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Broken Bonds: Abused girl saved by foster system
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Hall County adoption rates

September 2013 to August 2014: 19%
Year to date: 19%
2013: 31%
2012: 24%

Sierra Downs does not remember the beating.

But county officials do.

Fourteen years ago, a 2-year-old girl survived a beating that earned the notorious distinction of being the worst physical abuse case in Hall County history at the time.

“It was the type of thing that just broke your heart,” said Connie Stephens, director at the Hall-Dawson Court-Appointed Special Advocate program, which helped oversee Sierra’s transition into foster care.

Sierra does not remember rejecting the family that welcomed her into their home.

But her adopted mother does.

“She spoke no English, and she was very afraid of everyone,” said Vicki Downs. “She had serious trust issues. She didn’t want you to look at her, talk to her, nothing.”

Sierra does not remember so many of the details of what led to the state removing her from her biological parents’ care.

But she does not need to.

“I remember what’s important,” said the now 16-year-old high school junior. “I remember the finalizing of the adoption and all the celebrations and parties because of that.”

‘One of the lucky ones’

So far this year, 618 Hall County kids like Sierra have been removed from their homes. About 180 of those are in the care of the Division of Family and Children Services in any given month. And so far this year, 19 percent of those in DFCS care have found forever homes with adoptive parents.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” she said.

And she was so in more ways than one.

Sierra has nothing but positive things to say about her time in foster care and the family that embraced her.

‘Start of healing’

Vicki and her husband, Thomas, knew they wanted children. But the infertile couple weren’t sure about foster care.

“As badly as we wanted children, we didn’t think we could do (foster care),” Vicki said. ““We thought that we would get too attached, and we didn’t think that we could deal with having them taken away.”

Then, one day, the couple realized they had too much love to give to not be part of the foster care system.

“It just came to us that even if we had (the child) for just one day, that was one day that that child didn’t have to worry or be scared,” Vicki said. “We decided it was more about what we could give to a child than what we could get from the experience.”

Within a space of 2½ years, the couple welcomed 20 kids into their home. Some stayed for short spurts of time, while others stayed as long as 18 months.

Then, Sierra came to them, still broken and beaten from her abuse. For days, she remained scared of the Downs, wary of the world. She screamed, she hid, she turned her face away. But a trip to the emergency room (after bursting some stitches) left Sierra looking for comfort. As strangers surrounded Sierra, fussing over and fixing her wounds, the girl looked for a familiar face and found one in Vicki.

“She made this hand gesture, one that meant, ‘Come to me,’ and I did,” Vicki said. “She wanted me to hold her, and that, I think, was the start of healing for her.”

What could have been

Now Sierra, and her two brothers, also adopted, live in a home that feels like it has always been.

“It doesn’t even feel like I was adopted,” Sierra said. “I feel like (Vicki and Thomas) are my parents. I don’t feel any different.”

Still, she wonders about what could have been.

“It’s a thought — that what if,” Sierra said. “I don’t know how to explain it, other than sometimes I wonder what the rest of my family was like.”

Vicki understands Sierra’s curiosity.

“I know her and her brothers would much rather have grown up with their birth families,” she said. “I mean, what person wouldn’t?”

But apart from the occasional wondering, the family operates like any other.

“We have our moments, just like any family,” Vicki said.

And that includes moments of extreme pride.

“(Sierra) is something special,” Vicki said.

‘It sets me apart’

Sierra likes her status as an adopted child.

“It doesn’t make me sad,” she said. “It sets me apart.”

And apart she is, say those around her.

At only 16, she has already had a public speaking career, traveling the county for the Hall-Dawson CASA Program, promoting its services and helping to raise funds for the organization. She also has served as an intern for CASA, doing everything from filing paperwork to attending family court. She wants to be a lawyer, and she’s already worked with the state superior clerk of court’s office.

“I want to give back,” she said. “I want to be a success story.”