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Emerging from a tragic, battered childhood, hope in a college future

Valery Swope, 18, answered her phone one afternoon in March. It was Cabrini College, telling her she had been accepted.

Valery Swope , at her high school graduation last month, is headed to Cabrini College. "I want to shout from the rooftop that Valery made it!" a DHS worker says.
Valery Swope , at her high school graduation last month, is headed to Cabrini College. "I want to shout from the rooftop that Valery made it!" a DHS worker says.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Valery Swope, 18, answered her phone one afternoon in March. It was Cabrini College, telling her she had been accepted.

"I feel so great. Oh, my Lord. I've got to tell everybody!"

First, she posed for a selfie. "I've got to take a picture of this face!"

Then she got on the phone.

The first six people she called were two caseworkers with the state child welfare agency, two social workers appointed by the court, a child-advocate in the public defender's office, and an FBI agent. She lamented she didn't have her guidance counselor's number.

This posse of public servants is Valery's rudder in life.

Valery's teenage mother gave birth to her in a bathroom, placed her in a plastic bag, and left her in a boarded-up building in the city's Frankford section, before dawn Jan. 4, 1997.

The Philadelphia police officer who rescued the newborn would become the first of many individuals - from law enforcement officers to social workers to educators - who would step in to help and guide a child with few constants in her life.

Valery identifies with Marilyn Monroe - abandoned by her mother, raised for a time by foster parents. Last year, Valery had a Marilyn quote tattooed on her right forearm - I am good, but not an angel. I do sin, but I'm not the devil. I am just a small girl in a big world. She even tried being blond for a while.

Valery has lived with relatives, with strangers in foster care, in institutions and group homes, even briefly, disastrously, back with her mother. At age 15, she went missing for months, living under the control of - and exploited by - men whom she later helped send to prison for 22 years.

"I don't think she can say she ever had a childhood," said Yolanda Shepherd, a Department of Human Services worker who sat with Valery when she was hospitalized with migraines last summer.

"I want to shout from the rooftop that Valery made it!" Shepherd added.

Valery graduated June 25 - after a sprint to get her work done - from her fourth high school in four years. She lives with a paid house mother and two other girls in a Germantown rowhouse, her third residence just this year.

Attending Cabrini, a small Catholic college in Radnor, could be Valery's chance to start anew.

"The experiences she has been through and the depths of her pain are what motion pictures are made from," Megan Hannah, her guidance counselor at Arise Academy Charter High School, wrote in a recommendation to college. "Only this is real. She is real."

Valery said she hoped sharing her story will help other children, and she gave her posse permission to talk about her.

"I want people to read my story and say: 'Wow, she can still do it. Maybe I can do it, too.' "

Abandoned in the night

Valery wrote her college application essay in the form of a poem. It begins:

It was the New Year, January 4, 1997,

A miracle was about to be born.

You can say she came straight from heaven,

But her mother could beg to differ; she didn't want her.

And on that night,

Like Satan, she tries to take a life.

Valery was delivered in secret in the bathroom of her grandparents' home on Unity Street and left in the building next door. Her mother was 18.

And down her face, I bet not a tear drops.

All she wished for was for that tiny heart to stop.

At 2:45 a.m., according to a police report, one of Valery's uncles heard what he believed was a cat crying. He grabbed a flashlight, looked in a window. Through a small opening in the bag he could see a baby's head. He called police.

And they smashed through bolted doors trying to find her.

A beautiful life was almost taken but God protected her.

Philadelphia police officer Robert Varley found the baby, wrapped her in his coat, and rushed her to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.

Nurses named her Valery, after Officer Varley. He returned later that morning and put a teddy bear in her crib.

Nowhere to call home

Police quickly learned the identity of Valery's mother, Shannon Swope.

Shannon had given birth just 11 months earlier. Shannon's stepmother - already raising three grandchildren in that house - had said the next child who had a baby out of wedlock would be "put on the street." Shannon believed her.

Shannon, now 36, said she never intended to harm her baby. She said she thought she could hide the pregnancy, give birth secretly and leave the infant on the front step for her parents to find and adopt. They had adopted other children.

"In my head, back then, I thought it would work," Shannon said recently. "Looking at it now most likely it probably wouldn't have."

