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.

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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 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.

Up until the very end, Wendy says, she begged her husband to reconcile. But once the divorce was final, her life was radically transformed from one of a stay-at-home mom reliant on her husband's salary to one where she relied on various relatives to take her in -- her father in St. Charles County, an elderly uncle in St. Ann. She had a 10th-grade education, no money and a limited employment history as a filing clerk years earlier, before she was married. She had no car and no health insurance. She did not qualify for welfare, but she bought her groceries with food stamps. Huddleston says she was emotionally devastated by it all. "I kept asking myself if there was something I could have done to make my husband try to make it work," she says. "I felt hurt, betrayed."

She says she tried to find work, at one point walking for hours filling out employment applications, but she says she was also suffering from medical problems in the aftermath of the emergency cesarean section that was performed when her daughter was born, six months before the endangerment incident. She maintains she wanted to work, and in April 1999 she began attending counseling sessions at the Metropolitan Employment and Rehabilitation Service in St. Charles County. A counselor at the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Ning Sheng He, concluded she was suffering from depression, attention-deficit disorder and other problems, including post-traumatic stress as a result of the divorce. He wrote a letter on her behalf in March of this year to help get her out of jail, describing how she had been cooperative and wanted help finding work. But he wrote that "due to the functional limitations of her disabilities, she has a lot of issues that need to be addressed.... This counselor feels strongly she is not ready for employment at this moment."

The circumstances that landed Wendy in jail dated back to April 1999, when her ex-husband's attorney, Kimber Baro, went to court seeking to have Wendy found in contempt for failing to pay $600 in child support. She was supposed to begin paying $100 a month starting at the end of October 1998 but had not made payments during that six-month period.

Baro says that after a 10-minute hearing, Circuit Court Judge Samuel Hais signed an order finding Wendy Huddleston in contempt. Wendy says that she never actually spoke to the judge but that Baro insisted she sign some papers or risk having her parental rights terminated. Wendy, who was not represented by a lawyer, says she refused. "I said I wanted to see the judge, but she said the judge didn't want to see me, that it had already been taken care of." Wendy thought that by refusing to sign the documents, the matter was closed. It wasn't. In addition to the $600, the order called for her to pay her husband $300 for his attorney's fees. Baro denies the conversation Wendy described.

By January, Wendy had paid only $130 toward the $600 she had previously owed, and another $800 had accrued from April to December. Wendy says she was called to court again for a hearing on Jan. 6, but when she got there, no one was in the courtroom. She says she inquired of court personnel and says she was told there was no family court that day in her assigned division. "They said there was no court going on in Division 38. I went in the back and asked if there is court in this division, and they said no. They said I would receive something in the mail."

Baro says Wendy was a no-show. She and Phillip Huddleston waited 45 minutes, and the judge signed off on a warrant and commitment order, calling for Huddleston to be picked up and held at the St. Louis County Jail until she paid $1,370 in child support -- the $470 still owed on the original $600 plus $800 in additional support that had accrued through December. Why the order was issued for $1,370 instead of the $1,270 that Baro had sought in her motion is unclear. Attempts to reach Hais for comment were unsuccessful.

Wendy reported to her probation officer on Jan. 12 -- she'd been sentenced to two years' probation as a result of the endangerment case -- and she told the officer she'd received a letter asking her to report to St. Louis County police. The probation officer made some calls, and St. Charles sheriff's deputies promptly appeared and took her into custody. She was brought to the St. Louis County Jail in Clayton.

Wendy's father, Robert Hohlt, says he simply could not afford to pay the $1,370 to bail his daughter out because he lived on a fixed disability income while helping support his son, who was out of work on a worker's compensation claim, and his son's 4-year-old daughter. "We're all a poor family," Hohlt says. "Between paying for a home and my son being sick, there was no extra money."

No one knows precisely how many people are jailed each year for civil contempt in St. Louis County -- or how many end up languishing in jail indefinitely because they lack attorneys. No one keeps track. But the number is probably relatively low -- only one person was being held in the St. Louis County Jail for civil contempt last week.

