From Breakdown to Breakthrough: Vanessa’s Story


The American Academy of Pediatrics cites toxic stress as one of today’s greatest threats to children’s health, and what threatens a child’s health also threatens the health and well-being of the family. Toxic Stress is defined as frequent or prolonged exposure to traumatic events, such as physical or emotional abuse, substance abuse, mental illness and violence, in the absence of protective factors.  As a result of this kind of prolonged activity, cognitive impairment and stress-related disease is imminent well into adulthood.  In an effort to reduce toxic stress in families, Be Strong Families partnered with the American Academy of Pediatrics through their National Head Start Center on Health to train physicians and early childhood providers on several of our parent engagement curricula.  Additionally, Be Strong Families launched a parent friendly Toxic Stress website ( loaded with strategies, tips and information on ways to combat toxic stress.

In Dec. 2016, I interviewed parent leader Vanessa Banks about the impact of toxic stress on her life and that of her family.  At that time, Vanessa and her husband Darshawn lost custody of their four children due to poor choices and risky behaviors.  (Click here to learn the backstory and read our interview.)  Since that time, Vanessa and Darshawn have diligently worked together to regain custody of their children and put the pieces of their lives back together.  And although their family’s story is one of things getting worse before they got better, you can clearly see the Strengthening Families Protective FactorsTM at work with this family.  Research shows that when protective factors are activated in our lives, we are able to mitigate the harmful effects of toxic stress. 

A lot has transpired with Vanessa and her family since we sat down for our interview a year and a half ago. After serving 18 months in Cook County Jail, Darshawn was sentenced to 1 year of parole and put on house arrest.  He landed at his mother’s home where he was joined by Vanessa.  Tensions between Vanessa and her mother-in-law escalated and eventually, Vanessa found herself homeless, sleeping in her car in her mother-in-law’s driveway.   Stripped of her children, husband out of work and on house arrest, and homeless. One would think that this scenario would have been the tipping point for Vanessa.  However, Vanessa shared with me that this scenario wasn’t the worst part of her storm; it was not knowing where her children were for 30 days that nearly killed her.  “My husband talked to me every night that I slept in my car and often, he would sleep in the car with me.  I cried every night, but I knew I couldn’t give up; if I gave up, that would be like me giving up on my family.” 

Vanessa and Darshawn credit Vanessa’s strong faith in God and her determination as the sources of resilience that helped her push through that dark moment in her life. She knew that if she kept working her plan, one day her family would all be back together again.   There was a court-appointed plan to help Vanessa and Darshawn get their family back and then there was Vanessa’s own personal plan to do the self-work and heal old wounds. Vanessa knew she had to commit to taking better care of herself and in doing so, she would ultimately be able to take care of her family.  Both Vanessa and Darshawn participated in parenting classes and Vanessa also had the opportunity to work on anger issues in anger management classes.  On her own, Vanessa sought domestic violence counseling to address a pattern of seeking out abusive relationships.  And somehow, she also managed to juggle mentoring birth parents like herself, go to school to pursue an associate degree in business administration and work a job at Pizza Hut. Vanessa’s older sister Varonica assumed custody of her four children.  This was an ideal situation for Vanessa because the two were extremely close and Vanessa trusted that her sister would be a great caregiver for her children.  Shortly thereafter, Vanessa and Darshawn gained supervised visits with the children and eventually unsupervised visits.   Vanessa cites her husband Darshawn and her sister Varonica as her positive social connections; they encouraged and supported her throughout her journey back to a healthy, positive life. 

Then, the tide began to shift.  Old issues with Vanessa’s oldest child began to resurface. At an early age, he had bouts of aggression and acting out behavior. Ultimately, his behavior led to numerous school suspensions because his teachers didn’t know how to treat him and get him the help he needed.  His behaviors progressed, and they began to surface in Varonica’s home too. Varonica had custody of her nephew for one year, but his depression and homicidal thoughts were too much for her to handle. Eventually, Vanessa’s son was placed in a residential facility for children with mental health issues.  Vanessa stayed strong and flexible; she continued to work her plan AND actively parent her troubled child.  Vanessa visited with her son twice a week and participated in his service plan to ensure that he was on the right track to get the help he needed.  Within a year, her son’s behavior and moods began to improve.  Vanessa also credits Be Strong Families with helping her to improve communication between herself and her son. 

Vanessa’s concrete supports – all of the counseling services she received – paid off!  She worked through her demons and took ownership of the choices she made that sent her life in a downward spiral.  In June 2017, Vanessa and Darshawn moved into a new home.  The following month, Darshawn completed his sentence.   And on Sept 9, 2017, the 3 youngest children were returned home!  Vanessa’s oldest son was returned home from residential care on April 20, 2018. 

When asked what wisdom from her traumatic lived experience she would pass on to her children, Vanessa replied: “Learn from your mistakes. The things and people I took for granted, I now cherish every day.  Even when they (my children) get on my nerves, I have to step back and take a woo-sah and then I think about everything we’ve been through.  We’re gonna continue to make mistakes – I’m still learning with my children.  But I want my children to get the lesson out of what happened so that none of our mistakes are repeated.” 

Resilience, Social Connections, Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development, Concrete Support and Social Emotional Competence of Children (Communication)- these are the protective factors that act as a buffer against adversity and thereby reduce toxic stress. The Protective Factors aren’t a magic wand; they can’t make all your problems disappear, but when activated, these protective factors help to keep our children safe and our families strong. Just ask Vanessa Banks. 

Article by Dena Chapman, Field Support Coordinator and A More Perfect Union Project Lead

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