A picture of a disheveled woman with tousled hair and a pair of large, hollowed-out eyes surrounded by dark circles stared ahead, her mouth agape as she raised a police booking sign up to her chest in an old mugshot.
It was blown up on a screen inside The Inn at East Wind in Wading River last Thursday so about 100 health care and law enforcement professionals attending a conference for the East End Partnership For Youth, called Building Healthy Communities, could study it for a couple of minutes. Then, a polished woman with silky black hair, looking rather studious in black-rimmed glasses, asked if the group could learn to look past the image in the mugshot.
It was her.
“This woman was yet again in your system of care, on your case load. Officers, you were arresting her over and over again — 83 arrests, 66 convictions, 19 years of homelessness, crack addiction, shooting up drugs, prostitution,” said Tonier Cain-Muldrow, a trauma care expert and founder of Healing Neen Inc.
The mugshot was taken 14 years ago, when she was 36. By that stage of her life, Cain-Muldrow, now 50, had lived through everything that went along with those experiences. She added mental illness and misdiagnosis to her list. If anyone saw her returning to their facility again, would they be able to see the woman before them, who has traveled the world, brushed shoulders with heads of state like President Bill Clinton, and walked the red carpet to receive an award for her advocacy?
Could they imagine her today?
“Please don’t deem somebody hopeless. That is not your right. You know, I believe that where there is breath, there is hope,” she said, adding her faith in God has helped her through life’s struggles and she believes all people are worth saving. “You can be the GPS systems to get people to turn around and face their goals.”
Cain-Muldrow urged her audience to consider helping youth because if they have problems that are not caught early on, they could end up following a similar path.
The eldest of 10 children growing up in Annapolis, MD, Cain-Muldrow was sexually molested from the time she was nine years old. She would often skip nighttime trips to the bathroom for fear of running into a man in the hallway and what he might do to her, instead urinating on herself in bed. Her classmates called her “Pissy Neen” because she smelled of urine.
No adult ever asked why.
“I couldn’t understand how a grown man could use his whole body to cover my challenged body and get pleasure out of hurting me,” she recalled.
With the mind of a child, “Neen” believed she was bad because something bad was done to her.
She began fastidiously brushing her teeth, believing she would be able to get the smell of men off of her, but it never seemed to go away. By getting rid of that smell, somehow she would get rid of the shame. Later on in life, living on the streets, she always had a toothbrush on her, so that she could keep her teeth clean. She jokes that when police would pat her down, they would feel the implement and ask if she was hiding a weapon in her clothes.
Still a child, “Neen” learned that when she finished what remained in cups after parties she felt good, and was even able to endure the abuse. Being placed into foster care at one point, a move that re-traumatized her, caused her not to do well at school. She was an alcoholic by age 15, unable to go to school without a bottle of gin, and once tried to commit suicide by taking a whole bottle of pills. As a teenager, she married a much older man who was also abusive, making her subject to a bloody beat down if she failed his dust test.
Then, at 19, she found crack cocaine. It was the answer to all of her problems.
“That movie that kept playing over in my head wouldn’t stop until I used this drug,” she said. “So, I was able to use this drug and stop the smell and stop the movie because I knew if I didn’t, I would blow my brains out.”
From there, it was a descent into addiction and a life of crime, with a steady stream of repeat offenses like drug and drug paraphernalia possession, trespassing, theft, and prostitution. She spent 19 years in and out of the system, and gave birth to five children, four of which were taken from her. In drug treatment, she said, she was raped by a counselor who gained her trust, only to be told no one would believe her because she was a crackhead.
It was not until she was pregnant and incarcerated for the last time, that her life took a turn for the better. Feeling hopeless and in despair, Cain-Muldrow, who was not religious, prayed as she lay in her cell. It was not long after that that she learned of a program called Trauma, Abuse, Mental Health, And Recovery or Tamar’s Children, which was a transitional living house for women that would allow her to keep her child with her, but there was a caveat.
She would likely be released before the program would start, however, the prison warden promised if she could get extra time on her sentence, then she would find a way to get Cain-Muldrow into the program. The judge was convinced and the warden kept her word.
Finally, in the program, she was asked what happened to her. She was finally asked, “Why?”
She was able to work with a trauma counselor who helped walk her through the healing process. With her trauma identified and treated, she was able to move on with her life for herself and for her young daughter.
“It’s been 14 years without absolutely one desire,” she said of her addiction.
