A young mother tries to save two sons and loses everything grade 9 electricity module


She wants to talk about her kids. Cristian was an A student who never got in trouble at school. He was going to be a football player or a history professor. Luis, 7 now, was her "little prince"; Lyanni, 6, loved to paint her toes. She doesn’t know where they are now, or whom they call Mama.

She is cast as villain, or cautionary tale, or victim. But if you listen to her story — if you pore over the police and foster-care reports and learn about the neglect and pregnancy, the abuse and suicide — you uncover a much more complicated story.

In jail, she wrote a journal, 100 pages of cramped handwriting, divided into six chapters. The first is the shortest, the only one that’s wholly happy: Birth to 8 years old. The last chapter spans just six months, but it’s the longest and, by far, the grimmest: her life in Jacksonville.

Her mother drank and threw dishes. Susana’s first police report is from when she was 10, when her mother didn’t pick her up from school, left her waiting outside after dark. According to the 1996 incident report, she didn’t remember the name of the motel where they were staying.

Susana wanted this baby more than anything. So she started wearing baggy T-shirts to fifth grade. When she felt her baby wriggling, she talked to him. "About how now I wasn’t alone anymore, now I would finally have someone who will always love me and never leave me."

One night when Susana was 14, she left Cristian with her mother so she could sleep over with a friend. At 4 a.m. the 2-year-old was spotted toddling around the motel parking lot, naked. Police found Susana’s mother drunk in a room with cocaine in her purse. In the corner, according to the police report: a baby bottle, crawling with worms.

Susana’s mother, Sonia Valdez, was charged with child neglect, given a case plan to follow. The next year, she moved Susana and Cristian to a mobile home with no electricity, no water. Susana was stuck there with her son all day, every day until someone called the police.

Somehow, Susana was functioning as a mom. But a psychologist’s assessment came with a warning: "She has difficulty making decisions. … She is easily overwhelmed emotionally. She is also prone to spend much time ruminating about the situation."

At first, Susana didn’t question him. But the next day, when David still couldn’t use his left leg, Susana asked again what had happened. Cristian told a different story. He and David had been wrestling, and he had put the 2-year-old in a yoga pose.

Years ago, the psychologist had predicted such a reaction. Susana does well in many situations, the therapist said, but put her under stress and she’ll freeze: " Difficulty making decisions … Easily overwhelmed … prone to spend much time ruminating …"

All this time, Cristian was at school. When he came home, Susana told him to watch Luis. She put Lyanni’s shoes on her, packed a bag with snacks for when David woke up. Seven hours after he lost consciousness, she wrapped him in a blanket and made one final search.

David’s skull was split, his brain bleeding. He was flown by helicopter to Shands Jacksonville Medical Center. "He was hooked up to a bunch of machines," Susana says. "I curled my fingers with his and I told him I loved him and to please wake up."

On visiting day, she went to see her 12-year-old. She still didn’t believe he meant to kill his brother. Did Cristian blame David for that year she sent him away? Was he acting out because of the sexual abuse? Re-enacting the beating from his stepdad?