My Mother Entered Witness Protection, Leaving Me Behind

Danielle Dahl, MSML

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A version of this story appeared in P.S. I Love You

The summer I turned 14 my mother's reckless lifestyle got up to her and she entered WITSEC, the federal witness protection program. The incidents that led up to this Lifetime movie moment weren’t my mother’s first battles with the law or even the first time she 'went away' for a while. She had been in and out of jail most of my life, or just off doing something better than parenting. Instead, it was the first time she ever admitted the truth: she wouldn’t be coming back, and I couldn’t go with her.

I think some tiny part of me was relieved to hear these words. It had been roughly 11 years of broken promises such as:

I’m going to get better.
Soon, I will get a house.

It was time to give up the ghost.

I couldn’t admit it then, but I was tired of the false hope. Pretending that someday I would be normal was exhausting.

The moment she said, “Witness protection,” I knew I would never be normal. The hand had already been dealt, and it was a losing one at that. I wasn't your average child; at 8 years old I learned to play pool in a biker hall from a man named Dog and his friends. It wasn’t standard custodial practice for a grandparent to file a kidnapping claim and have the FBI investigate.

It was reasonably abnormal for people to get divorced in the late ’80s. Nevermind the fact that neither parent had custody of the children.

The irony of the situation was that days before this fateful announcement, I could see my chance at normalcy right before my eyes, an oasis in the desert of lies and wishful thinking. My mother and her recent husband had put a deposit down on the house, and we had received the grand tour. She had happily stated:

This will be your room, Danielle!

The house wasn’t in the greatest of areas, so my grandparents were going to pay for private school. I was thrilled I would start high school somewhere else.

Somewhere, where no one knew me as the sad, little bookworm, who formed an instant bond with all her teachers and got teased. Somewhere, where I wasn’t the weird girl who lived with her grandparents because her mom was a stripper, and her father had tried to kidnap her when she was five and hadn’t been seen since.

And then the FBI raided a house full of Outlaws, and that was the end of that.

The best-laid plans of mice and men…

I do not recall ever seeing my mother have a concrete plan before. I had recognized the signs that she was high: the slurred speech and slightly disturbed phone calls, the faraway look of confused sadness, and the disconnected way she would respond.

I had witnessed her practicing her dance routine for work while telling me things like Private Dancer was her song at the club.

I had noticed drug paraphernalia but not known what it was.

I was dropped off at the babysitter's, while she went to work at night, and then forgotten there when she became too strung out to remember where she had left me.

I had caught glimpses of her at her lowest moments, but this spark of hope in her eyes was entirely foreign.

It was the spark of life and ambitions being realized. It inspired my ever-optimistic self to trust her one more time. It seemed like every wish or dream I had as a child was just one more try away.

I let myself believe that maybe, just maybe, this would be the time she followed through. To give her credit, she did try.

The new biker was a little better than Dog, the old biker. Their love story involved a kidnapping that resulted in a wedding, but at least he acknowledged that the drug-induced stripper lifestyle would end up killing my mom. She was able to kick the heroin habit.

He wanted to get custody of his daughter and wanted my mom to get my sister and I back. We would finally be a family.

To achieve this goal, they had to clean themselves up and leave the biker gang behind. This was the closest they had ever come and were set to move into the house in a matter of days. The feeling of validation in the trust I had given her over all these years, was almost palpable. And then the FBI raided a clubhouse full of Outlaws, and that was the end of that.

…Often go awry

As it turns out, being part of a biker gang like the Outlaws is not conducive to a healthy life. Faced with a lengthy prison sentence, both my mother and her husband, chose to testify for the state. This meant they were no longer safe and needed to be relocated.

I remember listening to her, and my grandmother, try to explain this to me. I felt like I was watching a movie. Suddenly, there was no home with a room for me, no private school, and no dream come true. The situation was quickly morphing into a nightmare.

Instead of starting at a new school, I was going to start high school with the same group of peers, but with a new last name. According to my mom, the government wouldn’t let her take my sister and me. This meant it was safer for my grandma to adopt us and change our last names. For a moment, there was even talk about changing my first name.

It was hard enough explaining to my classmates why my last name had changed since I couldn’t tell anyone my mom was in witness protection. I can only imagine the conversations that would have taken place had I shown up for freshman year as Vanessa or Veronica (my top two choices).

Freshman year of high school was the only year of my life where I struggled academically. I didn’t care anymore. My mom was gone, and I didn’t even know where she was. I also couldn’t understand why, after all the unfairness in my life, even the government had betrayed me.

It was all just too much. Then something switched inside me, and I did the same thing I had done every time my mom’s promises fell flat. I reminded myself that the situation could be worse in some way and that I was the only one who could change the circumstances of my life.

I began attacking my academic life with a vengeance. I enrolled in the school’s Dual Enrollment Program and took college classes at night. I went on to survive high school thanks to my love of writing, the best friends a girl could ask for, and this renewed focus on achieving academic success.

However, I still missed my mom (we spoke on the phone infrequently), resented my grandmother, and continuously wondered about my father. I overloaded myself with school and activities in an attempt to keep busy and avoid dealing with the pain.

That strategy seemed to work, and I skipped my senior year of high school because I had already completed my AA at the community college. I was ready to start USF as a Journalism major, but first, my grandma wanted to take a summer trip.

It was a road trip of sorts to see parts of the country we hadn’t been to before. I didn’t know at the time that my grandmother had known where my mother had been for the last four years and that we were going to see her.

Once we got to the state my mom was living in, my grandma told us the truth about why we were there. I remember being thrilled to see my mom again for the first time in years. Especially since this was something I hadn’t thought possible. The rules regarding witness protection had explicitly forbade us from knowing where she was.

I stood there, ready to see her new house and hear about her new life. I didn’t know at the time that this would change my entire life in more ways than I could have realized. I was no stranger to being abandoned by my mother, but I was naive about what living with her would look like. I was naive to think that things would be sunshine and roses, but I was woefully unprepared for how her life choices would impact my future.

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Words matter. Sharing the pain and evolution found in our life stories compels others to investigate, “How they came to be who they are?” Delving into the events that shaped us as children creates a level of self-awareness each of us can use to establish enduring and essential change. I use my personal history, education as a Management professional, and training as a Life Coach to write insightful articles about leadership and teams, personal development, and everything else that pertains to growth, both professionally and personally.


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