Kristen Stillman does not cry. The tears were beaten out of her early on — as was any hope that someone might listen to her, rescue her, during those twelve hellacious years she was held prisoner at the house in northwest Denver where her mother had left Kristen and her twin, Will, when they were only eight years old. The only way to survive was to feel nothing, to be like "a zombie" as she endured the beatings and rapes that resulted in four pregnancies before she was twenty.
Kristen finally let herself feel when she was in the hospital after giving birth to her fourth child, a boy, and learned that her oldest child, a girl of five, had been abused by the elderly father of her rapist, Eric Torrez. Then, finally, she realized that she would have to rescue herself — for the sake of her children.
Read our September 9 feature story: "Kristen Stillman puts her family first. That's why she's letting her four kids go"
Two years ago this month, she and her brother fled to Kansas with the children, starting a harrowing journey for justice that isn't over yet. Eric and his son, Patrick, soon found Will and Kristen; they took the children back to their house on the 2500 block of Irving Street with the blessing of the Denver County Court, since Patrick was married to Kristen. Eric had arranged that wedding when Kristen was fifteen, to explain away her pregnancies. But Kristen didn't give up: She and her brother followed the Torrezes back to Denver and were soon pouring out their story to a detective who discovered that every detail was all too true. The Denver Police Department took the four children out of that house of horrors and put them under the protection of the Denver Department of Human Services.
The agency that had not been able to protect Kristen and Will Stillman.
For the sake of her children, Kristen Stillman kept her September 14 date at Denver Juvenile Court, in the shiny new justice center. After listening to Judge Brett Woods describe what it would mean to voluntarily terminate her parental rights — she would no longer have the right to decide on the education of her children or their religion; she would "no longer have the right to be the mother of these children," or to contest the termination (as Eric Torrez, whose denial of paternity was disproved by DNA testing and whose rights were involuntarily relinquished, is doing — even though he's in jail for the next 300 years) — Kristen confirmed that she had chosen to give up her children.
And then she cried.
Kristen wasn't the only one grabbing for a tissue. "This is in the children's best interests," said the guardian ad litem assigned to represent them. "But it's one of the greatest acts of love I've seen."
"I would echo that times ten," affirmed the judge.
The court readily agreed to Kristen's request for a last meeting with her children, for a "goodbye party." After that, they will be adopted. Homes have already been found for the boys and one of the girls, the kind of home that Kristen knows she could not provide for her children. And she tried. Even as first Andres Torrez, who'd assaulted her daughter, and then Eric and Patrick and Eric's wife, Linda, and finally Karen Stillman, the mother of the twins, were arrested and pulled into the legal system, Kristen worked to win her children back. For a brief time in the summer of 2009, she had all four to herself — but it was too much. That September, she relinquished them back to the Department of Human Services and foster care. And now she has relinquished them altogether.
But she'll keep memories of the children — how attached the girls were to her, how the little boys loved to cuddle. And she'll have something more tangible: a big bill from the Family Support Registry for their time in foster care. The most recent bill caught up with Kristen just before her court appearance, and a payment was due the next day. She is now $4,979 in arrears, and there's still one more bill coming, one that will include fees through September 14 — when she officially was declared no longer a parent.
"Denver Human Services is sympathetic to the long-term ramifications past abuse has on parents who were themselves victims," says a statement prepared by the Department of Human Services. "However, our highest priority must remain the best interest of the children and the system they rely on to keep them safe from abuse. Parental fees are an important form of support for children who need foster care. When there are extenuating circumstances, the courts can and often do grant deviations from the statutorily established fees; DHS supports the court's process and will consider what course of action will best serve the minor children in our care."
The state sets the rules regarding reimbursement. "From a variety of perspectives, the department is examining our options," says Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services, which controls the appeals process.
Chris Mootz, the director of Denver's Human Services legal section, sat in on Kristen's hearing. Her bill "is not nearly the number it could be...it's very low," he notes. The $50 monthly payment schedule is the same amount they might charge someone in prison, he says.
For Kristen, though, this bill feels like a prison sentence, punishment before she can move on with life. If she were not in arrears, she would still have her driver's license that was suspended because of outstanding child-support bills, might still have the job she lost when she could no longer get to it. She understands the care her children have gotten, appreciates the care her children have gotten. But if the Department of Human Services had taken care of her, there would be no foster-care fees.
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She feels strongly about this, so strongly that even if she had the money she would not pay the bill, and she does not want other people — the people who've flooded Westword with offers to help Kristen since she told her story in "Spreading Her Wings" — to pay it, either.
On the top of the bill from the Family Support Registry is this slogan: "Because Kids Matter Most."
It's enough to make you cry.