Mothers' Love: Two mothers share a different sort of love for their children
The home at 400 W. Atlantic in Atwater doesn't look unordinary. Toys lay scattered in the yard; a sign of the youth contained within. A dog chained up in the yard lies lazily, watching passersby. An Atwater squad car sits in the driveway, the off...
The home at 400 W. Atlantic in Atwater doesn't look unordinary.
Toys lay scattered in the yard; a sign of the youth contained within. A dog chained up in the yard lies lazily, watching passersby. An Atwater squad car sits in the driveway, the officer off duty and home for the night.
Yes, the home along Atlantic appears ordinary on the outside, but inside is an extraordinarily different story.
In fact, Amy and Paul Schmidt's home contains many stories: whether it's Paul's duties as acting police chief for his father who was recently shot on the job, or the three children the Schmidt's have adopted along with three they are providing foster care for -- in addition to having three of their own.
But the real story is hidden within the Schmidt's home. A tale about three of the Schmidt's adopted children, two loving mothers and an addiction that tore apart one family and created a new one.
Fostering a family
"It's almost 14 months," Amy Schmidt said about finalizing the adoption of Anthony, 9; Hailee, 8, and Alexis, 6. The three children were adopted by the Schmidts after they were removed from their mother's care nearly three years ago. The children were taken away from their maternal mother, Jeanie Champagne, as she struggled with an addiction to methamphetamine.
After bouncing around to three temporary foster homes, Anthony, Hailee and Alexis, then 7, 4½ and 3½, respectively, were taken in by the Schmidts. Amy said the No. 1 goal of their foster care is to reunite the children with their family -- but this case was different.
"At that time it was going toward permanent placement," she said.
Jeanie struggled to overcome her powerful addiction to meth and eventually signed her parental rights over to the Schmidts. "It's a rare thing when parents sign their rights away," Amy said. Usually parental rights are terminated through court proceedings, she continued. But Jeanie attached her own stipulation -- requesting that her kids not be split up, but rather kept under one roof. Amy and Paul agreed, and took legal guardianship of the kids; but not without a few bumps in the road from the children's past.
"We had hoarding of food, sneaking in the middle of the night, bed wetting," Amy said. Other than that, Amy said the kids settled in fairly quickly. "These are probably some of the easier kids we've dealt with," she said, referring to the 21 kids they have fostered throughout their three years of foster care experience. From selfish to selfless
Jeanie Champagne, 31, began using meth when she was 27 years old. It didn't take long for the drug to hook her.
It was a mere 5½ months before she was completely dependent on the drug and lost her kids, Jeanie said. She said she started using the drug because of her husband at the time.
"When I didn't do it I got beat," she said. "It just made things 100 times worse."
Constantly searching for that original high, Jeanie said she didn't eat, care about her health or anything else while she was on the drug. "When you're on meth you don't think about yourself" -- or anyone else, she said. It takes a toll on your body, breaking down your teeth, skin and insides. "Your body just falls apart," she said. "You're killing yourself from the inside out."
It goes without mentioning how highly accessible the drug is. Jeanie listed off the names of a dozen area communities, all where the drug was accessible. At one point, she said she was in treatment with 40 other girls -- all with meth addictions.
The drug took its toll on Jeanie's life and as she talks about her addiction and the separation it created between her and her kids, her eyes begin to tear up.
"The way I look at it all around is I was pretty selfish," she said. "The one thing I feared, happened," she said, referring to her signing over custody of her children.
"I feel like I've destroyed my life," she said, choking back tears.
But while Jeanie views her acts as selfish, Amy Schmidt said Jeanie performed one of the most selfless acts any parent could make -- putting her kids in someone else's care.
A second chance
While Jeanie battled her meth addiction in out-patient treatment, still clinging to her parental rights, she saw her life come to an abrupt halt. With two days of out-patient treatment left she got kicked out because of her marijuana use.
"I knew I couldn't do it," she said. "I had to go put myself somewhere."
Jeanie signed herself into in-patient care and made the toughest decision of her life -- signing her rights to her kids away. She said she remembers telling her mom she wouldn't have to quit meth if her kids were gone because she'd have no reason to live.
She was given a new reason to live by Amy and Paul Schmidt. The couple challenged Jeanie, telling her she could still see her kids if she met certain conditions. Amy said Jeanie first had to sober up, she could then see her kids three times a year on supervised visits -- if they wanted to see her.
"It was a big push for me," Jeanie said.
The in-patient program also pushed Jeanie. She said the program was all-female, which allowed her to open up more easily. She was able to complete the program and has been sober now for 1½ years, she said. And more importantly, she can spend time with her children.
"I am glad Amy and Paul still gave me the choice to see my children," she said. "It made me dig even deeper."
As children run playfully through the Schmidt's house Dec. 1, one group of children seems happier than the others. There on one of the loveseats, Anthony, Hailee and Alexis cuddle close around Jeanie -- their mother. Beaming with smiles and full of questions, the four talked about everything from athletics to glasses to Christmas present ideas.
With the kids' focus on Jeanie, not much was said about the past.
But Anthony shyly nodded his head yes when asked if it was hard to leave his mother. In fact, this was the first time Anthony voluntarily saw Jeanie since they were split up, Amy said. Anthony had some issues with the way Jeanie had treated him and he felt she had lied to him just too much.
Time has apparently healed some of the wounds. As Jeanie sits on the loveseat, Anthony drills her on her favorite sports teams and athletes, all with an honest look of interest on his face.
Amy sits close by -- a mother supervising a mother -- but also a friend keeping a promise. Amy said her only regret in her relationship with Jeanie is not having more contact with her before her parental rights were terminated. "And somewhere in my heart I think I could've made a difference," she said.
After her whirlwind of treatment and starting life over, Jeanie has settled in at a new apartment in Benson. She is still searching for work after two months in the area, but said she is happy to be close to her family. At the same time, Jeanie knows she has to give the Schmidts their space and stick to their agreement.
"I don't want to have any trust issues," she said. "Trust is a big issue."
Hopefully, over time, some of the conditions can relax, Amy said. It could mean spending holidays and other special events together, instead sticking to a regimented scheduled. "We're gonna have a lifetime of weddings," and other events, she said.
For now, Paul, Amy and Jeanie continue to take their relationship one step at a time. "You just manage," Amy said. "Day by day," said Jeanie, finishing the sentence as if she were thinking the same thing.