While still in the program, Cain-Muldrow was asked to appear in a film called Behind Closed Doors, which touches on women re-traumatized in the psychiatric system and began to travel with the film. She went on to became a vocal advocate for trauma victims and for Trauma Informed Care, a method that involves a more sensitive approach to the diagnosis and treatment of drug abuse and mental illness.
She also penned a memoir named, Healing Neen, which discusses her traumatic childhood, and has a documentary of the same name.
Two years after getting in the program, she built her own home through Habit For Humanity, something she refers to as a wonderful experience. Her daughter goes to one of the finest schools in her state and recently was named a finalist for a letter of literature that she wrote for which she will soon be honored. Cain-Muldrow is also married, and living the American dream — so much so, she jokes, that it’s the one involved with a lot of debt.
“I’m super-American, let me tell you,” she said.
Cain-Muldrow now recalls what a difference someone asking what happened to her made not only in her own life, but that of her daughter’s.
“They treated my trauma with the hopes I would stay off their system and it worked, but they also didn’t realize that by treating my trauma, they were going to break the generational cycle for my family. See, my daughter doesn’t know what it’s like to be hungry, what it’s like not to be loved, not to be taken care of, not to be supported,” she said.
Cain-Muldrow said that asking the audience to look at her mugshot and consider her now was probably one of the most powerful statements she could make.
“If you look at that mugshot and you just envision somebody for the eighth or ninth time coming through your door, you have probably given up hope a long time ago for that person. But why would you, if they keep coming back, as long as they’re alive?” she said. “We have to get to the point where we can actually see a person at their worst and imagine them in their best. That’s where we need to get in our professional life.”
Message Strikes Hearts
Trauma expert Tonier Cain-Muldrow’s message was one that hit home for East End Partnership For Youth’s conference participants, many of whom are on the frontlines dealing with the opioid crisis.
The partnership was formed 12 years ago to bring professional development conferences to the East End, where there is a need for additional training, said conference organizer Human
Understanding and Growth Strategies Executive Director Kym Laube.
This year’s conference attracted professionals from health care fields such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, advocacy, treatment, and prevention. Attendees also included representatives from law enforcement such as the Southampton Town Police Department, and educators who work with children and adolescents.
“So, you really have a variety of different folks from the community who have come together to join the conversation,” Laube said.
The formation of the partnership gave the opportunity to bring in national level speakers, such as Cain-Muldrow, to a very local level conservation, Laube said.
This year, the community centered the conversation on trauma in adolescents, specifically talking about adverse childhood experiences and the recently passed legislation that raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, so they could have a “robust conversation,” she said.
“All different components of what is going on currently with youth, what is going to happen with youth,” was discussed, she added.
Southampton Town Youth Bureau Director Nancy Lynott, an organizer of the conference, said the main message she took from the presentation is that professionals must remember not to think something is “wrong” with the children and adolescents that they see who are in trouble.
“We have to think in terms of what their background is, what have they been through, and how can we address that, as opposed to trying to come up with some kind of discipline that doesn’t apply to them or that possibly makes the situation worse,” she said.
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, whose district includes Southampton Town, introduced Cain-Muldrow. Fleming, a former assistant district attorney who has made the Suffolk County Mental Health Initiative a focus of hers for the past couple of years, said the presentation was a reminder to attendees not to judge someone by their looks and to consider more carefully factors that could have led to their addiction.
“I think that it was very inspiring, almost a rallying cry for them everywhere — law enforcement, health professionals — to understand they can actually change a life,” she said.
Julie Goble, who is a program coordinator for The Retreat’s Campus Sexual Assault Program in Hauppauge, said the “big takeaway” from Cain-Muldrow’s speech is the importance of trauma informed care.
“I think that reminding everybody to keep that in mind, to incorporate trauma informed care, to keep thinking about the people that we encounter every day most likely have been not just traumatized once, but have been traumatized numerous times, re-traumatized by the systems they were working with. It’s our duty to be mindful of that and keep trying to address it and keep trying to ask those questions — keep our hope up, so we can transfer that help to them,” she said.
Cain-Muldrow is a very powerful speaker, according to Goble.
“What she brings to the table with her experience and what she has been through and how she has transformed that into something positive and something to help others is really moving and I really like how she uses that as a kind of a mobilization force for all of us — whatever our backgrounds and what we are doing — to kind of encourage us to keep moving forward and be our inspiration and use [that] every day to keep working with our clients,” she said.