She's the one that looks like Hannah Montana. Sandwiched between the sofa and coffee table, Carly Madison chats, bubbly and enthusiastic. She wants to go to college. She enjoys writing. She likes to read stories about people whose lives she can relate to.
Carly picks from her plate of Mexican food. Laurie requested the cuisine for her graduation dinner.
Earlier on this April day, the residents of the Lithia Springs Girls House gathered with staff, friends and family. After 10 months, Laurie is a bronze-level graduate of the program.
About 20 people are packed into the living room and perched upon couches, beanbags, and a lone piano bench. Laurie sits opposite the couches, beside Janie Stewart, the program manager and den mother of the Girls House.
A small tin is passed around the room. Each person bequeaths Laurie with hopes for her future. It is a chance for the girls to give Laurie a parting wish, to share a final thought, and encourage Laurie continued success.
The tin has almost completed its circuit of the room when it reaches Laurie's father. He has to force words past his tears. He is proud of his daughter.
After everyone has spoken, the residents and guest file into the kitchen and a buffet-style dinner is served. The girls are allowed to eat in the living room, a treat reserved for special occasions. They chat and toss around balloons. Laurie shows off and uses her new lime-green cell phone.
Despite the graduation celebration, three girls are missing. Their beds can be held for them for eight days. There is still time, and hope, that these girls will return. They have run away.
Lithia Springs Girls House
Lithia Springs has housed girls for about 30 years. Under the mantle of Jackson County's nonprofit organization Community Works, it provides treatment and a structured environment for teenagers who have mental health issues, committed crimes or been victims of crimes themselves. The students spend their days at Lithia Springs School, an accredited alternative high school, where they receive individualized classroom work, individual and group therapy sessions, and life-skills lessons. In the evenings, after school, the students go to either foster care, or to the program's houses for boys and girls.
Carly entered the program in June 2008, taking one of 13 beds in the Girls House. She was 15 and had been referred by the Department of Human Services. Carly comes from a single-parent home in Seaside, south of Astoria in Clatsop County.
A life colored by drugs
Drugs have always been a part of Carly's life. Her mother Camela has been an addict since before Carly was born. Strangers flocked in and out of the house. As a girl, men had eyed her. And told her to look them up when she was legal.
Her father uses drugs. In fact, Carly got high with him and her half-sister within 10 minutes of meeting them because she so badly wanted to be accepted. She had grown up being told that her father had not wanted a child.
Most of Carly's extended family — family she does not maintain contact with — uses drugs as well. So, growing up, Carly's best source of comfort and companionship was her beloved dog Jojo. She was given the pitbull-dingo mix for her 10th birthday from one of her mother's friends. Carly toted the puppy around so much that when the dog was older, she did not want to walk anywhere — she wanted to be carried. Jojo gave unconditional love. She was always so excited to see Carly her body would shake. Carly would curl up with Jojo and cry.
A positive influence
One positive adult — and human — influence on Carly was her late Aunt Kathy, her mother's half-sister. Carly's aunt once took her niece to a butterfly garden in Seaside, where the colorful bugs fluttered about.
Carly likes butterflies. It does not matter what kind. After an ugly beginning as caterpillars, she says, "they fly away and start out on their own."
A butterfly adorns one side of the silver coin Carly was given upon completion of Lithia Springs' drug and alcohol program. The other side of the coin has an inscription of the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." Each Narcotics Anonymous meeting begins and ends with speaking these words.
On May 2, Carly had been "clean and serene" for one year and she received her seventh NA keychain — this one glow-in-the-dark. Different colored key chains mark milestones for the first year of sobriety — one, two, three, six, nine and 12 months. Carly links hers together in a long tail.
One of the assignments at the Lithia Springs Program is a packet designed to help kids recognize healthy and unhealthy family relationships and situations. Carly wrote about her family rules: "Don't talk or tell. Don't trust. Don't talk to people I don't like. Keep secrets a secret."
These rules help explain how Carly found herself headed toward jail as a young teenager.
The path to trouble
Carly was 12 when her mother was arrested in 2005. She then lived with her grandmother for a year. While she was at a therapy session in Astoria one day, her grandmother packed Carly's bags. She did not want to handle responsibility for her increasingly rebellious granddaughter anymore.
For the next two years, Carly bounced between foster care, running away, and incarceration. Her juvenile record includes possession of a concealed weapon: a knife. As part of her probation, she was not allowed to see her old friends in Seaside — a difficult ruling since they went to the same small high school. The following May she spent a month in the Young's Bay Juvenile Detention Facility in Warrenton. Then, in June 2008, she was given a choice between going to a full-detention facility in Portland, or across the state to the Lithia Springs Program in Ashland. Although she didn't want to be so far from home and her family, Carly didn't think she deserved detention.
