapman's older sister, only 9 years old at the time, took care of the siblings; including their 9-month-old baby brother. Her sister began missing too many days of school, which alerted truancy officers. The siblings were sent to live with different relatives while their mom sought help.

"She got us back because she came out of rehab determined to do better," said Chapman. "It didn't last very long."

The boys were sent to one foster home, the girls another. Chapman says they reunited with their mother nine months later, but she hit the bottle yet again.

One day, the children were told to get dressed for a court hearing.

"I remember my mom coming out and saying she was going away for awhile, and I knew it was going to be a long while," said Chapman as tears filled her eyes. "I just didn't want to be separated anymore. Someone came out of the court and put us in a car with somebody I didn't even know, and with the clothes we had on. We went to foster care again."

Again, the boys and girls were sent to different homes. Chapman says her brothers were physically abused, so an aunt adopted them. Meanwhile, Chapman says the girls suffered emotional abuse by their foster parents.

"She was just angry all the time. She would ground us for simple things, like if the dust pan was too far back beside the stove. The man in the foster home was trying to French kiss my sister, making advances. It makes you feel hopeless; helpless," said Chapman.

Things took a turn for the worst when the kids found out their dad - then their mom - died.

"Now we have no parents, no hope of getting out of the situation we were in," said Chapman.

After eight years in and out of foster homes, the girls worked up enough courage to walk to a courthouse and talk to a social worker; knowing they might have to move away from their friends. They were placed in what would be their final foster home.

"I'm so grateful that was the last foster home I was in so I could forget all about this, because they have been so kind and so loving," said Chapman.

Sometimes, past experiences still haunt Chapman.

"I was very angry at the foster people we lived with and I decided I'm not going to let them have that power over me, so I just forgave them," said Chapman.

Now married with three children of her own, Chapman says she vowed never to let her children feel abandoned.

"We just got so immersed in their lives, and we didn't leave them alone like we had been left alone," Chapman said.

Although she's dealt with a difficult childhood, Chapman values what she has as an adult. The grandmother of six makes sure she sets aside time to spend with her grandchildren, and enjoys the family and home she's always dreamed of having.

"Those little girls are so healing to me. We play together, not having played very much while I was growing up," Chapman said. "Our kids have holidays together here and birthday parties are always here and I just love it. So there's a lot to look forward to."

Due to a foster care crisis in Mississippi, the system is in jeopardy of a federal takeover. The governor wants to spend millions to fix it, and families are fighting to regain custody of their children.

Chapman says her experience influenced her decision to become a nurse and work with students who are struggling. She hopes her story will encourage social workers to listen to children to gauge how they are doing in foster homes.

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