From an abusive adoptive home to a strong mom of three, Lily Gardner is a survivor
When Lily Gardner came into the world 27 years ago, she was an underweight, premature baby suffering from drug withdrawals, thanks to her cocaine-addicted mother and the drugs she ingested while pregnant. A photo of Lily at 3 months old shows her big brown eyes and the long scar from the open-heart surgery she endured to repair her drug-damaged heart.
Within days of birth, she and her twin brother were put into foster care.
“I don’t remember anything about being in foster care as an infant, but what I do know is that the family my biological mother chose for my brother and me to live with would be the family that almost broke me,” Lily posted recently on her Facebook page, adding, “they also helped make me the strong person I am today.”
As you talk with this now-married mother of three, she will tell you the system failed her. She says she escaped one world full of trauma to be adopted into another.
“I can remember as far back as 4 when the abuse started,” Lily says.
Lily shares stories of having to wash dishes and make lunches before she even learned to write. If she didn’t comply, she faced verbal, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother. She remembers the cold showers. She remembers being locked outside if she had an accident. She remembers the black eyes and going to bed hungry many nights.
“It was rough,” Lily says.
Living with the family in both Montana and Wyoming, Lily watched as they fostered more than 30 kid. At one point there were 14 children in the home, many of them with special needs. Lily says she never went to school, forced instead to stay home to help care for the other children.
“I told myself that there was someone else who had it worse,” Lily says. “That’s literally how I survived my childhood. You hear those stories about kids who don’t survive.”
As the thinks back on the dark spots in her past, she’s still haunted by one incident involving her foster brother, Thomas. The 4-year-old was non-verbal.
“He was sitting on the ground on his knees,” Lily begins. “My mom asked him to get up and finish his lunch and he refused. My mom went over and kicked him with such force that when he came down, he broke both his legs. He was crying.” Lily remembers thinking, “What did I just witness?” Her mom told social workers the boy fell off the trampoline, Lily says, and “to this day, I feel so guilty that I never told the truth.”
Over the years, a few angels entered Lily’s life. The first was a respite worker who came to the home two to three times a week to help care for the children.
“You could cut the tension in that home with a knife,” Shannon Madsen says today. When Shannon witnessed abuse, she remembers giving Lily some advice.
“I told her, ‘You just run. You run through those fields. Your mom isn’t going to chase you through those fields. Then, you call me,’” Shannon says.
One afternoon, Lily did call. Shannon was at the dentist with her kids at the time. She remembers leaving her children and jumping in the car.
“By the time I got there, they had already picked her up. I passed her in the cop car on the road,” Shannon says. “Once her mom found out that I knew, she got me fired. The system failed all those kids. I do remember telling Lily’s mom, ‘I am not keeping your dirty little secret.’”
“My mom and a police officer found me at a neighbor’s home a mile away,” Lily says. “He arrested me, shackled me and took me to a group home.” She was charged with being a runaway. What was supposed to be a 24-hour crisis placement turned into 10 months at the home.
“I saw a boy punch a window and then use the glass to slit his wrists,” Lily says, and she saw another girl sniff Comet to try to overdose. “It was such a horrible experience.”
There was just one silver lining, she says.
“I was a ward of the state and then the best thing happened to me. I was court ordered to go to school. Do you know how silly it is to say that I was court ordered to go to school? I loved it. It was hard for me. I was testing at second- and third-grade levels at 15 years old.” She says her teachers welcomed her with open arms.
After 10 months, social workers added Lily’s name to a list of children available to foster. Sherriff ‘s Deputy Clay Myers knew Lily. He’d responded to her home quite a few times over the years.
“It just felt right for her to be with our family,” says Stephanie Myers, Clay’s wife.
Lily calls the Myers family her angels.
“I wasn’t with them long, but I was with them long enough to be loved,” Lily says.
“She’s overcome by leaps and bounds,” Stephanie says. “She went through a lot. She could have let it define her and become another statistic. She’s moving mountains and doing amazing things.”
According to national statistics, 30 percent of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children, continuing the cycle.
“Motherhood saved my life,” Lily says. “As a mom, it’s so important to me to make sure my kids grow up and don’t have to look back like I did and wish their childhood was different. My job is to make them great human beings.”
Since her teen years, Lily has continued to battle adversity. She dealt with abusive relationships, became a young mother and tried to keep her head above water.
“There were times I thought I was not going to make it,” Lily says, “but I’m here. I’m here to tell my story.”
In front of a group of women last March, Lily walked to the podium at the women’s enrichment event and began sharing stories of the trials she’s endured. She didn’t prepare notes. She just talked from the heart, hoping different pieces of her story would inspire different women in the crowd.
“You don’t really know what people are going through,” she says.
Today, Lily helps her husband, Cody, run a trucking business. She also works full time helping car dealerships across the U.S. install software to sell vehicles online. She knows having a successful career and raising a loving family is not the norm for women who’ve endured what she has.
While she still talks to her adoptive father, her adoptive mother died 10 years ago from ovarian cancer. Facebook helped Lily connect with her biological father and siblings.
“I talk to my biological dad nearly every day,” Lily says, admitting that they’re working on their relationship.
As she chats about what its like mothering a 14-month-old, a 4-year-old and an 8-year-old, a floral tattoo peeks out behind a cut-out of her shirt. She shares that the ink is a jasmine flower intertwined with a lily. Her name at birth was Jasmine.
Lily says one day she’ll sit down and write about her life. “The title of it is ‘Changing Flowers,’” she says. “I changed flowers and I am still blooming, still growing.”
Editor’s Note: Because Lily’s adoptive parents were never charged with any crime, we have withheld their names from this story.