No Way Out

When Wendy Huddleston fell $1,370 behind in child-support payments, she was jailed indefinitely. She needed money or a lawyer -- and she had neither.

As a prisoner at the St. Louis County Jail, Wendy Huddleston spent her waking hours working earnestly toward earning free phone passes -- taking GED classes, attending sessions on parenting and building healthy relationships, serving food to other prisoners -- all in the hopes of telephoning her children. She described them as her "little babes," and what she missed most were their hugs and kisses, watching Disney movies together and the way she used to tuck them into bed at night. She pictured their blond hair, the way her son's round face resembled her own, the sadness in her daughter's eyes.

Seated behind the glass window of a visitation booth, wearing khaki jail garb and a plastic rosary around her neck, Wendy fights back tears as she describes how, on Easter Sunday, more than three months into her incarceration, her phone coupons paid off. Her ex-husband actually picked up the phone, bypassing the answering machine, and he agreed to put on 5-year-old Sky for a brief conversation.

She couldn't tell the boy where she was calling from or why she was there. "He asked me where I was at," Wendy says. "I told him I was doing the Lord's work so he wouldn't worry. He said, 'Yeah, but where are you?' And he cried. 'Why can't you come visit me? Don't you love me anymore?'"

Wendy Huddleston and niece Amber Hohlt after Huddleston's release from jail: "I could have sat there for a long time."
Jennifer Silverberg
Wendy Huddleston and niece Amber Hohlt after Huddleston's release from jail: "I could have sat there for a long time."

Wendy had plenty of time to think inside her jail cell about her disastrous decision to leave the two kids home alone one night as she went across the street to a neighbor's home, a decision that ended her marriage and cost her custody of Sky and Star. That wasn't why she found herself behind bars on Jan. 12 -- or the reason she was kept in jail indefinitely -- but it gave her plenty to feel guilty about as she pondered her fate. "It's my fault," she told herself. "It's all my fault."

During the daytime, other prisoners peppered her with questions: "Why are you still here? Why can't you get out? Why haven't you gone to court?" Wendy, a 27-year-old high-school dropout with little knowledge of the legal system, had no answers. She wasn't charged with a crime, but she was imprisoned for civil contempt -- a legal measure used to force an unwilling party to comply with a court order. In her case, the order involved $1,370 in unpaid child support. Wendy, a former stay-at-home mom who had not worked in years, did not have the money. Nor did her father, a disabled Vietnam War veteran. She didn't have a lawyer, either, and under the law, indigent clients like her are not entitled to legal representation in civil cases.

Before she settled into her metal bunk at night, she closed her eyes and prayed. She prayed for the safety of her two children; she prayed for her own. She prayed for a lawyer, a court date, a hearing or some way to come up with the $1,370 that could set her free. Weeks in jail turned into months, and by April, having already served more than three months behind bars, Huddleston feared she might never get out of what seemed like a modern-day debtor's prison.

"I can't believe there is no help for people in this position," she says. "It's a nightmare. I didn't think this could happen." It is April 28.

Her marriage fell apart in the summer of 1997. Both Wendy and her ex-husband, Phillip, who were married in 1994, agree the marriage was troubled, and the discord in their relationship reached a boiling point on June 20, 1997.

The two argued before Phillip left for his night shift as a machinist. Today, he says it's too long ago to remember the details, but Wendy says they fought over a broken clothes dryer, which Phillip insisted she have repaired before he returned home around 2 a.m. She says he was abusive; he denies it. In any case, Wendy says that after putting her two children to bed that night, she went across the street to a neighbor's home, hoping to have someone sit with her and help her stay calm until her husband came home. Her son, Sky, then 2-and-a-half, woke up and left their Fenton mobile home. A Jefferson County sheriff's deputy on a routine traffic stop at 12:40 a.m. spotted the boy playing in the street in his diaper. When Wendy arrived home, she was arrested and charged with child endangerment.

She acknowledges it was a terrible mistake. "It was poor judgment," she says. "I still put myself on bad guilt trips over it. It's tearing me apart."

In less than a week, Phillip told her to move out of the mobile home and sought an order of protection, keeping Wendy away from the home and the children. He says it was the last in a long string of occasions when she had left the kids alone; Wendy denies it, saying the endangerment incident was blown out of proportion to paint her as an unfit mother. He filed for divorce in August. Nine months later, in May 1998, a judge heard the case, and Wendy fared poorly. At the recommendation of a guardian ad litem appointed in the case, she lost custody of her children and received just two hours a week of supervised visitation. The judge wrote that she posed a threat to her children because of her "history" of leaving them unsupervised. Six months after the date of the decree, she was to begin paying $100 a month in child support.

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