July 31, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Troubled teen finds a way to break cycle

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

The name rang a bell, but not a loud one.

"Dan Lemieux," said Craig Deveau, a former caseworker for what was then Maine Child Protective Services, over the telephone last week. "You wrote about him a long time ago -- it must have been back in the '90s. You called me up and asked permission to run the article because he was in state custody."

Oh yes, that young kid wandering the streets of Portland. And Deveau was calling all these years later because ...?

"I'm pretty proud of what he's done," said Deveau. "You should give him a shout."

I promised I would. But first, I dove into the archives. ...

Dan Lemieux was only 16 that day I sat down with him in late 1995. But he seemed much older.

He told me how, when he was just 8, he'd sometimes slept by a dumpster near his home in Bath because his parents had not a clue about the responsibility that comes with a child.

He told me how, at 9 or 10, he was sexually abused by a group of teenagers who treated him more like a toy than a little boy.

He told me how 11 through 13 was a drug-induced blur and how, at 14, he tried to commit suicide by sticking a radio antenna down his throat.

"I'm doing all right," Dan told me less than convincingly that day. "I mean I'm not dead or anything else."

Lemieux is 34 now. And as he sat in a coffee shop in Freeport on Tuesday morning, reading a printout of that long-ago peek into his childhood-turned-nightmare, all he could do was shake his head.

"If I didn't read this, a lot of this stuff wouldn't even come back to me," he said. "It was pretty brutal."

Few jobs demand more than that of child protective worker. The hours are long, the pay is low and the case loads are so deep that helping a kid achieve a healthy, successful life is often more a fantasy than a realistic measure of success.

But it can happen.

"I got really lucky," said Lemieux. "A lot of people who go into state custody don't have the same (case)worker for very long – they're there for maybe a year or two and then they split you up. I had Craig the whole time."

Lemieux was 11 when his file first landed on Deveau's desk. The state had taken the boy from his parents and placed him in a procession of foster homes, group homes, special schools and the occasional psychiatric facility until, at 16, Lemieux decided he could take care of himself on the streets of Portland.

It didn't last. The ever-vigilant Deveau swooped in and plugged his young charge back into the system until, upon turning 18, Lemieux "aged out" of state custody and was officially on his own.

And unofficially?

"When a kid like that turns 18, he's often still not ready to fly," said Deveau, 52, who left his state job a decade ago and now works in the Auburn school system. "So I gave Danny my home phone number, my cellphone and told him, 'If you're in a jam or have questions about life or whatever, give me a call.' And he did."

Lemieux had good reason.

First came a son named Domanick. It was too much, too soon for the 19-year-old Lemieux. His relationship with the child's mother was a slow-motion disaster and, before long, Lemieux found himself reluctantly surrendering his parental rights to the state of Massachusetts, where they were living at the time.

"I remember it felt like the cycle wasn't changing," said Lemieux. Quietly, he added, "I don't know where he is now -- all I know is he's with an adopted family."

Moving back to Maine, Lemieux next met a girl from New Jersey through an online chat room. She moved in with him in Bath and, in 2000, they had a boy named Matthew.

Again, the relationship failed. The mother returned to New Jersey with the boy. Lemieux negotiated a visitation agreement that gave him two months each summer with Matthew -- more than enough time for Lemieux to spot the similarities between his son's life in New Jersey and Lemieux's own boyhood here in Maine.

"I started noticing things about him that made me think he was being abused," said Lemieux, who eventually asked for and received a protection-from-abuse order on his son's behalf that enabled Matthew to stay put with his father in Maine.

The ensuing legal fight lasted almost six years. In May of 2012, Lemieux finally won full custody of Matthew because, as he put it, "I'm his parent -- and I'm going to do whatever I have to do to protect him."

That includes bettering himself: After earning his General Educational Development certificate in 2001, Lemieux enrolled at Southern Maine Community College in 2006 and earned an associate degree in liberal studies.

"It was great to graduate and get the degree," he said. "But by then I realized I wanted to do something in law enforcement."

So back he went, into SMCC's criminal justice program, where he's now one course away from earning his second degree. At the same time, he's doing everything he can to "get my foot in the door" with a law enforcement agency.

Last fall, Lemieux completed a three-month internship with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office. He's also volunteered with the Maine State Police and done ride-alongs with police in his new hometown of Freeport.

More recently, he passed the Maine Criminal Justice Academy's written and physical-fitness tests -- the first steps in applying for a job as a police officer. He now has applications pending with SMCC's campus security force and the Portland Police Department.

All told, he said, "it's made me appreciate what law enforcement people really do. I mean, it's a tough job. You have to have a lot of patience."

Then there's his day job: After five years in L.L. Bean's Order Fulfillment Center, Lemieux now works full time as a customer service specialist at the Brooks Brothers outlet in Freeport.

"You caught me on the wrong day," he chuckled, pointing to his T-shirt. "I'm not wearing my suit."

It's still far from Easy Street. In January, after two years of marriage to a woman he'd been with for eight years, Lemieux divorced. That relationship produced another son, Caleb, who now spends half the time with his father and older half-brother.

"I wanted a life with her, a family," Lemieux said wistfully. "Things changed."

Through it all, Lemieux's caseworker-turned-father figure has been there. Deveau still checks in with "Danny" once or twice a month -- sometimes listening, sometimes offering advice, always reveling in the fact that a kid who had every reason to turn out bad, in the end, didn't.

"He's done a really amazing job pulling his life together over the years," said Deveau, whose own four kids range in age from 17 to 24. "I'm pretty proud of what he's done."

To which Lemieux replied, "He's been there forever. He's like my dad. Without him, I know, things would be a lot different."

As you read this, 1,858 children are in the custody of the state of Maine. Many will end up successfully reunited with their families, but others still walk the same tightrope Dan Lemieux was on that day back in 1995.

"I have a past. I have some bad history," said Lemieux as he got up to go collect Caleb at day care. "I could be on the street. I could be in jail."

So why isn't he?

"I chose a path my kids can look up to," Lemieux said. "I wanted to break the cycle."

Case closed.

 

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

This story was updated at 9:10 a.m. July 31 to correct the spelling of Lemieux's oldest son's first name.

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