By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Shawna's work at the farm brought her and her father closer than ever. So close that she called him every morning on her way to work. "None of us knew that until she died," Nikki says, breaking into tears. "Not even Mama."
"She was my right-hand woman at the farm; she was my spark plug," Roy says. "She'd come by two or three times a week and help me with the pigs. And she became a mentor to some of the girls. She was a listener; you could just talk to her, and she didn't try to fix the problem or pass judgment."
Tyressa and seventeen-year-old Kay viewed Shawna as an aunt, someone older and wiser than they but still young enough that they could relate. "She told me to find out who I am before I start looking for a boyfriend and to love myself before I love someone else," Tyressa says. "That's something I really needed to hear."
The two girls became close to Shawna in August when they shared a Pueblo hotel room for three days while showing pigs in the state fair. "She was always there to talk to you. She'd talk about anything you wanted," Kay says. "She never judged, and she shared a lot of her past with us. We did a lot of the stuff she'd done."
"She said one of her biggest mistakes was having sex before she got married," Tyressa adds. "That was one of my mistakes, too."
News of Shawna's death came as a blow to the girls, who had both lost other people, either through abandonment or death. "I feel like I don't want to get close to anyone anymore," Tyressa says.
"When I first came here, I had a hard time getting close to anyone. A month before I came here, my best friend died," says Kay, who's been at the home for a year and had attempted suicide before arriving. "But Shawna was special; she filled that hole in my heart."
"The day before she died, she told me she was proud of me," Tyressa says.
While the two girls struggle with their loss, they are also trying to help the Rushes deal with theirs. When they see Roy and Johnanna, Kay and Tyressa remind them how much Shawna helped them. For Johnanna, talking publicly about Shawna is still too hard. After all, this is the second time she's had to bury a daughter. Roi Leigh, the eldest of the four Rush girls, died almost three years ago of leukemia.
Roy is more able to discuss Shawna, but he grapples with the fact that she was killed by the type of person she would have tried to help. Rather than making him angry and turning him away from troubled teens, however, the accident has solidified his commitment to the home and to helping kids.
"Parents need to step up and do more before it's too late. We try to redirect children before they're beyond control, before they get into a terrible predicament like this," says director Schow. "More needs to be done for these kids."
No one agrees more than Linda Littlefield, founder of Kidz Ark, a residential treatment center in Sterling where Stephanie Huff once stayed.
When Stephanie was just twelve, the Weld County Department of Social Services referred her to Kidz Ark. Linda doesn't know how Stephanie got involved with social services, but she says that as far as she knows, it was the first -- and only -- time she was placed in a treatment program.
Stephanie could have gotten into the social-services system in a variety of ways. Social services can deem kids dependent and neglected if they're homeless, have been abused or abandoned, or if they've been denied food, education or medical care by a parent or guardian. They can also enter the child-welfare system if they've broken laws. But usually these kids are assigned to a mental-health center, the division of youth corrections or a therapeutic foster home. Residential treatment centers such as Kidz Ark are a last resort for those who fail to improve in other settings.
Stephanie refused to get out of the car the day a social worker took her to Kidz Ark, a Christian-based facility that, with its three family-style houses, is very similar to Mountain States Children's Home. "She was probably scared," Linda says.
Not long after she arrived, Stephanie accompanied the rest of the kids on an overnight trip to Estes Park, but she and another girl ran away from the group's YMCA camp at ten o'clock one night. "Running away is common among these kids," says Linda, who has been working with troubled youths for a decade. "I think a lot of times they're running from themselves."
Kidz Ark staff members found the girls two hours later and took them back to Sterling. After that, Linda says, "Stephanie kind of settled in." And during her five-month stay at the home, she seemed to make progress. "She changed her attitude around and was compliant," Linda recalls. Her good behavior even earned her weekend passes to visit her grandparents in Eaton, a small town north of Greeley. Linda drove her to those visits and learned a little about Stephanie during the long trips. When she and her two sisters were abandoned by their mother a couple of years earlier, their maternal grandparents adopted them. To this day, Linda says, no one knows where their mom is, and the girls' father isn't around, either.