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The cycle of chaos and disorder began early for Tonita Espinoza.
Born Dec. 6, 1968, in Ogden, Espinoza's life is a case study in extremes. She was a talented high school athlete but was beaten and abused. She wanted a military career but ended up dealing drugs. Social workers removed her from her parents' home as an adolescent and, later, she lost her own children.
Espinoza is gregarious and warm, but earlier this year she described the conflict, crime and chaos of her life with startling candor. The story could fill volumes but, she said, the pivotal moment was when the Division of Child and Family Services took her children.
"It's like you're trapped," she said. "It's like walking soulless. You stop caring. You can't do anything to change it. The only thing you have left is a desire to die."
Espinoza didn't die, but as bad as losing her children was, the experience was just the middle chapter in a nearly half-century story that split up three generations of parents and children. It was a cycle of families torn apart that pulls back the curtain on the challenges, limits and according to Espinoza failures of government efforts to protect children from harmful situations.
The first generation • Espinoza experienced chaos from the beginning. During a series of interviews earlier this year, she described being abused by her godfather and beaten by her stepfather, who she said was an alcoholic. When she confided in her mother, Espinoza was told to keep quiet.
"My mother didn't want anyone to know," she explained.
By the time she was 14, word of the abuse had leaked out and social workers stepped in, making Espinoza the first child in this story to be separated from her parents.
The Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) does not comment on specific cases.
Espinoza said authorities placed her in a series of foster homes. None clicked, in part due to different cultural backgrounds, and she ended up having conflicts and running away.
Espinoza's early years read like a checklist from the influential "Adverse Childhood Experiences Study." Conducted by the Center for Disease Control in the late 1990s, the study examined how abuse, neglect and household dysfunction influence people later in life.
Ominously, the study concluded that "the short- and long-term outcomes of these childhood exposures include a multitude of health and social problems." Those problems manifest themselves later in life and include alcoholism, illicit drug use, risk of intimate partner violence, depression and other issues.
A downward spiral • Despite Espinoza's early challenges, she excelled as an adolescent. She worked at the Prestwich Bean Co. in Ogden, did well in school and ran track. She joined the ROTC. And after a series of failed placements with foster parents, she finally found peace in the home of Rita and Arnold Ortiz.
"We just automatically connected," Rita Ortiz said.
But as Espinoza approached adulthood, setbacks became fast and fierce. First, while only 18, doctors diagnosed her with cervical cancer. Then, just months after enlisting in the Navy, she fainted during training in Florida and eventually received a medical discharge.
By summer's end after her high school graduation, Espinoza was back in Utah. She began a relationship with Christopher Quintana, and the young couple moved to Salt Lake City. On Dec. 28, 1988, Espinoza gave birth to their first child, Ashley Quintana. Two years later, she gave birth to a second child, Crystal.
Espinoza and Christopher Quintana's relationship was troubled. She called him a "deadbeat" and said for years he beat her, an assertion supported by his string of assault and battery charges in the late '80s and '90s. After seven years together, Espinoza left and then divorced Quintana but quickly fell into a relationship with a drug dealer. Soon, she too was dealing.
"I sold drugs," she said without flinching. "Cocaine."
Espinoza is jarringly honest about this period of her life. During lunch at a Mexican restaurant earlier this spring where she warmly greeted the staff by name Espinoza spoke openly about her criminal record. She recalled becoming a successful drug dealer. After thriving in Salt Lake Community College's social work program, she switched to criminal justice so she could learn how to avoid the cops.
Espinoza later moved back to Ogden to be with her mother, but the move was ill-fated: Her mother's boyfriend abused Ashley and Crystal, she said.
Ashley criticized her mom for not doing more, saying she was forced to "grow up in the mother role."
Espinoza agreed that Ashley didn't have much of a childhood, but added that when she learned of the abuse, she was outraged and asked friends to "take care" of the situation.
"I asked them to bring me his tongue," Espinoza said. "I never got it. But he got beat up really bad."
The second generation •Espinoza's lifestyle caught up to her in late 2000. Court records show that starting in November and continuing into 2001, she faced a slew of felony and misdemeanor charges, mostly drug-related. Espinoza is open about her legal troubles, though the details can be dizzying to track.
Espinoza's criminal cases had two results. First, she spent four years in prison, in part because at one point she fled with Ashley.
The second result was even more devastating: Like her parents before her, Espinoza lost custody of her children. Family members adopted Ashley and Crystal, Espinoza said, while her two young sons Nere de Jesus Rico was born in 1996 and Mark Anthony Arredondo was born in 1999 went to strangers.
For Ashley, the experience was a formative part of a long and increasingly chaotic adolescence. In the years that followed, she continued to run from the law, was arrested, experimented with drugs and fell in with a gang.
"I was ruthless," she said of her teenage years.
For Espinoza, losing her children was a low point.
