August 5, 2008

‘Back in the Trenches’


A video camera followed Tonier Cain through Clay Street as she pointed to the places where she ate from trash cans and sold her body to fund her crack addiction.

The camera also filmed Ms. Cain as she is now - a mother, homeowner, consultant and speaker on drug addiction. She often travels through her old neighborhood searching for drug addicts who want to recover.

But now she is accompanied by Laura Cain and Diana Gross, of True Lens Productions. The women are filming a documentary of Ms. Cain's life from age 9 to the present. It will feature her highest and lowest points: struggles with abuse, losing four children to foster care to rebuilding her life after her youngest daughter was born nearly four years ago.

The documentary will be complete in the spring, and the release date has not yet been set.

Ms. Cain is going to Hawaii soon to speak at a conference and the rest of the year is filled with similar speaking engagements across the country.

"I remember eating out of the trash, prostituting and getting kicked and spit on and called names," Ms. Cain, 40, said. "I cannot imagine coming on Clay Street and not helping people. I'm back in the trenches."

Ms. Cain and Ms. Gross first worked with Ms. Cain when they shot the documentary film "Behind Closed Doors." Ms. Cain was one of four women who spoke about their struggles to overcome child abuse. They decided to pursue Ms. Cain's life for another project.

"People come up and ask for her autograph. She's a real celebrity," said Ms. Gross, the producer and director. "With her, I've learned to keep the camera on, the tape in and the battery charged. When she's on, things are rolling. Don't ever turn the camera off."

Commonly known as "Neen," Ms. Cain is the oldest of 10 children. She started drinking alcohol at age 9 and was separated from the rest of her family by the time she was 11. Over the years, she experimented with drugs, eventually discovering crack cocaine. She married at 18 and had a child. After they divorced, her ex-husband retained custody of their son, who is now 22.

As time wore on, she delved further and further into drug abuse, often turning to prostitution to get money for drugs and often slept under bridges. She became pregnant three more times, giving birth to two sons, now ages 20 and 17; and a daughter, who is now 19. They have all been adopted and she hasn't had any contact with them, she said.

Her closest friend at the time was Toni Williams, a fellow addict. They spent most of their time at a bar, which is now the site of a laundromat. They would go to apartments above the bar and use drugs with other addicts.

"We'd sit in the hallway using all day long," Ms. Cain said. "We got into fights, but we looked out for each other. We were in jail together all the time."

Ms. Williams now lives in Kansas City, Mo., working with a program that helps at-risk teenagers. She entered treatment nearly three years ago after doctors told her that her drug use was wearing on her weak heart.

"I don't know how we made it, but we did. ... We were searching for love in all the wrong places," said a tearful Ms. Williams during a videotaped interview outside of the Stanton Center. "They say one out of 10 make it. She was one of the 10 and I was one of the 10. That means there are more we have to get."

In the 1990s, Ms. Cain was homeless and in and out of jail for drug possession, theft, assault and robbery. Aside from prostitution, she found different ways to fund her habit. There was a period in 1995 when she solicited rides from two different women. Police said she stole one woman's purse and took cash from the dashboard of another woman's car.

By 2004, Ms. Cain was incarcerated in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup when she learned she was pregnant again. She didn't want to give up another child and received information about Tamar Inc., which helped recently paroled women raise their children.

Ms. Cain was paroled into the program and when her daughter, Orlandra, was born in August, Ms. Cain and the baby were able to live in a residential facility. During that time, she received therapy and learned parenting skills. The therapy helped Ms. Cain understand the reasons behind her drug use. She had been raped multiple times and also was traumatized by having her other children taken away from her. She used drugs to numb the pain.

"I left home at young age and went to streets," Ms. Cain said. "I've been struggling for 20 years. When you don't know there's a different direction to move in, you don't strive to do anything else. I went from 'I am nothing' to 'I am somebody.' "

Now, Ms. Cain is a homeowner and lives with her daughter in Brooklyn Park and is a construction coordinator with Habitat for Humanity. She also works with the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, where she travels around the country talking about her experiences.

Larry Griffin, also a recovering addict, said he is pleased to see Ms. Cain has turned her life around and continues to help the community. Ms. Cain is on the board of We Care and Friends, Mr. Griffin's nonprofit group that provides resources to the low-income community, including drug and alcohol treatment.

"It feels good to see someone that's changed," Mr. Griffin said. "(As an addict) people trust me and that's what you have to have. People have to trust and listen to what you have to say."

When she's not traveling, Ms. Cain likes to spend as much time as she can with her daughter. They often go to the movies, or get manicures and pedicures together.

"I want her to know everything I can have, she can have," Ms. Cain said. "She knows, 'my mommy owns her own home, my mommy goes to work every day and she's paying bills on time.' This breaks the cycle." {Corrections:} {Status:}


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