Jeff Jardine: Modesto teen embraces father despite his troubled past

06/14/2014 6:48 PM

06/15/2014 6:53 AM

It’s traditionally a day of gift neckties, fishing gear or power tools highlighted by barbecues with a ballgame blaring in the background.

But not every Father’s Day is so textbook, so stereotypical. Nor are all fathers cut from the Ward Cleaver and Cliff Huxtable mold.

Cassandra Sowell can tell you that. She spent most of her life being bounced from foster home to foster home – 20 in all, plus eight schools – until she turned 18 and could go out on her own.

There are far more children like Cassandra – who grow up without father figures in the home – than most folks realize. According to the Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Stanislaus County households with children lacks a father at home. And Court Appointed Special Advocates, which represents children in the foster care system, has a waiting list of 432 kids in Stanislaus County alone, Executive Director Steve Ashman said.

That doesn’t stop the children from wondering and still caring about their fathers, perhaps far more than those fathers deserve. For many years, Cassandra was one of those who wanted to be reunited with her dad, no matter what.

“I had no idea who he was,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about him. I didn’t know what he looked like.”

She knew little more than that she, her sister and two brothers were taken from their parents by Child Protective Services, and that their father had been in and out of jail. Cassandra’s first memories of being in foster care date to when she was 5 years old.

She did know an aunt and some cousins, though, and asked them to help her meet her father. She was 14 at the time.

“At first, they said they couldn’t because of the (court) system,” she said. “But one day, they woke me up and said, ‘Someone’s here to see you.’ They told me it was my father.”

Their visits were short at first, she said.

“The courts said I wasn’t able to see him,” Cassandra said. “But they finally caved in as I got older and could start making some of my own decisions.”

One of those decisions was to accept her father regardless of his past and his present. Drug use affected his health, and he had to be hospitalized last week due to a heart condition. Cassandra, as she has done many times in recent years, sat with him in the hospital.

In fact, she does far more for him as a daughter than he ever did for her as a father, said Ashman, who has been Cassandra’s court advocate and the father figure for much of her life. Even now, when she meets a guy she might want to date, she seeks Ashman’s blessing and trusts his judgment first.

He’s had many conversations with her father, who still lives in the Modesto area.

“I know he’s really proud of Cassandra,” Ashman said. “Just the fact that she’s hung in here. He knows she’s in a much better place than she would have been if he had remained with her (when she was taken from him). He tells her, ‘Get an education. Don’t do what I’ve done.’ He loves her. The sad thing is that he can’t provide for her. Demons control his entire life. It’s not uncommon for kids in the system to have parents who love them but can’t care for them.”

She said she’d like to resume relations with her mother, too, but that her attempts have been rebuffed.

Cassandra’s journey through the foster care system was a rough one, indeed. She was adopted once, she said, only to be whipped with an extension cord by an abusive adoptive parent. A school nurse, she said, reported the wounds to authorities and she moved once more.

On another occasion, she recalled being picked up after school by her foster parent du jour. Her belongings were in the car.

“ ‘You’re going to new home,’ ” she said she was told. “You never knew when you were going to move. Were they going to keep me? What’s going to happen? I became a problem child. Some of the moves were because I didn’t trust the people I was staying with. And it wasn’t my fault when I didn’t trust them.”

When she finally began to bond with one foster mom, the family lost its home to foreclosure and moved out of the area. The mom promised to come back for Cassandra when they settled elsewhere. She waited for a phone call or knock at the door that never came.

She stayed in school, though, and is now a few credits from graduating from high school at the Elliott Alternative Education Center, with plans to take classes at Modesto Junior College. Her career goal?

“To become a CASA worker,” Cassandra said. She wants to become a foster parent, too, someday helping children by knowing what it was like to be a foster child.

And she also wants to be a caring daughter, which, Ashman said, perhaps represents Cassandra’s most endearing quality.

“It takes an incredible amount of courage to look at her parents in a reasonable and realistic light, knowing she was in the (foster) system because of her parents, and yet to reach out and say, ‘I want to know who you are and have you in my life.’ She has given him whatever hope he has.”

Her plans for Father’s Day?

“Spend the day with him,” she said. “Tell him how much I love him.”

Demons, flaws and the past aside.

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service