As a child, Gina Jackson endured years of horrific abuse from her biological father and even officials working in the state’s child-protection system. Today, thanks to a loving adoptive mother and her religious faith, she’s found spiritual healing. And thanks to Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship program, she’s made academic strides that now allow her to pursue a college degree.
“It’s been awesome watching her bloom,” said Laura Deaton, Jackson’s adoptive mother and a foster parent.
Jackson and Deaton discussed their story at a recent meeting of the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition in Oklahoma City.
Jackson first went into foster care at age 6. Her biological father was extremely abusive, and she often acted out at school. One day, after cursing at a teacher, Jackson was taken to an administrator’s office and told they were calling her parents.
“I freak out,” Jackson recalled, “because the last thing that my dad said before I left the house is that, ‘You get in trouble again, you’re going to die.’”
Before the day was over, six police officers came to her home and took her and two siblings (an older half-sister and a brother) away. The three children spent the next year-and-a-half at a shelter where Jackson said she experienced “non-stop bullying, still getting hurt, leaders didn’t really care.” After that, she was placed in a foster home where Jackson experienced “two years of abuse, nonstop.”
“Everything in her life to this point, you guys, she’s been abused,” Deaton said. “So every day, even in the new foster home. These children think this is normal. They think this is the way it is, that parents just hate their kids.”
Eventually, the state took Jackson out of that foster home and the children were then separated for six months. After that a Court Appointed Special Advocate—who also molested the children—told the court it was safe for Jackson and her siblings to return to their biological parents. Her biological mother was pregnant at that time with another brother.
The children then spent the next two years with their biological parents. Jackson’s older sister, by then a teenager, left home to escape the abuse. During that time, Jackson kept her hair cut short, wore baggy clothing, and otherwise sought to obscure her gender.
“It wasn’t safe to be a girl at home because of my dad,” Jackson said. “He would sexually touch my sister, and I didn’t want that to happen to me.”
During that time, a neighbor offered to take the kids to church. Jackson’s parents agreed, and she became a Christian by age 10. While her spiritual life changed, her home life did not.
“There’s going to be trials in your life. There’s going to be things that you can’t really explain or understand, and you just have to have a leap of faith and trust God,” Jackson said. “So, as time went on, my life started getting worse. My dad started abusing my mom more. More and more, he started hurting us more—nonstop. And I was like, ‘Where are you, God? Why is this happening to us? Why?’”
Things hit a pitch one day when her father, a drug user, brutally assaulted Jackson’s mother.
“He attacked her to the point that I thought she was going to die,” Jackson said.
That set in motion a sequence of events that ended with the children living in a shelter again. Soon, a social worker told Jackson a foster home was available “and she only wants a girl.”
“I had to leave my little brother,” Jackson recalled, tearing up at the memory. “I knew I wanted to go, but I had to leave my little brother.”
To make things worse, the social worker made Jackson tell her brother she was leaving him rather than have an adult help deliver the message.
When Jackson arrived at Deaton’s house, her new foster mother knew none of this, and wouldn’t hear the full story for four years.
“She was devastated when she walked into my house,” Deaton said. “I had no idea.”
Jackson was 11.
Over the next two weeks, as Deaton learned Jackson had two younger brothers, she began the process of having them brought to her home as well. By 2012, Deaton was fostering the three siblings. By 2014, she adopted them.
Deaton already had three biological daughters who were older. Deaton said Jackson, who once feared displaying any hint of femininity, is now her “girliest girl.”
Deaton said Jackson was not doing well in the local public school, and she explored sending the children to Oklahoma Christian School in Edmond. The Opportunity Scholarship Fund, made possible by Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship law, helped make attendance financially possible.
Under that state program, people who donate private dollars to scholarship-granting organizations get a tax credit. Independent research has shown the program generates net savings for the state.
In a separate video done for the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, Deaton notes that foster kids may “miss entire years of school because of the trauma in the home.” She said Oklahoma Christian School challenged her daughter with high expectations.
“My kids just rose to it,” Deaton said. “That’s why I always thought if Gina could pass at OCS, she can go to college. And she blew it off the doors this year. I’m so proud of her. Because this kid couldn’t read three years ago. She couldn’t read.”
Because her biological parents spoke mostly Vietnamese at home, Jackson was effectively an “English as a second language” learner. When Jackson first came to Deaton’s home, she was in the sixth grade but read at a first-grade level. Since then, she’s not only learned to read, but at Oklahoma Christian School she also took—and passed—physics. Deaton said her daughter has “really blown me away with her ability to learn.”
Jackson, now 18, attended Oklahoma Christian School for her senior year and graduated this spring. She is the recipient of a President’s Leadership Class scholarship that will allow her to attend Rose State College in the fall.
Jackson describes Deaton as both her mom and an inspiration.
“She changed my life,” Jackson said.
“We’ve had quite the journey,” Deaton said, “this little girl and I.”