WSUV student helps abused children as way to heal herself

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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Stephanie Holt can relate to the Vancouver 16-year-old twins allegedly tortured and beaten by their parents. She was a frightened 9-year-old when she was taken from her mother.

It was the dead of winter in Helena, Mont. Dressed in just a tattered yellow summer dress and boy’s underpants, she was picked up from a child welfare office by her Aunt Karen.

She was shivering and blue. You could count her ribs.

“She didn’t really know how to be a little girl,” her aunt, Karen Sherrill, recalled.

Holt had spent years imprisoned in her bedroom without food by an alcoholic mother. Her life revolved around trying to scrounge anything to eat, even toilet paper or dog food. She and her siblings would pillage food out of garbage cans.

Their mother’s wrath would come next, she remembered. If they were caught stealing food, her mom or mom’s boyfriend would beat them with a belt.

Holt said she spent years feeling like that little scared girl. But through years of therapy and help from friends, Holt said she’s now seeing life in a different way.

“I could spend my life being bitter and angry and no one would blame me,” Holt said. “But that’s not what I wanted to do with my life.”

Holt, now 38, is a full-time student at Washington State University Vancouver. She felt compelled to shared her story this week following news that a Vancouver couple, Sandra and Jeffrey Weller, were accused of locking their adopted twins in a room and not providing adequate food.

The story sounded eerily familiar to Holt and her siblings.

“The Weller case that is in the news has really hit home for us,” she said by email. “We would be willing to share our story because we want people to know this isn’t something new and that there is hope for these kids.”

Holt said she has found that hope.

She has been a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer for a year, supporting foster children through the system — a path she knows well. She sees helping children who have been neglected or abused as a way to heal from her own tumultuous childhood.

“Some days, it’s the only thing that keeps me sane,” she said.

A locked bedroom

Until she turned 9, Holt’s world was a stark bedroom with a single mattress. Her mother locked the door, restricting Holt and her older sister, Jennifer, from leaving. Her mother also put locks on the refrigerator.

Holt said she spent her days scratching the footboard of her bed in boredom or picking at scabs on her arms. She was only fed a few times a week, she said.

When Holt and her sister were overcome with starvation, they sang a song to each other, “We are hungry, we are hungry,” over and over. She said food wasn’t meant to be an obsession. But in a way, it became their purpose.

“It feels like being an animal” is the best way she can describe it.

On some days that the door wasn’t locked, they would sneak out to find food.

“We got caught sometimes and were beaten severely — bruises up and down my body for stealing a piece of bread,” Holt said.

The level of abuse, according to Jennifer Holt, would depend on their mother’s intoxication. If she was just tipsy, she would be in a better mood and wouldn’t harm them. If she drank more, she became violent.

“We lived for years without saying anything,” said Jennifer Holt, 40, who now lives in Portland.

Their mother was never charged criminally for the alleged abuse. Montana’s Children Services Division conducted several investigations, according to Stephanie Holt and her aunt, Karen Sherrill.

The children, including three other siblings, were removed from their mother’s care in the 1980s following her arrest and conviction for writing bad checks. According to online records of the Montana Department of Corrections, the mother served prison time for that crime.

Court records obtained from family confirm Stephanie Holt was removed from the home and placed with Sherrill. The aunt, who now resides in Woodland, lived in Aurora, Ore., at the time.

Sherrill got involved in the case after receiving a phone call from a state caseworker in Montana. The caseworker told her about the abuse and asked whether Sherrill would become Stephanie’s foster parent, because family placement was preferred. Stephanie’s siblings were placed with other family members or in foster care.

Sherrill, who is the mother’s sister, agreed and got on a plane to Helena.

Not knowing previously about the abuse, Sherrill said she was horrified at how neglected her niece appeared. She was extremely thin and hadn’t been bathed in days.

Typical things like buying new clothes were a novelty to her.

“She thought that kind of treatment was normal,” Sherrill said. “She couldn’t believe that I didn’t lock up my refrigerator.”

Teen years, beyond

Holt spent the rest of her childhood bouncing from foster home to foster home. After staying with her aunt for a year and a half, she wanted to live with her baby sitter, so she did. Later, she was transferred to other foster homes.

During her teen years, she ran away and lived on her own in her car. She ended up working at a convenience store at night and going to high school during the day. She continued going to school to see friends.

She said she still had a horrible self-image, but still hoped to be loved. She graduated from high school in 1992 and later started taking classes at a community college in Spokane.

However, at that time, she didn’t have much motivation to finish her schooling — she was still wrestling demons and didn’t know her purpose in life.

“I never thought I would get better, so what’s the point?” she remembers thinking.

Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Holt lived off disability checks from the state.

Nine years ago, she moved to Vancouver to be closer to family.

She said a series of people led her to take charge of her life. One of them was a social worker, who urged her to not give up in becoming a whole person. A friend also told her that she could do better than being plagued by her PTSD.

Holt finally saw truth in that. Through therapy, she has learned to not be defined by her childhood, but to work through her trauma. She still has nightmares and panic attacks stemming from fears of not having food or being beaten. But she’s learned important lessons.

“I’m not the sum of my past,” she said. “Those things happened, but it never had anything to do with me.”

She enrolled at WSUV a year ago and is on track to graduate in December 2012. She then hopes to go to Portland State University to obtain a master’s degree in social work.

She feels a sense of mission: She wants to be a social worker to help kids like herself who think their life is over.

“They’re not ruined for the rest of their lives,” Holt said. “I think I spent too much time thinking that.”

As a CASA volunteer, Holt has a deep-rooted conviction for the children she works with, said Jo Waddell, executive director of Clark County CASA.

“She brings a lot of things: her passion for the work, her passion for kids being safe,” Waddell said.

Sherrill said she has been amazed at her niece’s growth over the past few years. Occasionally, she still sees the frightened girl who wants a mother. But more powerfully, she said she sees a woman who wants to prove “that things can seem like the end of the world. But if you fight hard enough, you can make it.”

To the Vancouver twins who allegedly experienced similar conditions, Holt has this message: “Don’t let your past define you. Don’t let other people define you because of your past.”

She said she never wanted to be thought of as a victim.

“I’m just Stephanie Lee Holt,” she said. “That’s who I am.”

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts; www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.