@story MARLA CANTRELL
Shaden Jedlicka remembers walking home from school on a freezing afternoon when he was nine. There was snow on the playground swings, the wind lifting the heavy chains and clanging them against the metal poles. As he breathed, little blasts of fog escaped, ice snapped beneath his shoes, and he shoved his hands deep in his pockets to fight off the cold. His house was not far away, and as it rose from behind a scruff of bone-bare trees he could see his yard filled with unfamiliar cars, and a swarm of people he didn’t recognize.
The Department of Human Services had come to call.
Thirteen kids and five adults were living in the house. There was no electricity. No running water. In the group were Shaden’s two brothers and two sisters. Eight of his cousins were also there. “My cousins were crying. They were at our house because their house had caught fire on Christmas Eve. They’d been in foster care before and DHS was there to check on them.
“I heard my mom in the very back of the house and she was saying, ‘They’re not taking my kids.’ This guy came up to me. He was my caseworker, but he really didn’t let me know what was going on. We still hadn’t been told we were leaving but we were crying because everybody was crying.
“All the children were taken in. We went to the DHS office and sat for a very long time. Eventually they came and took us away, two by two, not telling us what was going on.”
There had been abuse, Shaden said. And neglect. When he tells the story he jets across the details, rushing to the next part. “They found a spot at Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter. They took in all fifteen of us. It was amazing. We got to stay together. We went to school together. I needed glasses and they got me glasses. ..We had an art teacher. They cared if I ate or not.”
But it didn’t last. “My cousins had to leave first because they had to find homes. First they took the girls, and then my two boy cousins. I remember telling them goodbye. And praying. After that, one of the guys said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but there’s a chance you might never see each other again.’”
Shaden stopped in the midst of the story, pulling at the sleeves of his gray sweatshirt until only his fingertips showed. “What third grader has to deal with that? What third grader knows how to feel?”
It was his first experience with DHS. In sixty days his mother got him back. “I didn’t want to go,” Shaden said.
Once home, things returned to the way they’d been before. “When I was at the shelter I didn’t have to get my brothers and sisters up and give them baths. My older sister didn’t have to wake us up at six o’clock. We didn’t have to figure out how to get to school.”
DHS reappeared just as Shaden was entering the fifth grade. “It was the beginning of the school year and we’d missed the first five days.” He and his brothers were sent to a boys shelter in another part of the state. His sisters went to another home. “It was a weird time,” he said. “My brothers and I stayed to ourselves.” We were the only three there under the age of thirteen. “We got bullied. I got beat up. I talked to my sisters maybe once a month.”
Again, his mother returned. DHS closed its case. “My sister was fourteen but she lied and said she was sixteen to get a job as a waitress. She brought home money and that’s how we’d eat.
“I had six o’clock engrained in my sleep schedule. I got ready first. Then I woke up my younger brothers and sisters. They walked to school at around seven." He and one of his sisters were in junior high. School started at eight. "We walked a long way and we always tried to get there before breakfast was over. It took us forty-five minutes. We walked in the rain. Sometimes we got drenched. The school would call home to try to get someone to bring us dry clothes. They never could get anybody to answer.”
It was while he was in junior high that something snapped in Shaden. He didn’t really have friends but he loved his teachers, and he had a church he turned to when things were really tough. He was thirteen when his youth pastor took him aside. “They were concerned because we were coming to church with marks on us.”
The talk was on a Sunday. On Monday Shaden did something that continues to trouble him even now. “I went to school and I talked to the counselor. ..The DHS worker came to school to talk to me and then went to the house. He came back and called me and my sister to the office and said he was taking us back into foster care.
“All the kids were separated at that point. The two younger brothers went to one foster home, two sisters to another, and the older sister to a different one.”
The story that follows dips in and out of foster care, and pushes across the state line where he lived for a time with a relative. What he lost - what he can’t quite put to rest - is not what happened to him, but what became of his brothers and sisters.
“I feel like foster care has really taken away my connection to my brothers and sisters. I’ll never get it back. ..I spent so much time trying to live without them. ..I tried not to need anyone like I’d needed them. The state failed. Not only did I feel like a parent to them, but we’d been through everything together. They knew everything about me. When I see them today it’s sad. We couldn’t pick up where we’d left off.
“The worst was telling them I was the reason they went back into care. That I caused it. ..It’s taken a lot of work. I really hated myself for a while. ..For me going into foster care meant a new home, a new school, a new start, but I didn’t factor in the thought of losing them too.
“I went through a depression. You go back and you’ve missed holidays, you’ve missed birthdays, you’ve missed big moments. ..But it’s not just brothers and sisters. It’s your friends, your neighborhood, your church. You lose any sense of remembrance, any sense of the past. Driving by the mall you think, Oh, that’s the mall. But driving by the mall with your brothers and sisters is completely different. When you’re seventeen, and you haven’t seen your brothers and sisters for five years, and all you have is that memory of driving by the mall that last time, then it becomes something more than what it is.”
In 2007, Shaden was in the tenth grade. He was living in another shelter and attending Southside High School. That’s where he met Penny Jedlicka. She was the secretary for the school counselor. “I was enamored with her. At that point no one had ever asked me about college, and she did.
“She heard I was going to be moved to Little Rock because in the shelter setting they only have forty-five days for them to find you a home or you move to another county. One day she called me in from class and asked how I’d feel if she was my mom.”
This amazing woman changed Shaden’s life. “I was sixteen and suddenly I was an only child. We did have disagreements. ..Biological parents can’t say, ‘You’re being too bad, you can’t live here.’ Unfortunately, some of the attitudes you develop in foster care become concrete.”
But the love of his family soon won out. Things at school were also getting better. He’d always bonded with his teachers, seeing in them the attributes missing from most of the adults in his life. When he walked across the stage to get his diploma he remembers the significance of it. “My biological mother didn’t graduate from his school. My biological dad didn’t. They all stopped at ninth grade. Only my older sister and I,” Shaden said, proud to include her.
Today, Shaden works to improve the lives of kids in foster care. He’s a 2010 FosterClub All-Star and the president of the Arkansas Youth Advisory board. He also volunteers with ‘The CALL,’ a local program that works with DHS to recruit and train foster parents through local churches.
Now in his second year at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, he has a goal in mind. He wants to someday work as a school counselor.
Shaden wouldn’t change one day of his past. “There’s no reason to regret where you’ve come from,” he said. And he credits his “forever mom,” Penny Jedlicka, with making a quick decision that had long-lasting effects. “If my mom hadn’t stepped in and kept me from going to Little Rock, there’s no way I’d be where I am today. I think I would have lost my future.”