"Hey bitch!" Calvin yells as Rita arrives at 6:30 one evening. He is peeved that she has spent some of her welfare check on speed, food for herself and on a motel room to shower. "Get the hell out of here!" demands Calvin, who earlier that day had grabbed her by the neck and slammed her against the apartment wall.
Ashley breaks into tears, trailing Rita out the door. Calvin threatens to beat his daughter with a belt when she returns.
The next day, the squall has passed and Rita is back, cooking over a hot plate on the floor. Ashley, squatting alongside her, whispers into Rita's ear. "If he keeps drinking, you'll take me away, huh?" Rita smiles, enjoying the power that comes with knowing that Calvin's own daughter would rather be with her.
All Ashley knows is that Rita seems to care.
The youngster opens a small cardboard box and removes a hospital bracelet, a treasured keepsake, reminding her of the day she was rescued by Rita.
Although she was vomiting and could barely walk earlier this year, she says her father wouldn't take her to the emergency room.
He recently had gone there with Kevin to find out why his neck sometimes twitches from side to side. Social workers questioned Calvin after noticing bruises and scratches on the boy. They later visited the house at least three times, neighbors and others say, but allowed the children to remain.
Although Calvin did not want to risk a repeat, Rita insisted on taking Ashley to the emergency room. "If Rita wasn't there," Ashley says, "I'd be dead already."
The five days Ashley spent in the hospital with pneumonia, she says, were the best of her life.
"I had my own bedroom, an IV in my arm. My own bed. A TV. I could play. Put my clothes in a bathroom."
When it was time to leave, Ashley cried. "I wanted to go back," the girl says. "It was my home."
And now she and her brother must adjust to yet another one. Calvin and Rita, facing eviction after paying no rent for half a year, have decided to leave for Bakersfield, 140 miles away. There, Rita says, she will take parenting classes to get her son back from foster care.
She and Calvin say they will leave behind their problems with drug addiction. "We need to change our environment. No one knows you. No low-life friends. It's so easy," Calvin says, waving his hand. In Alcoholics Anonymous, this type of denial is so common it has a name: "doing a geographic."
After shooting up speed in the bathroom, Calvin packs the family's few remaining possessions for the bus ride they will all take that night.
Ashley, cynical beyond her 10 years, is resigned to more disappointment.
"He says we'll leave and he'll stop doing drugs," she says, sitting on her apartment stoop. "But I don't believe him."
In School, a Brief Taste of Normal Life
Given the choice, many schoolchildren would prefer watching TV or playing with a prized toy at home. But for the vast majority of youngsters whose parents are full-blown alcoholics or addicts, classrooms are their refuge--their only connection to a normal life, a sense of blending in, getting at least one meal a day. They try their best, as if their lives depended on it, to show up.
In the process, however, they pose special challenges--and problems--for teachers and classmates alike. These children, despite their earnestness, too often are warming the seat more than learning. The extra attention they require robs other students of learning time.
At Washington Middle School in Long Beach--where a purple banner proclaims "Be Drug Free"--seventh-grade health teacher Ann Rector estimates that nearly a third of her 185 students live in substance-abusing families.
"They are so behind the other kids," Rector says. "They get frustrated and angry because they feel stupid."
Some come to class with their jackets reeking of crack. Others talk about how they put to bed passed-out parents and about fathers who get drunk and mean.
Without alarm clocks or anyone to wake them up, the children often wander into class late. Once there, many drift off.
Rector remembers the time two girls from the same home fell asleep because they had been up until 5 a.m. taking care of a baby sibling while their mother, Rector believes, was on a drug binge. When the mother arrived to retrieve her girls--after being summoned by the school--she promptly pummeled them to the sidewalk with her fists.
Such experiences understandably make children distrustful of adults, including teachers, further complicating the educational mission.
Ritchie Eriksen, program facilitator for safe and drug-free schools for the Long Beach Unified School District, remembers a picture one 5-year-old girl drew of her father. "This is my dad and he likes to drink beer and smoke pot," she wrote on the top.