Editor's note: This story is part of My Life, My Town, a special project exploring the hopes and challenges of teens in rural Missouri. The project is a product of the Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and Reynolds Journalism Institute. Some of the teens were found with the help of Missouri 4-H.
HIGGINSVILLE — Monica Smith lived with her parents in Corder, until one day in September 2002, when she was 8.
A pair of police cars drove up to her house that day, but Monica said she didn't even notice them.
“I was actually in the street playing with my friend,” she said.
“My Uncle George and Grandpa Denny were walking down the street. They were both crying. I didn't understand. They're grown men, and I'd never seen them cry."
She was showing the police officers a few tumbling moves on the lawn when her parents walked out of the house.
"They told me they loved me, and they were also crying," she said. "I was like, 'Well, that's kind of sad.'"
Her parents, Sabrina and Eric Smith, had been operating a methamphetamine lab in their basement. They were arrested, charged with drug trafficking and taken into custody in Lafayette County.
After pleading guilty in March 2oo3, Monica's mother spent a year in prison, and her father spent three. Sabrina and Eric Smith now live in Kansas City with Monica's 5-year-old sister, Gracie.
Monica, now 18, has spent the last 10 years living with her grandparents. Yet, even with the odds against her, she has become a top student and athlete at Lafayette County C-1 High School in Higginsville.
She says people are stunned when they discover her family's history.
People are always surprised. They ask, 'How did you handle that?'" she said. "I don't know how to answer."
She was too young to really know why her parents went away, she explained. She understands now that she is older and is thriving despite their poor judgments.
She is a cheerleader, a member of the tennis team, performs in school plays and does community volunteer work.
“I'm in groups like Family, Career and Community Leaders of America and one called Higginsville Youth Directing Realistic Opportunities. I'm in drama club,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I always forget everything I'm in.”
She plans to graduate in May and then to study psychology at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg with the possibility of transferring to MU eventually.
She said she has learned from her parents' mistakes. "I don't want to go to a prison and have an 8-year-old who doesn't know what's going on," she said.
Still, her parents' choices have never affected her love for them, Monica said. She doesn't blame them for anything.
"People make mistakes, but they're meant to be forgiven, and the past doesn't define them,” she said.
After police arrested her parents, Monica was initially taken to her maternal grandmother's house, then spent a few days with Missouri Department of Social Services staff members until a foster family could be found.
Monica recalled the family in Higginsville where she lived for a few weeks as “very nice people.” "They got me clothes and toothbrush. They baked me cookies,” Monica said. “I was like, 'OK, this is like a mini-vacation.'”
Meanwhile, her paternal grandparents, Robert and Lisa Smith, who also live in Higginsville, were fighting to become her guardians.
“We were on vacation in Florida, visiting my daughter, when that all happened,” said Robert Smith, a long-haul truck driver. “We left Florida immediately."
When they got home, child-protection service workers had already placed Monica in a foster home, but Smith knew the foster family. That made it easier for him to work out the details.
"It took about six weeks,” he said about the battle for Monica. “They finally released her to us, and that's all we wanted.”
Both Monica and her grandmother laughed when he recalled how hard he pushed for custody.
"Normally it takes, I think, six months to a year," he said. "I was just raising heck with them."
Robert Smith wasn't shocked to learn about his son's secret meth lab.
“Eric worked for me periodically,” he said. “One day, he'd be great, and then the next day, he'd be little uneasy. He wasn't acting like himself.”
"So I knew they were doing something, but I didn't know what. I figured he was down the wrong road.”
He chuckled, staring at the empty dining table. “He was.”
When Monica's parents left prison in 2006, they reclaimed their daughter and the family began living together near Mayview.
That didn't last long.
While doing construction work in town, Monica's father violated parole and was sent to a halfway house.
At the same time, Monica's mother was accused of stealing money where she worked. She went back to prison, and Monica returned to her grandparents.
“Me, Grandpa and Grandma lived near Lexington,” Monica said. “We just moved to Higginsville recently.”
Her parents are now “living great sober lives,” she said, and both have stable jobs.
“My mom is actually pregnant right now,” Monica said. “I'm hoping it's a little boy.”
Her daily schedule is mostly about schoolwork, cheerleading and volunteering. Occasionally, tournaments and other events fill extra time in her planner.
This month, for example, her squad will cheer for the school's basketball team in the district tournament.
When she has free time, Monica said she likes to hang out with friends and watch movies. She also enjoys “a little family time” with her grandparents or parents.
“I've been thinking recently about going into psychology and helping people with their problems because I feel like I dealt with mine pretty well,” she said.
"I know there are kids out there who go through similar situations, and they're completely different from me. I just want to help them. I'm excited to do that.”
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.