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Milena's mentor stays on the case

After enduring a Soviet orphanage, foster care and the streets, Milena Slatten found a job and role model. But learning to trust isn't easy.

February 02, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

CONSIDERING that her mother tried to throw her out a third-story window when she was 3, and that she spent five years in an orphanage in the destitute former Soviet republic of Georgia and five years in American foster homes, a psychiatric hospital and a lockdown facility for troubled kids, Milena Slatten, 20, is faring incredibly well.

Two years ago, she was homeless, but now she's earned her GED and works full time as a clerk in the Los Angeles County courthouse. She has no criminal record. She doesn't drink. She doesn't smoke or do drugs, even prescription medications. When she was a child, the social workers had filled her with a cocktail of mood stabilizers that left her days blurry. Now she'd rather be depressed than zonked out.

Most important, she has a friend -- an impressive, reliable one -- which is a rarity for former foster kids. He is Thomas Higgins, 65, a career prosecutor responsible for almost all the arraignments in the city of Los Angeles. She calls him Tommy.

Although studies have shown the importance of positive adult role models for kids leaving foster care, a 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office described how difficult it was for states to recruit people to serve as mentors. Higgins, for example, has been spending 50 to 60 hours a month for the last 11 months essentially trying to rescue Milena.

For all her progress, there are continual pitfalls. For Higgins, it is a test of faith and fortitude; for Milena, it is a struggle to learn to trust. "I am the type of person to usually obliterate or basically ruin a relationship because I feel someone is getting close to me," she says.

Milena met Higgins when he showed up at a mixer for potential mentors at Covenant House, a Hollywood homeless shelter where she was living. She called him the next day about a job, and he hired her for $8.50 an hour.

On most days, she works at the prosecution table in Division 30, one of the busiest criminal courtrooms in the city. The tumult there seems to suit Milena, a small tomboyish figure, with wide cheekbones, long blond hair and the walk of a construction worker.

One day a couple of months ago, decked out in slim black pants and a blouse bought by Higgins and his wife, Diane, she looked positively giddy as cameras crowded the courtroom for the arraignment of a fire captain accused of killing a woman.

Higgins watches over her from a cluttered office high atop the courthouse, with panoramic views of the city and evidence of a life well-lived, including professional citations and pictures of his eight grown kids. None of them needs him the way Milena does.

Higgins, former head of the district attorney's sex crimes and juvenile divisions, didn't start out to save her. Tall and lean from years of running, he looks like a G-man from the 1940s and speaks bluntly.

"I was just trying to get her a job," he says, but then Milena showed up for the first day of work looking like a "trusty from the county jail," a tiny macho spark plug in a man's work shirt and bulky jeans. She was clearly bright, mouthy and a know-it-all even when she didn't know it all. Yet he noticed how she flinched if he was too busy for her.

"She had this look of rejection like I'd kicked her," he recalls.

In the early days, Higgins just tried to steer Milena through the day without mishap. He took her to lunch because she had no money and was always ravenous. He taught her table manners. He coached her on when it was appropriate to banter in the office and when it wasn't, on politeness, and then moved up to more serious life lessons such as keeping one's commitments and the importance of always telling the truth. He signed her up for classes at a community college, worked out her green-card issues, arranged for healthcare, and took her out on weekends with his wife to movies and dinner.

But even day-to-day devotion couldn't trump the pull of the past. At the end of the summer, Milena announced she was quitting the district attorney's office, leaving her Covenant House subsidized apartment and returning to Indiana to live with her adoptive father, Christopher Slatten. This was the man who with his wife had adopted her from the Georgian orphanage and who later was arrested and charged with neglect for allegedly locking Milena in a feces-strewn basement, and with battery for allegedly stripping her down and touching her "in an insolent manner."

Slatten was acquitted of the charges, but that didn't make Higgins feel any better about her going back to live with him.

HIGGINS tried to talk her out of going. But Milena persisted. "I can't make a decision based on other people's opinions. I'll never be able to think for myself," she said.

A few nights before her departure, she holed up in her apartment trying to download music onto a new iPod using a borrowed computer. Milena's favorite pastime was to barricade herself in and listen to hard rock or watch martial arts and superhero movies.

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