"I just realized," Espinoza said, "I failed as a mother."
When abuse continues • University of Utah professor David Derezotes who studies social work and child abuse said the reasons families fall into patterns like Espinoza's are complex. He estimated that about one in 20 victims becomes a perpetrator, adding that harmful situations are "easily passed on" from one generation to another.
Derezotes pointed to alcohol something Espinoza also mentioned as a contributing factor in her own early abuse as a problem because it breaks down people's inhibitions.
"Alcohol works on your frontal lobe, or the 'brake' for your impulses," Derezotes said, adding that some drugs can produce a similar effect.
Jenn Oxborrow, the domestic-violence program administrator at DCFS, compared a child's developing mind to a sponge that "soaks up" what it's exposed to.
"If you're constantly exposed to violence," she said, "that's what you're going to absorb."
The result is that children who grow up in traumatic or stressful homes may devote a significant portion of their developmental energy to surviving. Later, Oxborrow said, they can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which interferes with emotions and decision-making.
"It seems to me that the more risk a child faces, the greater risk to them as an adult," Oxborrow concluded.
Elizabeth Sollis, a spokeswoman for DCFS, pointed out that environmental factors may also play a role.
"There are probably other contributing factors," she said. "Poverty, income level, education."
Once a family begins experiencing abuse it also can be difficult to stop. Oxborrow said people sometimes don't report abusive situations because they may not know what resources are available or because there could be a stigma attached to calling authorities.
The third generation • Seven home pregnancy tests came up positive, but Ashley Quintana wouldn't believe she was pregnant until she visited a doctor.
"They did an ultrasound and there was an egg," Ashley said. "My heart just dropped."
It was June 2012 nearly a decade after Espinoza lost custody of Ashley and the now 22-year-old young woman had believed that, like others in her family, she couldn't have children. But seven months later, on Dec. 19, 2012, she gave birth to Angelino Jacobo. He was two months early and tested positive for an array of drugs, Ashley said, including marijuana, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone and benzodiazepine.
The years leading up to Angelino's birth were hard on Ashley, who is quieter than her mother but no less frank. After an embattled adolescence while Espinoza was in prison, an older couple ran into Ashley's car three years ago. She ended up with a back injury.
Ashley received a prescription for percocet. At first, she recalled, she used the potent painkiller to help with her injuries, but soon she started abusing it.
Eventually, Ashley started combining percocet with cocaine, using the pain meds to soften the blow of coming down. When she finally became pregnant, Ashley was still using drugs.
After Angelino's birth, Ashley tried to comply with DCFS orders but, by the end of 2012, the agency stepped in again and the story repeated: Ashley lost her son.
"It really is hard not to not just want to crawl in a hole and die," she said. "I feel like a big part of me is missing."
A larger issue • Officials at DCFS don't keep figures on the number of families that find themselves in the same situation as Espinoza and Ashley, cycling through the system generation after generation.
However, Sollis said that between January 2010 and January 2013 there were 2,934 perpetrators involved in DCFS cases who also were previously victims. Those people represent 13.4 percent of all 21,855 "supported perpetrators" or people for whom there was enough evidence to open DCFS cases.
Sollis could not comment on any particular case, but Ashley, as a mother who was taken into custody herself and then had her own child adopted out, presumably is one of those people.
Oxborrow also stressed that of all the potential cases that are called in, fewer than 40 percent are opened and supported. Of those cases, fewer than 5 percent result in DCFS removing a child.
The chaos continues • The story of Espinoza's family offers no easy answers or tidy resolutions. In March, the family protested at the Utah Capitol. They wore shirts displaying a picture of Ashley holding Angelino and hoisted signs calling out DCFS for the way it handled the case. Espinoza's voice echoed through the cavernous hall. Ashley's quavered.
Espinoza accepts responsibility for losing Ashley and her other children, tearfully saying at one point that "her selfish addiction" robbed her kids of their childhood.
But they did say the system doesn't work and they were victimized as a result. Their list of grievances is long, but they say that one of the most important is that Angelino should have gone to his father but DCFS refused because they lost his paternity test twice. Ashley also said Angelino was improperly adopted out in December before her parental rights were terminated.
"My daughter may have done some things that were wrong, but so did the state," Espinoza said. "My daughter lost her son; what did the state get? They need to stand and take accountability."
Espinoza and Ashley both have plans to keep fighting the state over Angelino's removal. They intend to get a lawyer. They hope to prevent future situations like the one they experienced.
In the meantime, chaos remained ever present in their lives. During a conversation in early August, Ashley sounded despondent, her voice low and slow as she described trying to figure out what do next. A few days later, Espinoza described her own troubles, which continue seemingly unabated. Toward the end of the conversation, Espinoza paused, then her voice cracked as she said the hardest part is watching her children struggle.
"We've had so much trauma in our lives," she said. "I worry about my kids."