When her brother came home unexpectedly, Shannon said she panicked and stashed the baby next door.

She pleaded guilty to attempted murder, went to jail for a year, and then spent two more years in an alternative program to prison for women. Once released, her father and stepmother, Leroy and Linda Swope, would not let her near Valery, she said.

"I don't think you can get any lower than I was," she said of the years after her release. "I was in the ICU at least six times for trying to kill myself. I lost everything and everyone."

Valery and her sister, Jaylynn, 11 months older, were adopted by Linda and Leroy Swope, their grandparents. It would be the only time Valery felt part of a real family.

When Valery was 8, in January 2005, Leroy Swope died from lung cancer. Six months later, Linda Swope died of an infection after hip replacement.

Valery and her sister were placed with a relative for a few years, but by the time Valery was 13, a judge determined that situation was no longer in the girls' best interest.

Jaylynn went to live in a residential facility. Valery went to a foster home.(Valery says she has no relationship with her biological father.)

When she turned 14, Valery says, her foster dad kissed her on the lips and put his hand down her shirt. Convinced no one believed her, she ran away, only to be placed in a succession of foster homes.

A lifetime of hopping from home to home,

Running away was all she could understand.

Monumental courage

In 2012, by then a freshman at Bartram High in Southwest Philadelphia, living in foster care, 15-year-old Valery ran away again, missing 63 days of school.

Mike Goodhue, a special agent with the FBI assigned to crimes against children, met Valery that summer, when she became a key witness in three investigations.

"All of these investigations were successful because of the efforts of Miss Swope," he wrote recently in her college recommendation letter. "Miss Swope had the strength and courage to stand up against the criminals that stole her innocence and she was able to face them in a courtroom setting. As you can imagine, this can be extremely difficult, especially as a child."

Longing for family

At the beginning of sophomore year, Valery moved into St. Mary's Villa in Ambler, a residential facility for teens. She went to Upper Dublin High, a suburban school, and got B's in English and geometry.

On weekends and holidays, other kids went home. Valery hated being left behind.

She sneaked out, she said, to meet her mother, whom she found on Facebook.

Valery had never even seen a picture of her mother until then, she said.

"At that point," Valery said, "I didn't have anybody, so I was desperate, I guess. And I wanted her. I wanted it to be different."

Valery had heard about being left for dead, but she didn't want to believe it.

"I wanted whatever they were telling me to be a lie," she said. "So when I met her I gave her the chance."

Temporary custody

By 2014, Shannon Swope had a small, federally subsidized apartment. Jaylynn had just moved in. Valery's social workers and court representatives felt that giving Shannon custody of Valery would be risky but worth trying.

"We tried to give them a chance because nowhere else was working," said Shepherd, the DHS worker.

And whenever possible, Shepherd added, it is "still necessary for a child to be connected with a family member. It's what we shoot for. It's what the children want, and they thrive so much more with family."

Shannon Swope says the process to get her daughter back was rigorous. "I went through mental health evaluations, psychological screenings, everything, everything all over again. I went through hell."

In April 2014, a Family Court judge gave Shannon Swope temporary custody of Valery, then 17.

"We were in there [the courtroom] crying," Shepherd recalled. "It was a happy day."

Abandoned again

She thought it was perfect, thought it was worth it,

Hoped it'd be what exactly she had longed (for).

But boy, was she guessing, because she was so wrong.

Happiness didn't last.

Mother and daughters give very different versions of what happened, but the bottom line is that three months after granting Shannon custody of Valery, the judge revoked it. The mother had left. The girls changed the locks. Police got involved.

Mother and daughter have had no contact since last July.

Shannon Swope says she still loves her daughter. Valery says she doesn't believe a word her mother says.

Helping hands at school

Last fall, Valery enrolled at Arise Academy Charter in West Oak Lane, created five years ago for students in foster care, community homes, or shelters.

Valery did so well at Arise that in January her guidance counselor brought up the subject of college.

"We're going to do a college essay," Megan Hannah said.

"Be ready," Valery replied.

She wrote her poem in a day, and improved it over the next several weeks.

Valery always wanted to go to college, but acknowledges it likely wouldn't be happening now if not for Arise, which was closed at the end of the school year by the Philadelphia School District. Arise leaders plan to reopen in September, with private funding.

