‘I’ve got to do it for her’

Sometimes Denna forgets she’s not 11. But reality quickly reminds her there’s a little girl depending on her being a grownup.

Denna’s childhood evaporated in the haze of drugs and trouble that started, she says, soon after she discovered her birth mother didn’t want her. By 9, she started running away from home. By 11, drugs consumed her days.

By junior year, when she dropped out of school, she had run away from five psychiatric hospitals and four residential facilities. Finally, at the Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana she says she got straight and graduated from high school with a college scholarship. “But soon as I left that place, it was over with.” She went right back to drugs.

She also started forging checks, landing her in the Champaign County Jail. Though her dad talked the college into letting her keep her scholarship, Denna lasted only two semesters before falling behind, losing the scholarship and landing in prison for forgery and violating probation.

A routine pregnancy test her first day in prison turned out positive. “Oh my God, I cried for days.”

Knowing she pushed her family away and that the baby’s father wouldn’t want anything to do with a baby, she weighed the future. Should she put her baby up for adoption?

No, she decided. “I was adopted, so I knew what it felt like to wonder and not know, why did they give me up for adoption? … I didn’t want my baby to go through that.”

When The Women’s Treatment Center took her and the baby in, she admits she wasn’t the most together mother-she’d forget the baby when she went outside to smoke and the baby’s constant crying drove her crazy. But the staff never stopped believing in her, she says.

The 22-year-old’s goals are now much clearer: to raise her baby on her own, to go back to school and get a job working with children and to start a college fund for her little girl.

“I have to constantly remind myself, I’m not 11 years old anymore. … I have the responsibility of my daughter. That’s my motivation. Every day that she wakes up and she smiles, I know I’ve got to do this for her.”

Denna now has a full-time job.

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