Steve Pemberton has a fascinating, tragic and inspirational story to tell. Suffering terrible abuse while in foster care for all of his childhood, Steve didn't have a chance in the world. But a series of unlikely yet life changing circumstances gave Steve a belief in both God and himself.
“It was a cold winter day, I remember being hustled from a house that I’m in into another place. I remember being in a car and street lights whipping by. I had that memory of being disconnected from something, I didn’t know what it was.”
It was Steve's first ever memory. The image would reoccur throughout Steve’s childhood, though he didn’t know why. One day he discovered the truth and learned that memory came from the day he was taken from his mother.
“I never saw her again”, he says.
The next 15 years saw Steve being moved from foster home to foster home, eventually settling with the Robinson family. Having won awards for their work in bringing up 39 children over a number of years, the family had an excellent reputation.
Steve received frequent beatings, which led to multiple hospitalizations. For over a decade he remained at the house as social services failed to see past what Steve describes as a “veneer and façade” of a family that appeared loving and caring.
“Even all these years later as a 40-something year old man, I’m simply not able to fully understand the background of this foster family,” Steve says.
“They were very shrewd and manipulative people,” Steve recalls, explaining he was subject to multiple and “terrible” rules of the home including not being allowed to make eye contact with adults. Continually mis-treated, Steve also suffered from malnutrician.
At the age of 10 and trapped in a cycle of abuse, Steve realized his parents weren’t going to come and look for him. It was at this point that Steve believes he entered adulthood.
Believing he could fight back against terrible circumstances and a discovery of faith co-incided. “I didn’t come to religion in any organised way. It didn’t have a name it wasn’t Baptist or Protestant or Catholic.”
“It was a visit to a Sunday school and the teacher told me I could talk to God as if he were my best friend so that’s what I did and I remembered the peace that came over me each time. As I got older I became more quietly defiant about my future. It was tremendous fear but I always put the fear in God’s hands and I remember thinking 'I’m going to let him handle it and what will be will be'.”
A major turning point came during unlikely circumstances. Owning only one book, Steve would sit outside his house reading it over and over again. One day a lady named Mrs Levin noticed this and donated a box of books to Steve.
“She would give to me periodically, as soon as her children outgrew the books. The only reason I knew her name was because that was the name on the inside of the books.”
"The classic novel by Richard Adams Watership Down was the book of my childhood and I’ve read it over and over and over again. It was so poetic and powerful and important to me.”
“I loved the rabbits of Watership Down, they gave me a blueprint of how I could fight back against this family. I knew the similarities, even at that age. They had been displaced, they were trying to find a home, they had trials and tribulations of trying to find a home. It was the right book at the right time.”
Seeing moving to Boston College as his escape route, Steve did everything he could to leave the Robinsons behind, but at every point he was blocked.
“I remember bringing home an application and getting it thrown at me and saying I wasn’t going to go to college. I felt they had already taken away my childhood, they couldn’t take away my future. I knew that to take them on and defy them would violate the biggest rule of the home which was ‘you can’t tell anyone what’s going on here’.”
Steve began to believe he could pay the ultimate price for an escape attempt. “That quiet voice we all have within us said: ‘You know if you do this you’re probably not going to survive’."
After a series of lengthy negotiations with social services 15 year old Steve was looking forward to his “freedom date”. After several failed attempts to leave Steve was anxious to check that this time, everything would go ahead as planned and phoned social services to check the arrangements.
“But when I place that call to the agency what I don't know is the foster mother had picked up the phone on the other end and had heard some of my conversation, enough to know I had been talking to social workers. I was severely beaten. I managed to get out of the house and ran a mile in some pretty cold temperatures, hurting the entire time from the beating I had taken. I made it to the department of social services and finally after seeing my physical appearance, they took me away.”
These final four words should mark the end of Steve’s ordeal. But while the end was in sight, it had not been fully reached.
“I had no place to go”, Steve recalls, telling the story of a social worker phoning down a long list of names but struggling to find anyone willing to take in an African American teenager a few days after Christmas.
“I just remember thinking to myself ‘Never again will I allow my fate or circumstances to be dictated by names on a list.’ It was that vision of family and home that drove me. It’s what I believed I had a right to and it's what I was adamant about pursuing and it’s what I have today.”
Married with three children, Steve is today the vice president and chief diversity officer of the largest drug retailing chain in the US: Walgreens.
As well as holding an executive position in the 111 year old company and having the chance to raise his own family, Steve has managed to find out more about his own mother and father. The full details of Steve’s story from being an orphan boy with a hidden past to finding a place called home is detailed in his new book A Chance in the World.
Today, explaining how there were “gaps in the system” that cost him his childhood, Steve is passionate about addressing these problems in the foster care system. He's surprisingly calm about the family that mis-treated him so badly. More interested in future change than past retribution, Steve says he’s left them in God’s hands.
“Unfortunately there are still families out there that are taking in children for money because they are a means to an end. There's so much pressure on social workers to find placement for these children that they can sometimes be fooled into thinking they are in the right place when actually they are not.”
Explaining more about the book title, Steve reveals the full phrase “he doesn’t have a chance in the world” was the prediction made of him. “The circumstances I was born into were so dire that I didn’t have a chance in the world."
“A chance in the world describes what I was looking for throughout my childhood, it’s all I really wanted. I think it also describes that all of us want a chance in the world and all of us have that ability, as Mrs Levin demonstrates, to give a child that chance in the world.”
May 2nd, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes