By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Cabrini Carrillo bursts through the front door of Lori McKinney's Westminster house. "It's so hot out there," she moans. Lori's daughter, Kelly, is in the kitchen, home from the University of Colorado to do laundry.
"Is that my Kellbell?" Cabrini asks.
The 21-year-old whose name is tattooed in long cursive letters across the right side of her neck takes a seat at a dining-room table covered in bills and junk mail. "I love this room," Cabrini sighs. The furniture is different, but this is the same room where she had her first birthday party, and those are the same stairs she walked down to find it filled with balloons and guests. She turned ten that day.
Lori was in the midst of describing what an enormous drama queen her former foster daughter can be when Cabrini made her grand entrance, and now she's on to her rude, stubborn attitude as a teen. "She was horrible," Lori says emphatically before chuckling. They laugh a lot now, even though much of what Cabrini has to tell isn't very funny.
Cabrini's parents did not want her. Her father tried to kill her by pushing her mother down the stairs when she was pregnant. Then he left, and Cabrini's mother never forgave her daughter for being born. She'd hit Cabrini, tell her she was fat and ugly. And when nine-year-old Cabrini told her mom that her stepdad sexually abused her, the woman told her little girl it was her fault -- for telling. Her mother dropped her off at a relative's house and never came back.
Worried for her siblings, Cabrini told police about the abuse and the drugs at home. The Jefferson County Department of Human Services put Cabrini, her five- and one-year-old brothers and their nine-month-old sister into foster care. Within three months, she and her five-year-old brother were separated from the babies.
They were moved twice before winding up at Lori McKinney's house. Cabrini was aggressive then, and as stubborn as ever. Lori put her in a time-out for acting up one day, and Cabrini stayed there for hours, refusing to come out and apologize. "So finally, Mrs. McKinney pulled me aside," she says. "She sat me on her lap, and I just started crying because I don't know what that's like. She just hugs me, and she's like, 'Everything's going to be okay. Nobody's here to hurt you guys.' And she just sat there and took the time, no matter what kind of attitude I was giving her, and she just hugged me, and it changed my life forever."
For three years after that, Cabrini felt like she was part of a real family. She and her brother shared rooms with Lori's kids and went on vacations with them. "If they got clothes, we got clothes," Cabrini says. "We all ate at the same time. When they were part of swimming lessons, we were a part of swimming lessons. If we needed something for school, she was there. We were allowed to be a part of sports. We were never treated different."
But the McKinneys had already adopted a son, and they decided they couldn't adopt any more children. Cabrini would have gladly stayed their foster child through adolescence, and Lori would have let her, but the goal of county human-services departments is to get foster kids out of the system and into permanent homes. When they succeeded at finding Cabrini and her brother an adoptive family that seemed like a good fit -- a distant cousin whom they'd never met -- Cabrini was still set against it. She swears this family only wanted her brother, but she also admits that she wouldn't have been happy moving anywhere. The McKinneys had become her family, and she was devastated to leave. "Why can't you just adopt me?" she'd cried to Lori.
"It was horrible, just horrible," Lori remembers. "It's very difficult to take a child at that age and say, 'There you go -- bond. That's your new mommy and daddy -- and in this case, it didn't work. Cabrini was determined it was not going to work, and the caseworker at the time made it very clear, because she knew Cabrini was sabotaging this placement, that if Cabrini made it fail, that she could not come back here to live, which kind of made us all a little bit mad."
The adoption was a success for her brother, but Cabrini was gone in four months. She told her caseworker she'd rather be back in foster care, partly hoping she'd be allowed to go back to Lori's. She was sent to a group home in Littleton instead. She hated it. There were so many rules. Fifteen minutes of phone time per day. One hour of TV. Every chance she got, she went to visit the McKinneys.
"She just really wanted to be in our family," Lori says. "So my mother who lives in Seattle and who always loved Cabrini came forward and said she'd like to have Cabrini come live with her." It was like a dream come true, Cabrini says now. She was an only child with her own room, her own phone line and N' Sync posters all over her walls. But at the time, she was also a fourteen-year-old girl giving her new guardian a hard time.