Shared journeys: An adopted son and his mother's support
Richards, Heather Richards, May 28, 2016.
The opening bars of “Pomp and Circumstance” stuttered out of the church sound system Tuesday evening, and Jarret Imes-Kawa rose to his feet. He shifted his 3-year-old sister, Kristine, more comfortably on his broad shoulders and turned to watch their brother, Isaiah, walk the aisle of Paradise Valley Christian Church, wearing the bright red cap and gown of a kindergarten graduate.
On Sunday, Jarrett will make that same walk at Roosevelt High School. It will be the last leg of a long and difficult childhood journey for the blue-eyed, blonde 18-year-old. He was taken from his mother when he was about Isaiah’s age and tossed from foster homes to institutes to group homes until Dec. 21, 2015, when he was adopted by Cleta and Mark Kawa.
Graduation is symbolic. It’s as much a celebration of childhood’s innocence as a moment of promise for the future. But many children in the foster care system reach this point after a childhood that spun in and out of control. For a long time, that was Jarrett’s life. But now he’s moving on. He knows walking over that stage means the past is over and the future is waiting. He also knows he needs help to embrace it.
Jarrett’s adopted mother understands his past and what he has to do to overcome it. She’s been there. She had to overcome it, too.
Life is good for Jarrett. In many ways, it’s the best it’s ever been. He is in the top 10 of his graduating class. He has a new family and scholarships that will pay for college.
But at Isaiah’s graduation, Jarrett is on leave. He’s been committed to the Wyoming Behavioral Institute for threatening suicide.
“When things start going well, he doesn’t know what to do with the good feelings,” Cleta said. “Chaos is comfortable for him, because that is what he’s lived in his entire life.”
It’s true, Jarrett said.
Some of his earliest memories are fear. He was 7 when the state first got involved. The principal at Willard Elementary called him into her office. A stranger was there to take him. His mom was struggling with addiction.
He sobbed. He asked not to go. He and his siblings landed in foster care.
Though he and his brother and sisters eventually went back to his mother, she would disappear for weeks on end and continue using drugs. They were living with her parents in a rental in Casper when Jarrett was 11. They’d trashed the place, he remembered. He would go to school smelling like cat urine and wearing dirty clothes. But it was also during this time that Jarrett started trying to take control.
“I would say at that age I had to grow up a lot. I had to start helping out with my siblings. I fell into that caretaker responsibility for a bit,” he said. “After that I didn’t view myself as a kid. I started viewing myself as more of a 20-year-old in an 11-year-old body.”
One night, while his grandparents were sleeping, the boy and his mother argued. She threw him into the television. Jarrett’s grandpa stormed out of the bedroom to stop the violence.
The 11-year-old walked to the front door, stepped out into the night and resolved to change the course of his life. He walked to the gas station down the road, where there was a pay phone. He rifled through a phone book until he found what he was looking for — the number to the Department of Family Services.
Most kids don’t know that there is an institution that takes children from their homes when their homes are dangerous. But Jarrett knew. Most kids don’t know what meth, heroin or cocaine are, but those were his mom’s drugs of choice, he said.
An on-call case worker showed up at the gas station and drove the boy back to the apartment. Police were already there, taking pictures of the mess the children lived in, to the shame of his grandparents and mother.
The kids re-entered the system.
Unfortunately, things didn’t get better for Jarrett.
He ended up with his father and his father’s girlfriend. After an altercation, the details of which Jarrett no longer remembers, he was punished. He spent every day of that summer sitting in a chair in the basement, no human interaction, no toys, just an 11-year old boy and his thoughts.
He went numb, he said. The days when he was allowed out to visit his mother and grandparents were like holidays.
The years that followed took the same disjointed pattern. He spent months in foster care homes, many positive. He had stints in the Youth Crisis Center, a season with an aunt and uncle in Maryland. He attempted suicide more than once. There was a brief happy time with his father’s ex-girlfriend. She tried to adopt him, but Jarrett’s father intervened. He was put in the Wyoming Behavioral Institute six times in the last decade. But it was there, two years ago, that he met Cleta.
She was working there. They bonded. She knew right away that he was meant to be her son, she said.
It was six days before graduation. Cleta was visiting Jarrett at the Wyoming Behavioral Institute. She’d brought his cap and gown for him to try on.
They sat in the boys’ lounge area. Someone brought Jarrett a dinner tray — two pieces of sliced bread, pinto beans and a salad — but he slipped it into the garbage. A worker brought him his medication. He stuck out his tongue to show that he’d swallowed it.
It’s the first day in a week that Jarrett hasn’t cried, he said. He misses his family, his siblings and his relationship with a girl at Roosevelt.
It was the breakup that landed him back in the institute. He punched a wall, broke his phone, had a panic attack and threatened to hurt himself.
Cleta and Mark took his threats seriously. They are both Iraq veterans, and a number of people they were deployed with have committed suicide.
And when Cleta was young, she entered the foster care system for self-harm.
Cleta grew up with her grandparents. Her mother and father were unable to care for her and her brother.
“Growing up, that was one of the hardest things for me,” she said. “(My mother) was in and out of my life. I always wondered with both my biological mother and father — why was I never good enough for you?”
When she was 15, her brother died. They were close, and she didn’t know how to cope with the grief. She started cutting herself, became bulimic. Her grandparents put her in foster care.
It took years for Cleta to understand that when her grandparents gave up their golden years to raise children, it was an act of love.
She felt the stigma of being a foster kid, and she was rebellious, she said.
“I thought I knew it all, and I didn’t,” she remembered.
When she left the system, her independent living counselor encouraged her to go to a summit with former foster kids. The oldest woman there was in her 70s. It dawned on Cleta: Her past wasn’t a weakness.
She went into the military, married and had kids. She made a life for herself, and then she met Jarrett.
On the other side of the locked doors of the behavioral institute recently, the sun was shining brightly on the mowed grass. Jarret sat with his back to the window.
“We weren’t at all surprised that he has some issues,” Cleta said. “You can’t go through that life without having some kind of effect. As much as we love and care for him, we can’t love those issues away.”
Jarrett is finishing his classes remotely. His family visits often and calls every day. He will be let out on leave Sunday to attend his graduation.
“I’ve got all the confidence in the world that he is going to be successful,” Cleta said. “He’s not that hurt, abandoned child anymore. He’s almost an adult, who now has a family, who has people who are here and care about him. He’s just got to stop looking at yesterday and really focusing on tomorrow.”
Jarrett is starting to come around and makes sense of why he’s at the institute, he said. Graduation is his focus, finishing school.
Like his little brother, Isaiah, did Tuesday, he wants to proudly walk down the aisle and begin the next chapter of his life. But he’s still learning to conquer his fear of abandonment. He’s learning to embrace the family that promises to stand by him.
He told his adopted mother he feels bad for destroying what they worked together to build.
She interrupted him.
“It’s not destroyed,” she said.
“No,” he conceded. “Not destroyed.”