The path to motherhood began early for Karen P. Ezirim

The path to motherhood began early for Karen P. Ezirim, but that didn’t necessarily make it easier to navigate.

The first of four children, she became responsible for her siblings in her mother’s absence - which was often. She learned to be a caretaker and leader early, so when her stepfather and other men began to take advantage of her while her mother was away, Karen didn’t tell anyone of the abuse in an effort to remain strong.

Moving from Chicago to a Columbus suburb in grade school offered an opportunity to escape her abusers, she recalls, but it didn’t last long. The family moved to Detroit, where Karen’s mother’s neglect escalated. She and her friends would blow marijuana smoke in the faces of Karen and her young siblings and then laugh when they got high.

In spite of her mother’s actions, Karen adored her and would do anything to please her, she says. That included regularly cleaning the house so that it was spotless. When she was introduced to a drug called speed in middle school, she was quick to embrace it because of its energizing qualities that allowed her to complete household chores, care for her siblings and finish homework.

Hoping to escape the parental duties placed on her, Karen chose to stay with one of her friends’

families in Detroit when her family moved back to Columbus. She anticipated a better life without being exhausted by the pressures of caring for a family at such a young age, but the family she chose to live with also had expectations to meet.

Karen says she was told that in order to “earn her keep” she had to make money and she learned to sell her body. Although she was never comfortable with it, she felt it was necessary at the time. “I had to survive,” Karen says. When it was clear the alternative life she had imagined wasn’t going to come to fruition, Karen moved back to Columbus to be with her family. This time, however, she vowed not to enable her mother by cleaning the house and taking care of her siblings, so she moved in with her aunt.

It was during this time that she met at a party a Nigerian man who lived in Upper Arlington. He

swept Karen off her feet and she moved in with him immediately. She says she felt comfortable there and was living better than she ever lived. As usual, though, there was one caveat. The man told Karen “If you want to stay here with me, you have to marry me,” she remembers.

At just 14 years old, Karen had her mother sign legal documents to allow the marriage and she said “I do.” It didn’t take long after the nuptials for Karen to realize she was only being used. She stood in the background and watched as her husband brought other women into their home to sleep with. She says he would simply instruct her to go upstairs and tell her, “Don’t get into any trouble.” After six months, Karen left without looking back or seeking a divorce. She remains married today. On the move again, Karen found herself in Detroit and pregnant with her first child.

She walked the streets daily, counting the blocks on the side walk, dreaming of beating the

odds and not becoming a statistic. “I walked one hundred and fifty four blocks a day,” Karen recalls. Feeling as if she was finally given her second chance, Karen says she met a man who was a guardian angel to her. He was the first older man who did not want to sleep with her. “He was like a father to me,” she says. He looked after her child while the young mother of 15-years-old let loose and became enthralled in a night life that included drinking and drugs.

The party lifestyle was more than a phase, though, and at 19-years-old, Karen was pregnant with her second child and became addicted to crack cocaine. Having another child meant a

bigger Welfare check and more food stamps to trade for