Once again, and for the second time in six weeks, Ceres police took young children from homes where they reportedly lived in squalor and with no food to eat.
Such stories generate outpourings of heartfelt sympathy for the children, anger toward the parents and head-shaking disbelief that someone could treat the most vulnerable among us so horribly.
Linda Neal understands what these children and others like them endure. The 55-year-old Turlock woman herself withstood the roughest of childhoods and can only hope such parents will wake up to understand the damage they can inflict upon children through neglect and substance abuse.
She was fortunate to grow up in immaculate homes. She had plenty to eat. Instead, Neal experienced different but equally devastating troubles in the early years of her life, the consequences of which still affect her today.
Before Neal turned 3 in 1964, her mother tried to sell her and her younger brother for $50 – enough for a heroin fix or two. The “buyer” turned out to be an undercover cop. Neal never really knew her dad, who went to prison on a murder charge.
“I have never seen a picture of myself as a baby,” she said.
Over the next decade, Neal and her brother, Shawn, bounced in and out of nearly two dozen foster homes.
“They’d pack us up in the middle of the night, bundle everything we had into a bedspread and off we’d go to another place,” Neal said. “I hated the foster system for what they did to us.”
She now understands how the drug culture of the 1960s overwhelmed the child welfare system, making such frequent moves commonplace.
Finally, when she was 13, she went to a loving family in Turlock. To this day, she considers foster parents Cary and Joyce Summers her real parents. But even their dedication, spirituality and caring couldn’t prevent her and her brother’s lives from later spiraling out of control. Shawn has been in and out of jail, addicted to drugs and, the last she heard, is homeless somewhere in Modesto.
Neal went through an abusive first marriage that produced two children, but forced two back surgeries that led her to becoming reliant on painkillers. Her second marriage produced two more children, but ended when she began using methamphetamine.
“I began using it for pain management, physical and emotional,” Neal said. And like her mother, she found herself jailed on repeated drug offenses.
Her daughters are doing well. But her eldest son fell into a gang and went to prison on an attempted murder charge. Last year, he was badly beaten in prison, suffering a brain injury. He is now in a coma in a San Diego hospital, and Neal said he is unlikely to recover.
Her youngest son, Kristopher, also did prison time but used it to get himself clean and is working locally as a tree trimmer.
Neal herself spent 40 days in the Stanislaus County jail on a drug charge, getting out in October and heading into a drug rehab program. She said she’s been clean since then, replacing drugs with tropical fruit at one point.
“I became a mango addict,” she said. “I had to have one and peel it a certain way and eat it a certain way. They had to look a certain way. I’d drive around to the grocery stores until I found the exact right ones.”
A few months ago, she met Suzie Avilla of Hilmar, a nurse who, like Neal, had been homeless at one time in her life. Neal’s resiliency and positive attitude throughout what has been, by all standards, a rough life impressed Avilla, who accompanied her to court last week when Neal went to get a restraining order against an abusive boyfriend.
When she was 16, Neal learned that her older sister had been stabbed to death by a boyfriend in Stockton. When she was 38, an aunt first told her about how her mom, Jean Muth, had tried to sell her. And until recently searching a genealogy website, she never knew her birth mother’s real and legal name. Neal’s birth father died in 1997, her birth mother in 2004.
“I always thought it was Ima Jean,” she said.
It may seem like a little thing, but something a child growing up in a safe and sane home shouldn’t have to research decades later. Layers of ancestors, maybe. But not mom.
Clearly, Neal’s life has been greatly affected by her childhood, which explains why the recent incidents with the children in Ceres resonate with her. She, as well as anyone, understands a child’s need for the basics, including a healthy, stable home.
“The kids did not ask for this,” she said. “No kids say, ‘Please put us in filthy homes where the parents are doing drugs.’ And parents don’t just stand up and say, ‘I think I’m going to screw the kids’ life up.’ But they need to wake up. Take your children as your gifts. ... Love them, cherish them, be mom to them, be a dad to them. Give them your heart.”
She can only wonder how much different her life and her children’s lives might have been if her own parents had done just that.