Lucas Vega • Staff Writer
Mackenzie Woodruff was born and raised in Jacksonville, TX, a small town of about 14,500 residents located 50 minutes south of Tyler. According to Woodruff, drug usage occurred frequently in the town, and her family was no exception.
“Everyone was addicted in my family, and I mean everyone,” Woodruff said. “All my aunts, uncles, cousins and even both my parents were drug addicts and alcoholics. It was something that was passed down through generations. I think my mom started smoking when she was 14.”
Woodruff’s started smoking when she was 14. She said this environment of substance abuse was the source of her family’s issues. To her, drugs weren’t an additional problem, they were the problem.
“It governed everything my family did; their decisions revolved around drugs, Woodruff said. “It made people do terrible things. Drugs don’t just get rid of negative emotions, they get rid of all emotions. It created so many problems, especially for many siblings and I.”
When she was three years old, Woodruff and her two siblings were taken from their mother by Child Protective Services (CPS). Woodruff’s grandmother made the call out of empathy for her grandchildren. According to Woodruff, CPS was commonly used as a threat within her family and community. If someone owed someone else money, they would threaten to have their kids taken away. This particular conflict, however, proved to be more than an empty threat.
“I don’t think my grandma knew that they would actually take me and my siblings away, but drugs were everywhere, so CPS had a reason, Woodruff said. “My siblings and I were fought over in court, and by the end of it, we were going to two different homes. My oldest sister, Riley, had a different grandmother than Hallie and I, and she had money for good attorneys. That left my little sister and I with my aunt.”
The aunt looked great on paper. She had never been caught with drugs, and didn’t have a criminal record. Woodruff described her aunt as extremely personable and a “great people person.” With no obvious red flags, the courtroom granted custody to their aunt. It was a decision that highlighted the shortcomings of CPS, as the following ten years were worse than anything that had come before.
“My aunt was very abusive towards us, Woodruff said. “She had anger issues and hit us often. She would lock us in our rooms for hours at a time. There was a lot of threatening, and there were days where she would just explode with rage. Throughout my entire time living with her, I only went to one sleepover. CPS only came to check on us a few times during the first year, which is stupid because of course she’s going to be on her best behavoir during that time. When they would check, they only interviewed my siblings and I out in the open in front of my aunt.”
During her elementary and middle school years, Woodruff was quiet and reserved. She felt very uncomfortable around authority figures, as she likened them to her abuser. Given this fear, opening up about her home life was no easy task. Unfortunately, in the rare moments when she did speak up, Woodruff was left with less of a reason to put her trust in others. She was often brushed off as joking or hysterical and many times was flat out ignored.
In one case, Woodruff opened up to a school counselor, a seemingly safe option, only to have her statements reported to her aunt. The counselor never brought Woodruff’s information to the police, and the counselor’s actions led to her getting locked in her room for an entire day.
“I was afraid to tell people because I was afraid that my aunt was going to find out,” Woodruff said. “I tried to tell people as a kid, but nobody ever did anything. My principal thought I was acting out and that I just wanted attention. The fear of getting caught never left me. I was terrified of what my aunt would do.“
Her aunt’s wrath was always in the back of Woodruff’s mind. It was there every time she tried to reach out for help. Despite her reservations, Woodruff began to speak up more and more the older she got, and her testimonies only got stronger. Finally, at age 13, Woodruff became fully transparent with Mi Mi, a long time friend of the family. Mi Mi originally fought for Woodruff and her sister in court, but she eventually ceded to the aunt and settled for partial custody one weekend per month. During her visits, Woodruff would try to tell Mi Mi of the abuse that took place in her aunt’s household but remained quiet out of fear.
This time however, Woodruff found the strength to blow the whistle.
“After I told Mi MI, she reached out to my then sober mom and called the CPS,” Woodruff said. “They came and took us away. I went to live with Mi Mi, and she was great. There was no more abuse, no more being locked in the bedroom. We finally had a stable caretaker. I thought everything was going to be fine and great, but I quickly realized there was a lot I needed to overcome.”
PTSD, panic attacks and flashback episodes haunted Woodruff for years. She struggled with socializing and connecting with others, which she attributes to her aunt’s isolating punishments. To make matters worse, her sister had a different perspective on what happened. To Hallie, the abuse and hardship she experienced was normal, as it was all she had ever known.
Despite being free, the ten years within the aunt’s custody left emotional scars on the two siblings, scars that would not heal easily. However, wounds were no longer being made. For the first time in their lives, Woodruff and her sister were with a stable caretaker, and they were allowed to heal.
Woodruff says she’s doing better today, but she still experiences some difficulties.
“I have a hard time with friends and relationships,” Woodruff said. “Sometimes I get angry and shut people out. The panic attacks and stuff aren’t a problem anymore. Meeting people here [at UT Tyler] helped me get over it, people who were okay with listening to me talk about it.”
Woodruff says that getting close to God and attending church camp every summer also helped. She eventually became a camp counselor. Her experience at church camp proved to be healing in more ways than one, as Woodruff was given the opportunity to help a little girl in a situation she understood all too well.
“Throughout camp, this girl was really quiet and reserved,” Woodruff said. “That is, until you gave her a little bit of attention, then she would milk as much as she could from people. This was a red flag to me, as people from abusive situations tend to seek the feeling of validation. One night, I saw her crying in her bunk. I approached and asked what was wrong. She told me that she didn’t want to go home and later revealed it was because of her abusive mother. I comforted the girl and assured her that everything was going to be okay. After that, I immediately contacted my boss, and the authorities handled it.”
Today, Woodruff walks the UT Tyler campus as a psychology major with determination in every step. She says she wants to be able to provide for her future family and give her children the life she never had. Her family is also in the healing process and grows closer by the day.
Her mother is sober, graduated with a certification and is attending Lamar college. Woodruff and her oldest sister are living together. The two recently got together to throw Woodruff’s step-dad a surprise birthday party at his house.
“I think we are all really strong even when it doesn’t seem like it,” Woodruff said. “It took a lot of understanding and forgiveness, and it’s something we are working on to this day.”