Jeff Jardine

Decades after mom disappears, daughters think she is in Modesto

Brandy Chapman holds a phone bearing a photo of her mother, Shelly Suzanne Jennings, who she believes is currently in Modesto. Jennings is homeless and suffers from mental illness, and her daughters hope to find her so they can take her home to safety and treatment in Oklahoma.
Brandy Chapman holds a phone bearing a photo of her mother, Shelly Suzanne Jennings, who she believes is currently in Modesto. Jennings is homeless and suffers from mental illness, and her daughters hope to find her so they can take her home to safety and treatment in Oklahoma. Brandy Chapman

Shelly Suzanne Jennings’ daughters recently heard a story that breaks their hearts.

Their 50-year-old, mentally ill mother was homeless in Redding and had been sleeping in front of a business there. When the owner arrived one morning to chase her off, Jennings became agitated.

“My three daughters are coming to get me,” she scolded the business owner. “And they’re bringing the little dog.”

“But the gentleman she was with, who didn’t know about her past, said, ‘Suzanne, you don’t have any kids,’ ” said one of her daughters, Rachel Ford of Oklahoma. “He didn’t know she has three daughters who have been looking for her for years.”

Their story involves deep ties to Modesto where, they believe, she is at this very moment, though she might be somewhere else tomorrow or by next week. Her story could be told through the lives of so many living on the Valley’s streets, perhaps with kin looking for them as well.

Eldest daughter Brandy Chapman, also of Oklahoma, a few days ago contacted homeless support organizations in Modesto with hopes of finding Jennings, reuniting her with her family and getting her the help she needs. They’ve posted her pleas on their Facebook pages and promise to distribute printed fliers when she can ship them west.

“I saw her photo and I thought she looked really familiar,” said David Lambert of Modesto’s Guardian Angels. He told Chapman he would have members of the organization looking out for Jennings when they do their regular volunteer patrols.

But Jennings is elusive, and not by design, her daughters say. She suffers from schizophrenia compounded by decades of drug and alcohol abuse. She comes by it genetically, with mental illness a family trait. And she is Native American – a Choctaw – a culture with a history of depression, alcoholism and drug use, Ford said.

The background: Jennings left Oklahoma with her two youngest daughters – Rachel and Julie – in 1993 and came to Modesto, where a relative once lived. Brandy remained in Oklahoma with her father, who had legal custody. Here, Jennings began to have episodes that told Rachel her mom was having issues.

“She was saying things what weren’t right, even to a 9-year-old,” Ford said.

Ford said she and her sister attended Salida Elementary School. One day late in 1994, Rachel stayed after school for Girl Scouts. Julie, the youngest, was supposed to ride the bus home, but was scared to go alone and stayed at the school with her sister. When Jennings didn’t pick them up after the scouting session – and when it became apparent she would not – school officials called Child Protective Services. The girls were placed in foster care until their father could come out from Oklahoma to get them.

“We saw her one more time,” Ford said. “I remember it was probably at a mental hospital. I remember sitting with her out beneath a tree. She gave us each a stuffed animal and told us how much she loved us. When we asked her why she wasn’t going home with us, she said, ‘People are making me stay here.’ 

They’ve had no contact with her since then, and Chapman hasn’t seen her mom since Jennings took the other girls west in 1993. Jennings’ daughters all are accomplished: Ford, 31, is a registered nurse. Chapman, 35, works in a halfway house, helping people who have been in substance abuse rehab get reacclimated. Julie Ford, the youngest and 29, is a schoolteacher and also lives in Oklahoma.

They’ve never stopped looking for their mom, now their only living relative.

“We’ve found addresses for her in several states,” Chapman said.

As the internet developed, most of their leads came through records from a series of misdemeanor arrests.

“But we’re always about two years behind her,” Ford said.

It seemed they got a big break three weeks ago when a friend, helping Chapman with online searches, told her, “You’re never going to believe this: She’s in jail in Redding!”

By the time Chapman could get there, though, Jennings had been released. While she was there, Chapman searched homeless camps and talked to as many people as she could looking for information. Then she received a phone call from five people on a speaker phone. They said they saw Jennings at a mission, dropped her off at a laundromat and that she planned to catch a ride to Modesto.

Hence, contacting the homeless advocates here. The problem, the daughters said, is that even if she is located here, law enforcement can’t simply detain Jennings until her daughters can get here to pick her up. And privacy laws prohibit them from releasing much in the way of personal information. The daughters, who have established a GoFundMe account to help pay their expenses, want to take her back to Oklahoma, where she would receive care through Native American Health Services.

“She’d get excellent care – medical, her drugs would be covered, psychiatric services – free for the rest of her life,” Ford said.

They have to find her first, though, and they hope someone here will recognize Jennings and help them so they can bring her home and off the streets.

Because the guy with her in Redding was wrong, Ford said.

“This woman is our mother,” she said. “She was the beautiful person who took care of us, and who needs help. She has three kids, and she’s waiting on us to find her.”