A new arrival
On June 23, Carly entered the Lithia Springs Program as a brown-haired, make-up clad, 15-year-old. She was introduced to the 13-bed, blue-trimmed, two-story Girls House in a tour guided by an upper-level girl. Most bedrooms are upstairs, along with two of the three bathrooms. The living room is a place to relax, meet for group therapy and share a weekend movie. The kitchen and dining room is one great room, off the office, which is staffed at all times. Formal introductions are given at the first dinner.
While settling in, a girl might catch a glimpse of Tess or Gypsy, the calico and gray resident cats. Tess tends to be friendly to only one girl at a time. While the cat can be extremely tolerant with her chosen girl, she tattles on girls who are mean to her by mistaking laundry piles for her litter box. It's a good reason to keep the bedrooms clean.
Carly's bedroom shows the years of girls that have passed through the home with freshly painted white walls, a bunk bed and Dutch Bros stickers on the mirror, which predated Carly's arrival. After a year she is the most senior girl in the house, but she was moved from one of the coveted single bedrooms to her current double because of her tendency to isolate herself.
Carly has the bottom bunk in this room that is so clean and clear. The clutter hides in Carly's dresser drawers. A gray-and-red-striped, Southwestern-style blanket is draped over the foot of her bed; she's had it with her since she was a baby living in California. A small black frame with a message titled "Daughter" sits by her bedside — a sentimental message from her mother. Carly has had it since she was 8. A pink, stuffed sheep was a birthday gift from her mother; the black sheep is from a friend. Her zodiac sign is the ram.
A wood frame mirror hangs next to the wall-mounted shelves. The girl in the mirror is not the same one that arrived at Lithia Springs. Carly has colored her hair back to its natural blond from the brown she dyed it to catch a boy's attention when she ran with a "Mexican gang" in Seaside. The heavy makeup that used to mask her face is gone. She has become more comfortable with herself, and realized she does not need to hide behind a mask to look pretty.
Since she arrived, Carly is more assertive, even when she is uncomfortable, says Caitlin Pickens, 24, one of the staff of the Girls House. She has also learned to make the relationship with her mother healthier. Carly used to cry when she talked to her mother on the phone, says Caitlin. Now she knows how to end a conversation when it's not going well or will make her feel bad.
Once a new girl is settled into her room, the house rules and level system are explained. There are four levels, each with more responsibilities and more privileges as the weeks progress. Along the way girls reach bronze, silver and gold status. By June of 2009 Carly was on week 24 of Level IV.
She would be a platinum level graduate.
Completing the program
She could have completed the program and gone home in January, but a state review determined that Carly's mother was not able to care for her. Special circumstances were arranged so Carly could stay at the Girls House and start attending Ashland High School. It would serve Carly as a transition back to normal teenagehood and allow her mother the opportunity to improve her home situation in Seaside.
Part of this transition was a four-day trip home, which began April 16 on Carly's 16th birthday. On April 21, Carly was awarded a certificate for successfully completing Lithia Springs' alcohol and drug program. The same day, her mother was arrested for possessing drugs, again.
Carly's already-extended contract was supposed to end in June. She had completed the program and was ready to use her new skills out there in the world. But she was too young to be emancipated and live on her own, and too old to fit into the standard foster care system. She also wanted her family. She was stuck and had nowhere to go.
With June still a month away, Carly tried not to think about the future. She and a friend planned a girls' day to prepare for the high school prom. Carly chose a black dress and borrowed her friend's twirly earrings. They spent hours perfecting hair and makeup. They went together, sans dates, and afterward Carly stayed the night at her friend's house. After a few hours of sleep, they got up for church. Carly had been going with her friend to the Mormon Church for Sunday service and after-school seminaries.
The prom was one of Carly's last happy days before bad news began to bog her down. On Monday, May 4, her mother was sentenced to 36 months in jail. She could extend her stay at the Girls House, or she could enter foster care in Ashland or closer to home in Salem or Portland. Or there was her father in Modesto, Calif. Or her grandmother in Seaside.
Seaside is where Carly wanted to live. It is her home. Her old friends are there. It is where she wants to finish high school.
Then came Mother's Day.
The day dedicated to loving and honoring one's mother is a difficult one for Carly. She takes her mother's drug use personally, believing that if her mother loved her, she would not choose drugs over her daughter.
"I don't think there's any parent out there that doesn't care," said Megan Mitchell, 28, who leads the staff at the Girls House. "I think they don't know how to function as a parent."
There is a passion for the child from the parent, Mitchell believes, whether it is love or anger. They love their kids, but not necessarily more than the drugs.
