Christina VanTornhout stared out the window at the broad expanse of blue.
In her mid-twenties and several months pregnant, she was being driven over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, toward a Sarasota maternity group home.
VanTornhout was nervous. She had never crossed the bridge before. She had no ties in the counties below Hillsborough and Pinellas. And most of those she left behind were sources of betrayal or pain.
That day as the car reached the apex of the bridge, beginning its long descent south, VanTornhout felt utterly alone – not realizing her life was about to dramatically change.
‘I brought you into this world, and I’ll take you out’
Born and raised in Clearwater, Van Tornhout remembers an abusive childhood in which she was molested, surrounded by drugs and sometimes given muscle relaxants and alcohol to treat her menstrual cramps.
By the age of 16, she recalls snorting cocaine with her mom.
Through the years, caring teachers, noticing bruises, tried to intervene. But each time, VanTornhout covered for her mother.
“I ran my bike into a wall,” she told them, or blamed a scar on a dog.
Her mother was the only family that she had, she felt. She knew nothing about her father. The emptiness within left her clinging to this single scrap of kin.
Expelled from school in her junior year for missing classes, VanTornhout worked fast-food jobs.
Returning home from a shift one night after her 18th birthday, she found her suitcase on the doorstep. Her mother was kicking her out.
VanTornhout bounced around, living with friends, using drugs and changing jobs every few months – cleaning and painting houses, stocking shelves at Walmart, detailing cars.
Devastated by her mother’s eviction, VanTornhout managed to keep her at the margins of her life.