Shawn Goulet, who heads the Public Defender's Office in St. Louis County, calls civil contempt a "gray zone." Indigent people who are criminally prosecuted for failing to pay child support qualify for a public defender -- and in cases in which more than $5,000 is owed or in which the support is more than six months' delinquent, prosecutors can have a deadbeat parent arrested. In civil-contempt cases like Wendy Huddleston's, however, public defenders are not available. "Our clientele is for criminal nonsupport," Goulet says, "They are being charged by the state of Missouri. We only represent people with state charges who qualify. We don't represent people in civil contempt."

Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, commonly referred to as legal aid, also does not represent indigent clients in civil-contempt cases. Kayla Vaughn, managing attorney with Legal Services' family-law unit, says the nonprofit agency's finite budget is spent based on its priority system, and its limited resources are already "overwhelmed" handling those priorities -- cases involving domestic violence or abuse. A Legal Services corporation regulation also prohibits agency lawyers from representing prisoners, Vaughn says, another reason it could not take on Wendy's case.

She says its not unusual for someone without a lawyer to see their civil case go horribly awry. "It is just appalling," Vaughn says. "I don't think this lady would have ended up in this situation if she had had a lawyer and would probably not have ended up in jail, unless she was defiant and told the judge she had no intention of trying to correct this problem."

Existing case law, however, doesn't afford low-income people a right to legal representation in civil cases. "As it is," Vaughn says, "it's just too bad if you are poor."

In the city of St. Louis, more than 400 people were cited last year for civil contempt related to unpaid child support, and the vast majority were not represented by an attorney. There, it can actually work against you to have a lawyer, says John Dockery, assistant circuit attorney and head of the city's Child Support Unit. "If they want a lawyer, they can get one, but then it's 'You've got enough money to hire a lawyer but not enough to pay child support?'"

Still, he says the civil-contempt process is quite effective at getting deadbeat parents to pay up. If jailed on a Thursday -- the deadbeat docket is heard every other Thursday -- most will pay promptly on Friday morning to avoid a weekend in jail. He stresses the jail time is only temporary. "The idea is not to lock them up; the idea is to get them to pay. Some people, you have to hit them over the head with a 2-by-4, and going to jail for contempt is like hitting them with a 2-by-4. You'll learn eventually to pay support or have a real good reason why you're not." During one week in May, Dockery estimated more than a dozen people were sitting in jail for civil contempt related to child support. But in six years, he adds, only two were incarcerated more than two months, and both of those cases were extreme. One man, for instance, refused to pay without a blood test, and the time to request a blood test had legally passed. "The judge would bring him back every six to eight weeks, ask him the same question, and this guy would give him the same answer." That man spent 14 months in jail.

Dockery insists there are safeguards in the city to ensure someone doesn't languish in jail indefinitely. The cases remain active and are regularly reviewed. "You don't have a situation where the case file is inactive and goes into storage. They are not closed until the contempt is over, and the contempt is over when the person has paid what they owed at the time they were found in contempt."

He says his office hears regularly from those in jail. "They have phone privileges at the City Workhouse, or we hear from their families. They don't just sit there. They are very active in trying to get themselves out, and after a while, if it becomes clear they are not going to be coming up with any money, they are going to get out."

Unfortunately for Wendy Huddleston, the county works differently.

Cases referred by state child-support workers are more likely to be criminally prosecuted than in the city. If a parent owes more than $5,000 in child support or is more that six months' delinquent, he or she can be criminally charged with a Class A misdemeanor or a Class D felony -- the misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in jail, the felony by up to five years. "The reason we usually go with criminal is that there is more leverage on the defendant," says Randye Rosser, an assistant prosecuting attorney who handles child-support cases. "We can get the guy on supervised probation and someone is going to be monitoring him. There is a range of punishment instead of this veiled threat of jail in civil contempt. If you don't comply with probation, you go to jail."