It was too much for Carly. The following Monday, instead of going to AHS, she attended the Lithia Springs School, where she spoke with her therapist, Hal Pickens. The client's chair is angled for privacy from the office window. When talking with this bearded 70-year-old, Carly has a view of a painted seaside dock and a Southwestern coyote throw disguising two orange walls.
When Carly finished her session, she had her arms shoved into the sleeves of a black zip-sweater, wearing it backwards, her arms wrapped around herself. There was too much stress. Too many people. Too many questions.
"We don't want the patient to die after a successful operation," Pickens said of Carly's setback. Carly was pulled by staff from AHS for the last month and went back to Lithia Springs School for more stability.
The school provides the usual academic classes, plus counseling and therapy for healthy living, as mandated by the Department of Human Services and Oregon Youth Authority. There are about 35 boys and girls in the program.
"It's cool they get another chance to learn," said Amber Lindley, who teaches English and special education. Most of the kids grew up in a situation where they learned the wrong things, she explained.
Schoolwork is very individualized because there are kids from every grade in each class. Even though the school has typical subjects found at any public high school, lesson plans need to be self-contained within the day because the kids are often pulled from class for therapy, Lindly said.
There is also an opportunity for practical education at the school. The Mission Candle Factory, supervised by Production Manager Shemaiah Gooden, is similar to a shop class where the kids learn to make dipped candles. The factory is a fully operational business, donated to the program by Randy Jones nearly 10 years ago, and gives the kids actual work experience. It is located at the back of the school, but the smell of hot wax permeates every corner of the building.
Every year the program plans a weeklong camping trip for the kids — to get the kids out of the house and to give the teachers a summer vacation. There are also occasional field trips. Last year Carly went to Crater Lake for the first time. After the trip, she wrote, "When I was learning about Crater Lake and how more and more volcanoes formed and erupted it reminded me of my personal relapses. Each relapse was another volcano forming and erupting. Eventually all of those relapses turned into something beautiful that everyone wants to see. I know that if I stay strong, I too can become a beautiful untouched work of art. There will be some eruptions along the way, but it's all worth it."
A regular day
On May 30, local Girl Scout Troop No. 2048 performed a community service project by planting a flower garden at the Girls House. Carly was not out with the Girl Scouts. Only her housemates Stephanie and Kayla were there, assigned to work for recent misbehavior. They spent the hot, sunny afternoon cutting the net covering, helping when necessary, and trying to hide in the shade and find relief in the sporadic breeze.
The water in Stephanie's bottle found itself mostly on Kayla. At each squirt Kayla scrunched her shoulders and shrieked, but it wasn't long before Kayla asked, "Do you want to spray me with the hose?"
"Where is it?" Stephanie said.
"Go get it."
"I'll spray myself. It's hot!" And that is what Kayla proceeded to do.
The Girl Scouts had another way to cool off while taking a break in the shade. Shrieks and shouts of "Chug! Chug! Chug!"
"They're not learning the best life skills over there," said Shannon Bell, one of the troop leaders. "Chugging Gatorade now. Chugging who knows what later."
"That's what I was wondering. Did I used to do that?" said Kayla.
After their mandatory work time was up, Stephanie and Kayla joined their roommates for a late lunch of snacking and scrounging. Kayla had a bowl of cooked broccoli buried under cheese and ranch dressing. Carly was alone in her taste for a ketchup-covered burrito and tried to pawn off her extra cheddar.
"I don't want your stinky cheese," said Amber, who tossed the slices of Tillamook back on Carly's plate.
Emmy hated Pepsi foam.
Stephanie agreed: "The foam burns your nose hairs."
As normal as their tastes and conversation might be, the girls at Lithia Springs aren't living a normal life. They can't go out in the community, can't go to the mall, can't go shopping. Not unless it is scheduled.
"We practically live our life here by a point book and a white board," Kayla said.
However, the long-term goals seem worthwhile, says Stephanie.
"We have to remember we're in the business of small gains," says Gooden. The staff is here to provide an opportunity for these kids to change. When the challenges are too intense, they remind themselves of the successful kids to avoid burning out.
Of course, not everyone will succeed. The three runaway girls never came back. But this year's high school graduation class numbered five. An additional three students earned their GED.
"They are amazing girls who have gotten the short end of the stick as far as family goes, but deep down they are just kids," says Mitchell. "They don't need any more criticism, any more judgment."
As for Carly, the future looks pretty good for now. At the end of June she went back to Seaside to live with her grandmother. She will remain in the custody of DHS, attend a different school and continue to receive local service care.
She's home again — but this time as the new girl in town.