BY NATALIE ST. MARTIN
Candace says her life has been like an earthquake. Picture everything shaking until great cracks appear and then widen into impassable chasms. Broken apart. This year is different, however. She says that right now things are starting to be put back together.
Separated from her alcoholic mother at age nine, Candace does not know who her dad is. She was put in foster care when her mother was put in prison. By that early age she had already learned to fight; her five brothers taught her how to protect herself and see the world in terms of respect and disrespect. Fighting was her MO in her teens: “I was a firing ball of flame, I didn’t care about nobody.” She had a good foster mom for three years, but still she ran away at age thirteen. “I thought I was grown,” she says, “and nobody could tell me what to do.” Youth homes, treatment centers, jail – she went from one to the other until she reached eighteen. She ended up aging out of foster care while in jail. A week before her eighteenth birthday, she was told she would be allowed to contact her mother. Candace started putting the pieces together and realized she was aging out. She didn’t have anyone to come get her from the remote town where the jail was located, so she asked for help from the staff and they agreed to buy her a Greyhound bus ticket to the city.
Candace explains what that time was like: “They didn’t want to deal with me no more. They said ‘oh no, you need to go! We don’t want to help you – you are too much of a burden.’ That’s how it felt. I got off the bus and didn’t know what to do. I’m eighteen years old, don’t have no ID, don’t have no money, don’t have nothing…so where am I suppose to go?”
Walking around an outdoor mall in Denver that day, the first person she encountered was an ex-boyfriend who was now a pimp. While staying with him and seeing the piles of cash girls brought in, she began to consider prostitution as something she might do to earn money. She ended up contacting her mother about it: “Me, knowing my mom was a prostitute at one time, I just asked my mom. Who better to ask than your mom?”
From ages eighteen to twenty-one she was sold up and down the I-5 corridor by at least four different men. One of them would send her back and forth between LA and Vegas where she would walk the track at night and keep house for him by day. Sometimes she would manage to leave a pimp, all of whom were violent, but then a new boyfriend would show up with a new plan, inevitably involving prostitution or drug dealing. She met folks from New Horizons Ministries and REST (Real Escape from the Sex Trade) while their teams did late night outreach on the streets of Seattle in 2010.
In the past two years, things have changed a lot for her. She is doing well in a restorative housing program through REST, and she recently got a part time job at a coffee shop. She also has a significant new tattoo: the prints of newborn baby feet are inked prominently on her chest.
Six months ago Candace gave birth to a baby girl. She talks passionately and emotionally about her love for her daughter, explaining how she has completely rearranged her priorities. Two days after she gave birth, however, her baby was put in foster care, in large part due to the guy Candace was dating at the time. Candace recounts in painful detail what it was like for her when she had to surrender her baby to Child Protective Services: “I went ape shit, crying a gallon – felt like I could have killed someone.” Because of her own traumatic experience of being taken from her mother, Candace says, “I never thought I would have a child and have that child taken from me!” She is working hard to get her daughter back, something her mother was never able to do.
The highlights of Candace’s week are when she goes to the foster care visitation center to spend time with her daughter. Candace has dozens of photos and videos of her on her phone. They look a lot alike: both have beautiful, expressive faces with high foreheads, arched eyebrows, and the same tilt to their eyes.
Candace will turn twenty-three soon. She is a smart, witty, and artistic, though she admits that she has learned to play dumb for survival. Her anger still flares up easily, and she defaults to a tough girl attitude. In her words, “I try to act like a hard ass—still do to this day—it comes with the life I was put in, not by choice.” Yet when talking about her baby, she is very soft. And with people she trusts she has begun to let her walls down, even call off the guard dogs, she says laughing. She feels intensely protective and yet sometimes helpless as a new mother, admitting that she doesn’t always know what to do when her little one cries. Her determination to take responsibility for her daughter, and her compassion for the situation she is in, are very promising for their future—together.