Wendy's case fell into neither of these categories: It was initiated not by a state child-support worker or a prosecutor but by a private attorney pursuing her incarceration as part of the civil child-support case.

Alan Cohen, a private attorney who regularly represents clients in child-support cases, says the entire process can be rather random. State child-support workers have discretion on which cases they refer to prosectors; prosecutors have discretion on which cases they choose to prosecute. In other cases, like Huddleston's, the decision to jail or not to jail rests with the discretion of the particular judge in the case. "In civil-contempt cases, the question is whether (the judge) has the stomach to put somebody in jail for violating a court order," says Cohen. "Some judges do, and some judges don't. I've had cases where I know there is no way this person is going to go to jail, no matter how outrageous the facts are, and then there are some cases where you are scared to death no matter what the violation, the court is going to send them to jail."

Cohen cautions that many people confronted with these legal problems have, in one way or another, "made their own beds."

"It's usually putting their heads in the sand," he says. "Once you lose control of the situation, the easiest thing is to play the victim and say poor pitiful me. And the system plays into that problem."

Whether or not Wendy Huddleston is deserving of any sympathy, she isn't getting any from her ex-husband or his lawyers.

Phillip Huddleston's attorney, Kimber Baro, says she was unaware that Wendy Huddleston remained behind bars for so long. "If she had come up with the money and paid it and been released, I would not have been notified. Phil and I were not in constant communication. I was not aware four months later she was still in there. I would have thought she or her parents would have bailed her out, it was such a small amount of money."

Yet neither Baro nor her law partner, Bruce Eastman, thought four months was too long in her case. "It is not excessive for not supporting your kids," Eastman says, at his law office in Florissant. "It's $100 for two children. If this was a man, we wouldn't be sitting at this table talking. You pay according to your court order or you pay the consequences."

Baro says she had no reason to believe Wendy could not pay. "I think Wendy could have solved this by working 20 hours a week at McDonald's and paying her child support. She chose not to do that. It's my understanding that she is alleging she is now unable to be gainfully employed because she suffers from bipolar, which is manic depression. Millions of people suffer from that. They take Prozac," she says. "They go to work. Wendy can work."

Adds Eastman: "This is a woman who abused her children. This is not some poor, suffering woman who was subjected to an abusive husband who got the better of her in a domestic proceeding. This was a woman who criminally neglected her kids and was charged with it."

At the divorce trial, Baro says there were allegations that Wendy Huddleston had left the children alone repeatedly when Phillip was at work; she also says there were other questions about her fitness as a mother, such as the "condition" and cleanliness of the home. Baro says Wendy has a "veracity" problem. "I think she's a very unhappy lady whose life hasn't turned out the way she wanted it to. She did not want this divorce from Phil. She begged him to drop these proceedings. She still loved him, she wanted him back. And when it finally dawned on her the things she had done meant she wasn't going to get custody, she turned vicious."

Phillip Huddleston, meanwhile, says he had wanted to divorce Wendy even sooner than he did. "We didn't have a good relationship. But if I had got out any sooner, I wouldn't have got custody of the kids. Once this whole thing happened, I knew that she was repeatedly leaving the kids alone and I was not going to stay there and let my kids be neglected and abused like that. My boy was running down the street, just 2 years old and in a diaper. He could have got killed that night. That was the last straw."

Phillip Huddleston's lawyers say the length of time Wendy has been behind bars is her own fault because she must not have tried hard enough to get out.

She could have scheduled a hearing before the judge asking to be released on work release, Eastman maintains, or found an attorney to file the proper motions for her. "You're assuming this lady was so incompetent or so dumb that she didn't even have enough sense to even, with jailhouse talk, get a lawyer to help her get out or to get on the telephone and call the lawyers out of the phone book. We have both taken cases before for people who didn't pay us," he says. "You can't tell me she couldn't call legal aid or the bar association. Legal aid, if she was persistent, would refer her to the bar association, and they would have found her a pro bono lawyer. We would have called (the bar association) ourselves if she'd said, 'You know, I've been locked up for two or three months.' As Kim said, we didn't know she was there.

