When Maj. Jennifer Stephens loses her temper with her children, she resists following her mother’s example. She refuses to beat her children’s hands with metal spoons. She refuses to strip her children and send them outside into the snow drifts. She refuses to starve her children, so they resort to eating scraps in garbage cans.
“I refuse to treat my children the way that I was treated,” said Stephens, Army Logistics Management College instructor. “The moment I feel myself losing my temper with my (teenage) daughter, we go to family counseling every single time I get frustrated because I don’t want my shortcomings, from the way I grew up, to be her shortcomings.”
Stephens, a single mother with three children, said she questions her parenting skills because she doesn’t know what it’s like to be a normal parent.
She was the second child of 16 who knew nothing but abuse from her mother and neglect from her father.
In 1987, when she was 17, Stephens escaped from what she called a dungeon. She turned in her parents for child abuse, but due to a legal technicality the case was dismissed. Then in 2004, when she was 34, she learned from her sister that the cycle of abuse had started again. Their mother had four more children that were born after Stephens left. She gained protective custody of them and finally succeeded in prosecuting her parents for child abuse.
Stephens tried to make a life for herself after graduating from high school but had no direction. She completed two years of college but was having trouble keeping up with all the expenses.
“I was at the lowest point of my life, I couldn’t afford to go to school, I was borrowing my friend’s clothes, I had nothing,” she said.
But things changed when she joined the Army.
“When I went to basic (combat) training, I thought my story was bad,” Stephens said. “Everybody started telling me their story, and I was humbled. There are so many of me in the military, the military saved so many people.”
Stephens said she found a home in the Army and a few years later she became an officer.
“I no longer felt sorry for myself,” Stephens said. “I refused to be the victim, I refused to use (the abuse) as a reason to fail.”
She said she originally thought she would join the Army for two years and get out, but 16 years later, she can’t seem to leave what she calls a home. She said she feels a sense of belonging.
“I feel a sense of family that I’ve never had,” she said. When Stephens was scheduled to make a permanent change of station to Fort Lee, she was eight months pregnant and called ahead to find out who could provide assistance if she went into labor since she was a single mom.
“Before I even got here, they gave me names of people that could help me, I live in housing here where if I had a problem, I have four neighbors around me that could help me. That to me is family,” she said.
Stephens now has two goals. The first is to raise enough money with a book she wrote to help her brothers and sisters go to college. The second is to raise awareness of child abuse and make it a common subject of discussion.
Stephens has shared the story of her survival on national television and frequently speaks at events related to child abuse prevention.
Her book “Escape from the Dungeon” is available online at www.jenniferstephens.org.
She will be speaking at a seminar hosted by the Army Community Service on Monday, 1 – 3 p.m. at the Green Auditorium, ALMC.