Arise, with about 100 students, provided an environment where Valery felt respected, whereschool officials recognized many students were dealing with trauma, and deadlines were soft.

School officials intervened when Valery needed clothes, housing, even tokens. But they insisted she get her work done. As graduation approached, Valery often stayed until 7 p.m. and came in on weekends.

Hope for a bright future

Robert Reese, vice president of enrollment at Cabrini, said officials were impressed by Valery's progress, resilience, and of course her poem. He believes Cabrini has the resources and commitment to help Valery succeed.

Hannah, the guidance counselor, who completed Valery's financial-aid forms and has helped at every step of the application process, said that after generous grants from Cabrini and a few smaller scholarships, Valery will need only to borrow $9,500 in federal loans to cover the $40,000 in tuition and room and board.

"I'm not really thinking about it," Valery said of the debt. "I just want to go to Cabrini."

A glorious day

As Valery walked into a campus event this spring for accepted students, undergraduates in blue Cabrini T-shirts stood in two lines cheering.

Valery high-fived them. She posed for a photo with the mascot, the Cavalier.

It was a glorious Sunday, azaleas and dogwoods about to pop.

All around were accepted students and their families. Valery was accompanied by Hannah.

Valery wants to major in criminology. She'd like to be an FBI agent or to work in the justice system helping sexually abused children. As Cabrini professors explained the courses and opportunities, Hannah whispered to Valery, explained what semesters are, that everyone starts with introductory classes.

At lunch, Valery visited booths for various campus groups, talked with students from the dance club, swim team, and literary magazine. Students at Pura Vida (Pure Life) told her she didn't need to be Hispanic or speak Spanish to join, just to "have pride in who you are."

Valery signed up.

An emotional reunion

Valery lost touch with Officer Varley, but never stopped thinking about him.

This spring, on the advice of Goodhue, the FBI agent, she called the 17th Precinct and found him.

They arranged to meet.

In a mall parking lot, she ran to him, hugging him with all her strength.

"Helloooooo," she sang out, still in his embrace.

He was carrying a bag.

"This is for you."

Inside was a teddy bear,and a heart necklace.

They walked into the Cheesecake Factory for dinner. The officer introduced his wife, Sue.

He told Valery what he remembered of the first hours of her life, what he saw when he looked in a window of the abandoned building.

"I saw a plastic bag tied in a knot and the bag was moving."

He took an ax to the door frame, then kicked in the steel door. At last, with building debris and dust falling all around, he got to the wriggling bag and ripped it open. Her umbilical cord was still attached.

"Your body temperature was in the 70s when I got you," he told Valery. "They didn't know if you were going to make it."

Both were choking up.

"You brought tears to my eyes, from point one all the way till now," he said.

Varley, 51, was retiring after 25 years on the force. Seeing Valery again, accepted into college, was the perfect ending to his career, he said.

"If you make the wrong moves now," he added, "guess who's coming for you."

The Varleys drove her home.

Valery slept that night with her bear.

Guides along the way

On June 24, Valery passed her last high school class.

The next night, in white cap and gown, Valery entered a small auditorium at William Way Community Center. She put her hand to her mouth, as 60 people stood and cheered.

Among them were:

Officer Varley with another gift, a small sterling silver replica of his badge on a silver chain that he said she'd asked for.

Mike Goodhue and two other FBI agents.

Shemaria McKnight, a supervisor with Carson Valley Child Services, holding flowers.

A child advocate from the public defender's office.

Valery's sister, Jaylynn, who hopes to finish high school one day and go to college herself; and Valery's old boyfriend and his mother, who remain close to her.

Just before graduation, Roberta Trombetta, the acting CEO at Arise, asked Valery to speak.

For one nervous minute, she talked about "trying to stay persistent and positive." She gave "a big thanks to everyone who helped us along the way," especially Hannah andschool leader Meredith Lowe. She congratulated her classmates.

Later, the nerves were gone and the joy set in.

"I'm done. I'm done. I'm really done! And I did it. I did it. I made it to this day," she said after the ceremony.

She is working as a counselor at a summer camp in the city. Next month, she will start college.

The first thing she'll do is hang a Marilyn Monroe poster on her dormitory wall. Then she'll try to figure out the rest.