"There are sources," Eastman adds. "She just didn't work hard enough. Doesn't she have family? Doesn't she have anyone who cares about her?" Referring to her father, Eastman remarks, "Can't he get off his dead ass and help her?"

The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, however, has no list of pro bono lawyers for people like Huddleston. It does have a lawyer-referral service, but it is a list of private attorneys who, after an initial $20 consultation, work out their fees with the clients. Shannon Rayburn, an attorney-referral counselor at the bar association, says there aren't a lot of options for people unable to pay for legal representation. "I get calls from people who've tried everywhere, saying I need a lawyer but I don't have any money," she says. She can refer them to Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, but the agency cannot help in child-support cases. The only other referral she can make, she says, is to Marie Kenyon of the Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, who takes on about a dozen such referral cases every week.

"Beyond that," Rayburn says, "if you don't have any money ..."

Wendy Huddleston and her father say they tried everything they could think of, including calling lawyers out of the phone book. Wendy says she used her limited number of phone-call passes to telephone legal aid and the public defender's office, and she says she tried six lawyers in the phone book. She also wrote letters seeking a copy of her court file in an attempt to decipher her situation on her own, using legal books from a wagonful of books that would stop by her cell block.

"I started reading and trying to find out what my rights were, what I had to do, what I could do. I couldn't understand a lot of it."

Her father, Robert Hohlt, began making phone calls, too, to anyone willing to listen. He estimates he called 30 lawyers, none of whom wanted to take on the case. Hohlt, however, speaks slowly; he says his disabilities make it difficult for him to articulate his thoughts. And when he would recite his daughter's case, whether to lawyers or reporters, it would be both lengthy and in excruciating detail. He would delve into conspiracy theories that he believed led to his daughter's continuing imprisonment, and he would recite the judicial improprieties he perceived in her case: whether she was properly served, whether she was entitled to a new judge after filing a one-line request for a change of judge, whether documents filed in her case disappeared, whether she was being denied access to her court file. His conversations often veered off on tangents about his years of military service, his disabilities and his own legal battles with the Department of Veterans Affairs. He kept some court officials on the phone for more than a half-hour at a time; one politely referred to Hohlt as "difficult."

Hohlt fired off harshly worded letters to the presiding judge and others. He got a response from Paul Fox, the county's director of judicial administration, informing him that his demand for the court records was the responsibility of the circuit clerk. "It appears you are causing yourself unnecessary frustration because you will not contact the proper employees," Fox wrote. He ended his correspondence by saying: "I would strongly recommend that a lawyer be retained to review your daughter's legal claims."

Hohlt called the county's Justice Services. Assistant director Herb Bernsen says he spoke with Holht three or four times. "I talked to Wendy's caseworker about it, and she informed me the court knew about (her continuing incarceration). The caseworker was certainly under the impression the court knew," Bernsen says. "The father wanted all kinds of things from us that were beyond our purview. I do remember telling him the reason the person was there really had to be addressed by the court. That was not in our control."

Huddleston's father also began repeatedly calling The Riverfront Times. When we began inquiring about the legal services available to an indigent client in Wendy's circumstances, a number of lawyers said there was little, if anything, available to her. The public defender's office noted it was a "gray area;" Legal Services said it was a type of case they could not handle. A lawyer with the St. Louis University Law Clinic said its clinic would represent an indigent client in a civil-contempt case, but only if his or her original divorce was handled by the clinic. That lawyer suggested Marie Kenyon, director of the Catholic Legal Services Ministry.

