Special Reports

Fragile, but free

Denise Walker had little money, rusty work skills and no family in San Luis Obispo County when she graduated in August from a 10-month drug treatment program and began to rebuild her life. Like many people who go into treatment from the streets, the 35-year-old had no home to which she could return.

She had been jobless and homeless for six years, given up custody of two children and lost a third, a baby, to foster care because of a severe addiction to methamphetamine. She enrolled in the residential treatment program because a judge threatened to put her youngest child up for adoption if she didn't turn her life around.

Her graduation coincided with the opening of a home that helps former addicts transition to independence. She moved there with her 20-month-old daughter, Natalie, whom social workers had returned to her six months earlier.

Only by getting steady work and her own apartment, however, would Walker be able to persuade a judge to return her full parental rights to Natalie. "I lost touch with society," Walker said. "Going back out there is scary."

Step one: Find a job

Walker enrolled in the county's job club program, which helps people find employment opportunities, teaches interview skills, provides transportation and even pays for interview clothes.

Dressed in her only outfit, black pants and a white button-down shirt paid for by the employment program, Walker interviewed for a job at a local supermarket and got it.

Before her life fell apart, Walker had managed a deli at a supermarket in Sacramento. But that was years before and, to her, felt like a lifetime ago.

The night before her first day of work in mid-August, a stress-induced rash broke out on Walker's neck.

"I haven't worked in six years, and I'm so afraid I'm going to fail," she said, slumping into the couch and rubbing her neck.

Just then, Natalie toddled across the carpeted living room and into her mother's arms. Walker wiped away the remnants of dinner that rimmed Natalie's mouth and scooped her up for a hug.

Her daughter's hugs gave Walker the courage to keep going.

"We need to give you a bath, and then it's off to read books and say prayers before bed," she said.

Step two: Transportation

Walker's new job was in San Luis Obispo, but she was living outside Arroyo Grande. The county paid the Ride-On bus service to take her to work the first week. After that, she was on her own.

Walker needed to buy a car. Her church lent her $600 for a down payment, but she had no one to co-sign a loan. After a week, she hadn't found a car for less than $1,000. The county agreed to pay the $30 round-trip bus fare for another week.

"It will work out," Walker said. "God provides."

Midway through her second week, she still had no leads and no transportation to shop for a car. Depressed, she stayed in her pajamas on her day off. "I don't want to lose my job," she said.

The following day, a county employee drove Walker to see a car that belonged to a friend of a friend. Walker bought the decade-old Dodge Shadow on the spot for $600 cash.

"It's a beater, but it's mine," she said. "It feels so good to own something."

Walker's first paychecks also boosted her self-esteem.

"I'm getting smarter," she said one morning on her way to work. "It's like, I'm not kidding, my memory is coming back."

By her one-year sobriety mark on Sept. 15, Walker felt more comfortable with her new working identity, but reminders of her former life lurked everywhere.

She wanted to hide when people with whom she used to share drugs walked into the supermarket. Co-workers discussed plans to go party, and Walker pretended not to hear them.

"I feel different than everyone else," she said. " ... It's hard. It's overwhelming."

Step three: An apartment

In late September, Walker met with a housing counselor to discuss her application for rental assistance. Hoping to make a good impression, she dressed up for the appointment. She pulled her hair back, put on makeup and wore her best clothes -- the same ones paid for by the county's employment program.

After the appointment, Walker rushed out to smoke a cigarette. She quit smoking while in treatment but had started again. Cigarettes calmed her nerves, she said. Taking up that old habit was not a sign she would start smoking meth again, she said.

Walker had no backup plan if her application was denied, and it was getting more unbearable to live in the transitional home. Two more women with children had moved in, bringing total occupancy of the four-bedroom doublewide trailer to 12.

She wanted something fun to look forward to but barely had an extra dollar. She rarely left the house except to go to work and church.

Her monthly income hovered around $1,000, including $229 in food stamps. She paid $100 a month to live at the transitional house, plus had to cover her share of the utilities. She had monthly payments toward a $1,000 court fine and $200 in personal loans for car insurance and new tires. Diapers, gas and trying to save for a new apartment ate up the rest.

"I want to take Natalie to the beach, but gas is so expensive I can't afford it," Walker said. "I have $40 to my name, and $20 is going to go to gas, and with the other $20 I have to get (Natalie's) birth certificate.

"But that's just life," she said with a sigh. "I'm out of money right now, but it will be OK."

Step four: Moving

A judge denied Walker's request in mid- October to close her child welfare case. Social workers were ordered to continue monitoring Walker because Natalie's father, Mike Rich, was returning in November after finishing a prison term and treatment program for meth addiction.

"I don't think that's fair," Walker said a few days later. "I'm doing everything I'm supposed to do."

She felt angry and frustrated but tried to focus on the positive.

"I always have to remember I got myself here," she said. "I can't act ungrateful. I've gotten so much help--I mean, so much."

A few weeks later, Walker was approved for rental assistance and had 60 days to find an apartment. Affordable apartments were scarce, but she found a one-bedroom place in Atascadero.

In early December, she moved into her first true home in six years. A donated mattress lay on the floor, cardboard boxes held toys and a floral sheet covered an old sofa. A painting of the Lord's Prayer hung on the living room wall -- its Goodwill price tag half scratched off.

Natalie was warming up to a new home and a stranger, her dad. Rich, who barely knew his daughter, saw her as often as possible. He planned to marry Walker.

Social workers closely monitored the fragile family. Walker swore she would follow all the rules, take things slowly, and always put Natalie's needs first. She and Rich were learning new coping skills to lead sober lives.

They volunteered for parenting classes and had their first session two weeks before Christmas. While they answered the instructor's questions, Natalie crawled across their backs. Her mom and dad were learning to discipline, and together they were learning to be a family.

The instructor asked questions to assess their parenting styles, including whether they agreed that a "parent's role is like that of a teacher who prepares children for their most important exam, life."

Walker and Rich looked at each other and both said, "I strongly agree."