GARY — Shenandoah Chefalo moved 50 times and went to 35 different schools by the age of 12. She was raised by a mom who was bipolar and addicted to cocaine and alcohol. At 13, Chefalo went into foster care.
Somehow, she was able to escape the path of substance abuse, incarceration and unwanted pregnancies that many people with childhood trauma follow.
So she's made it her mission to help others go in a similarly positive direction.
"The most vulnerable kids ... are the ones we owe it to to heal and get better," said Chefalo, an author who lives in northern Michigan and keynote speaker at the 28th annual Forum on Child Abuse and Neglect held Friday at Indiana University Northwest. "Imagine what we can do if we give them the time and space to heal, to live to their full potential."
Friday's forum brought together hundreds of local employees of social services agencies that work with children to learn about such topics as human trafficking, sexual abuse prevention and the biology of stress. The theme of the conference was Adverse Childhood Experiences, Trauma, Resilience and Hope.
Dealing with childhood trauma
Those were subjects Chefalo touched on in her keynote address. She grew up a nomad, living around drugs, guns and her mom's rotation of boyfriends. At school, she didn't do too well or too poorly so as not to bring attention to herself and, in turn, her parents (her father wasn't involved in her life until she was an adult).
When she turned 13, her mother moved back to her native Michigan and disappeared (Chefalo hasn't had contact with her since). So she did something her mom taught her never to do: She called the police.
A social worker came and picked her up. For the next five years, she was in and out of foster homes and court hearings. She listened to what the adults around her said. A common refrain: "Give her time, she'll turn into her mother."
Her physics teacher suggested she apply to college. She offered to pay Chefalo's application fee for her alma mater, Michigan State University.
It took Chefalo eight years to get her degree. She tried to commit suicide twice.
"I had a lot of pain. I had a lot of trust issues," she said. "I suffered alone for a large part of my late teens and early 20s."
She didn't have money to afford food on the weekends, so she got a job as a part-time receptionist at a law firm in the state capital.
She worked her way up to a paralegal then an office administrator. She met her future husband there.
A new start
They moved to Traverse City, Michigan, and opened a criminal defense practice there. After a while, she wondered what she could do to help her clients live better lives.
Many told her they grew up in the foster system. She looked up the stats: 74 percent of prison inmates were foster kids, as were 80 percent of death row inmates. Half of former foster children are incarcerated within two years of aging out of the system.
She researched childhood trauma, and adverse childhood experiences, like abuse, neglect, divorce or having a parent with a mental illness or drug problem. People with more of these experiences tend to have shortened life spans, poor health and increased chances of becoming addicted to substances.
Chefalo had eight of the 10 stated adverse childhood experiences. "How come I didn't end up in prison? How come I didn't end up a drug addict?" she wondered.
She learned that people who had childhood trauma can build resilience and, in the process, rewire their brains. That can come from having at least one positive, stable, adult relationship, being part of a faith or cultural tradition, or mastering a skill, she said.
When she was going to kill herself at Michigan State, she remembered back to her sixth-grade teaching saying, "'Shen, you're amazing at this."
"That was that moment that stopped me," she said.
She went on to be certified as a life coach, to tell her story in her memoir, "Garbage Bag Suitcase."
She said foster kids should be better matched with parents: What about having them fill out questionnaires ahead of time, a la Match.com?
She also said agencies should better inform foster parents on what they're in for, and give kids a book to learn more about their new families: with pictures of the house, the family dog. She said Canada does it this way and, in turn, has a much better performing system.
"I don't want any kid to go through what I went through," she said.