Kenyon works out of an office at St. Louis University, where she is the sole full-time lawyer in the archdiocesan program, though she has help from students, a part-time lawyer and volunteers. Her office concentrates on providing legal help to poor women with children in family-law cases like divorce, paternity, child abuse and spouse abuse, and to children in foster care. Kenyon is also working on a project to create a home near the Missouri women's prison in Vandalia that will offer a low-cost place to stay for children visiting their mothers in prison because the nearest motel is some distance away. Several lawyers describe Kenyon as a woman who will take on a hard-luck case when no one else will. "She's carrying a caseload you wouldn't believe," says one lawyer, "because when all else fails, people call Marie."

When contacted by The Riverfront Times, Kenyon said she wasn't sure who could help someone like Wendy Huddleston.

"There's this sort of gap," Kenyon says. "Where are these people supposed to go? They don't have enough money to pay a lawyer. They don't pay child support. Because they don't pay child support, they end up incarcerated. It's not a good situation. The bottom line is, who suffers? The kids, once again. Not only are the kids not getting any money from their mother or father, they don't get to see them because they are in jail. A lot of parents are reluctant to take them to jail, and if the custodial parent went to all this trouble to put them in jail, they are not going to take the kids to jail. It's hard. The flip side of it is, I am a single parent, and if I didn't have child support, I would be in bad shape."

Kenyon says Wendy's case is not one she would normally handle -- she is more likely to represent a low-income mother seeking a contempt order against an ex-husband who refuses to pay child support. But she was struck by the length of time Huddleston had served, especially in light of the small amount she owed, and her lack of recourse. By the end of our conversation, Kenyon agreed to speak with Wendy's father. He, in turn, asked that she meet with Wendy in jail. She did. After reviewing her court file, she learned Wendy could be freed for much less than $1,370. The original contempt order was for $600, and to have a warrant and commitment order issued, there must first be a previous finding of contempt. Because the previous contempt order was just $600, Kenyon filed a motion seeking that Wendy be freed for that amount because a "clerical error or mistake" apparently led to the order's being wrongly issued for a higher amount.

She asked for help from Chesterfield financial planner Joseph Church, who is working with Kenyon on the Vandalia prison project, and he quickly volunteered to donate $600. In explaining his decision to donate, he notes that Kenyon has consistently worked on behalf of women who often "aren't allowed full access and equal access to the justice system. I have a lot of faith in the fact that Marie is in a position to identify a lot of these situations that can be solved very simply if people knew they existed. As a taxpayer," he adds, "I think it's ridiculous that we are allocating resources to keep someone in jail for months and months over a few hundred dollars. It clearly did nothing for her children or anyone else." (At $74.50 per day -- the amount St. Louis County estimates it costs to house a prisoner for one day -- keeping Huddleston in jail for nearly four months cost $8,865.50.)

Jane Aiken, a law professor at Washington University, helped prepare the pleadings at Kenyon's request. She says if she had learned about the case sooner, the Washington University Law Clinic could probably have helped Wendy. She says the case was like none other she has seen. "I have had horror cases in other areas, but I have never had a case like this. It scared me. After meeting with her, I couldn't believe this had happened to her. Both Marie and I were spooked after leaving her, like, 'But for the grace of God, go I' -- that someone could get locked up and really have no recourse. I was even more spooked when I went to get her file and we found her file in the closed-file room."

In St. Louis County, a civil-contempt case is routinely filed in the closed-file room -- it is standard procedure after a judgment has been entered in a case. Fox, the county's director of judicial administration, says it isn't all that significant, calling it merely a matter of where the actual file is housed, though he notes that it remains up to the judge to determine whether, and when, such a closed case is docketed. "If a judge finds someone in contempt, the judge is responsible for keeping track of that file," Fox says. "The judge is notified when the person is arrested, and it is up to the judge how they want to handle it from there. Some of the judges keep the files in their offices. Some take the view on civil contempt that once they find the person in civil contempt, they have the keys to the jail in their pocket, so they don't get involved in it anymore until a lawyer or someone else gets involved." Attempts to reach Judge Hais by phone and by mail were unsuccessful.

