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As a young mother, Wilma Jackson made some mistakes. She explains how three of her four children ended up in foster care, what she did to get them back and the tough lessons she's learned.


Wilma Jackson puts her arm around her 10-year-old daughter, Ebony.

``When we're under a cloud, there's always going to be sunshine,' she tells her oldest child. ``It don't be dark for long.'For Wilma ``Nesie' Jackson, 26, the darkest year ended more than two years ago. But three of her children, who spent that year separated in Guilford County foster homes, don't forget.

``They are glad to be home,' she said as she watches them in the playground of the Hampton Homes public housing community in Greensboro. ``But I think they still have resentment over it.'

She and her children generally agree they received good foster care, except when her son, Ivory, was taken from a foster mother who hit him with a belt when he broke a vase. And Ebony wasn't happy with some of the clothes she wore.

But both could participate in after-school care and YMCA events, places their mother can't afford on public assistance or take them without a car.

Five-year-old Ashley's former foster parents, Pine and Willie Mae Haithcock of High Point, still take her on outings and buy her clothes.

``I'm glad that someone is loving her,' her mother says.

But Jackson worries about the effect on 8-year-old Ivory, who she said came home and talked about killing himself and his family.

Ivory denies he said that, but said he hated himself back then.

``I hated myself because of what I was doing,' Ivory said. ``I was being bad. I was fighting.'

Jackson believed she had no other option when she handed three of her four children to social workers in June 1989. Her other child, Tina, went to live with her godmother.

But Jackson cringed when she realized she was perpetuating a family cycle: her own mother had left Jackson and her five siblings with relatives for part of their childhood. Her sister's sons are in foster care while their mother does time for selling drugs.

``I used to say I would never let my kids grow up the way I grew up,' Jackson said, ``and now they were following my footsteps.'

She vows it will never happen again.

It looked like manna from heaven in December 1988. Jackson had come into the biggest chunk of money she'd ever seen in her life: $17,000 from an auto accident settlement.

``I was young and never had nothing,' Jackson recalls. ``I just blew it.'

She paid sitters for her four children, then ages 1 to 6, while she and her boyfriend traveled to bingo games and even to Las Vegas and Atlantic City to gamble.

``I let a man come before my kids,' she said. ``I was trying to hang with him, trying to be Miss Big Stuff.'

She bought her children new bedroom furniture and video games. ``They was happy, but they wasn't with their momma.'

Three months later, she had $100, a pile of overdue bills and no boyfriend. She didn't even have her public assistance check - that ended when the $17,000 arrived. To get money, she sold her car and furniture and bought used.

They moved in with her mother, who didn't appreciate the company. One night, they left and slept in a car.

Guilford County Department of Social Services offered to put her at Pathways, the shelter for homeless families. But Jackson had stayed there when she was 16, and didn't want to go back.

Jackson's children felt her frustrations.

``I never bruised them, but I was afraid it would get to that,' she said.

She gave Ebony, Ivory and Ashley to social workers, and promised she'd be back. Tina, her third child, went to live with her godmother. She saw them periodically at the Social Services department and her mother's house.

Except for the first month when Ebony and Ivory were together, the children lived apart. When Jackson heard that Ivory had been hit with a belt, then heard Ashley's voice on a TV program on foster care, she began efforts to get them back.

She got a restaurant job and an apartment in Hampton Homes, where rent is based on income. When school ended for the year in June 1990, her children came home. Jackson no longer works outside the home. Wages would increase her rent and keep her from her children.

She supports them on $324 a month in public assistance, plus food stamps and Medicaid.

``I told the judge that if I would go out there and work, that would be neglecting my kids,' she said.


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