Could Wendy have been freed sooner if she had known it involved just $600 and not $1,370? Aiken wonders. And she questions whether Wendy might still be sitting in jail today if not for her father, "who was making life hell for everybody." She wonders whether others could face a similar fate. "What if she had married this man, moved to St. Louis and had no one?" Aiken says. "I think she would still be sitting there. Certainly if she had had a lawyer in the contempt proceeding, they could have put on evidence that she could not pay the $600, or they could have negotiated something to have her pay over a period of time. Even if that hadn't worked, when you're in contempt and it's civil contempt, it is supposed to be something coercive, not punitive, and once it becomes punitive, they release you. If I were her lawyer, and even if she had been put in for a short period of time, I would have come back and shown the court that no amount of incarceration would get water from a stone. That's why they have this thing to purge contempt if it becomes punitive and not coercive. If they don't have the money, it is a debtor's prison, and that's why we release people in those circumstances. I don't understand why we don't have an open file for people sitting in jail, to find out what has happened to this person."

Bruce Hilton, a private attorney who regularly handles child-support cases, believes Wendy Huddleston's case is unusual. "It's very unusual that a judge would jail someone for $600." But being jailed for civil contempt in child-support cases "happens more often than people know."

"It's a Catch-22," Hilton says. "If they don't have enough money to pay child support, they don't have enough money to pay a lawyer. If they don't have an attorney, they can't get out of jail. Some indigent litigants are at a real disadvantage. I represent both sides of the equation. It doesn't do any good to incarcerate someone, because then how can they pay? A lot of people will just sit there and get lost. I think that's ridiculous."

With the check for $600 in hand, Kenyon went to court seeking Wendy's release earlier this month. She quickly secured the signature of Judge Hais ordering that Wendy Huddleston be freed from jail. It was May 9. Wendy had served 119 days behind bars.

She is now living at her father's home in St. Charles County. She worries what might have happened to her if Kenyon had not intervened. "I could have sat there for a long time," she says. "And I could have said, 'Hey,' and they would have done nothing. My family would not have allowed that. But what if there's somebody out there this happens to that doesn't have a family who cares?" Wendy says. "How awful." Kenyon plans to go to court again on Wendy's behalf, seeking to have the child-support payments lowered while she resumes counseling and works toward addressing her problems, though her ex-husband could choose to go to court again seeking to have her jailed for the unpaid support from April to December.

She is planning to resume her vocational counseling and, ironically, she says jail may have helped put her closer to her goal of finding a good job. She completed GED classes while at the St. Louis County Jail and, in a pretest, scored 277 out of 300. She is planning to take the GED exam, and she wants to become a union painter, like her uncle, so she will earn enough money to support herself and her children.

Phillip Huddleston says he hopes his wife's experience will make her get a job. "I thought she might sit in jail. I didn't know it would be this long. It doesn't bother me that it was this long. Maybe it would do her some good -- 'I have to pay or I might go back' -- but it doesn't sound like that's the situation. If it was me sitting in jail for four months, I would go out and get a job." He voices some irritation with the idea that his wife got out of jail for free. "Not only did she get out of jail, she got out of jail without paying for a lawyer or paying that $600 -- it was all donated," he says.

Despite everything, Wendy Huddleston is upbeat. Last week, she saw her two children for the first time since December. "I opened the car door of my mother-in-law's car, and Sky climbed over Star and I gave him a big hug and kiss," Wendy says. "He told me how much he missed me. I picked Star up and she was sleeping, and she put her arms around me and squeezed me real tight. Little tears came out of her eyes." The visit lasted just an hour, but Wendy says it was a start.

She is grateful for Kenyon's help. "It's a blessing for a woman who didn't know who I am to come forward and say, 'This is not right. It is not your fault.' I beat myself up for a long time thinking this was all my fault," Wendy says. She was struck by the kindness of strangers, like the financial planner who donated the $600. Kenyon "didn't tell me who it was, just that a person was nice enough to do this. I thought the Lord had answered my prayers."

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