Avery McFarland slaps a chunk of birthday cake into her mother’s face on a cool Saturday morning. Stephanie Skupien screams, grabs a handful of cake and pursues her 13-year-old daughter out the door and down the street.
A handful of family members and friends sit in the backyard of a Spokane Valley duplex watching.
Later, pausing to wipe the cake from her face, Skupien says, “It’s OK, I know where she sleeps at night.”
That hasn’t always been the case.
On Oct. 1, Skupien celebrated Avery’s birthday with her for the first time since the girl was 3 years old, a nine-year separation where mother and daughter saw each other just once – for six hours.
“At times, I think, ‘I don’t know you. I don’t know you,’ ” Avery said. “I haven’t been with you for so long.”
‘I allowed him
to take her’
As Skupien tells it, she lost Avery in July 2007. She was drunk, as was her husband, Tony. They fought, and then, inexplicably, Skupien let Tony drive off with her youngest child, 3-year-old Avery. The family lived in Horn Lake, Mississippi, a small town about 30 minutes from Memphis, Tennessee.
“I was stupid,” Skupien said. “I allowed him to take her.”
What followed was nightmarish. When Skupien awoke the next morning there was no word from her husband and daughter. She filed a missing person report with the Horn Lake police department. She waited another day.
It was the end of the month, and rent was due. They had just moved to Mississippi from Texas, and she had no money and no friends. She relied on her husband for everything.
So she packed up her few belongings and left with her infant son, going back to East Texas where she had family.
“I could not find her,” Skupien said.
She wouldn’t hear anything from her husband or daughter for six months. And then, one day she got a message on Myspace from a woman named Amy Filler.
‘There are always three sides
to a story’
Avery McFarland doesn’t remember much about that last night with her mother; she was just 3, after all. But what she does remember isn’t good.
“I remember us stopping and falling asleep because he finally did pull over,” she said of the drive with her father. “I remember the seat belt buckle hitting my side.”
Her father, Anthony Skupien, was arrested that night for drunken driving. According to court documents, he pleaded guilty to first-degree drunken driving with child endangerment. He paid a $750 fine and had to take a parenting class.
Avery spent that night at her grandmother’s home.
Avery narrates her life with a level of calm and maturity that belies the intensity of what she’s experienced. She sits on the back porch of the Spokane Valley duplex she and her mother share with a family friend.
Avery’s basement room is sparsely decorated. A few pictures of friends from Texas and of her stepbrother hang crookedly from the walls. Two black Dallas Cowboys pillows (her favorite team) sit on the bed.
Her mother sleeps on a couch in the adjacent room, her head facing Avery’s door.
The changing weather chills Avery. She’s a Texas girl and isn’t used to temperatures below 70 degrees.
“Everybody makes fun of me when I say y’all,” she said of her new classmates.
Otherwise, she’s fitting in well at her new school. She’s getting all A’s and one B, the best grades she’s had since she was in foster care. She’s unpacked her bags, something she hadn’t done fully in more than a year.
“I’m still trying to piece everything together myself what happened,” she said. “There are always three sides to a story: one side, another side and the truth.
“I’ve heard my dad’s side; I’ve heard my mom’s side. I know I can lean more toward my mom’s side being the truth.”
In the context of Avery’s life, that statement is remarkable.
For a time, growing up with her father, she thought her mother was dead. At other times, Avery believed her mother had abandoned her. For most of her life she didn’t want anything to do with her biological mom.
But things started to deteriorate between Avery and her father about a year ago. Her dad and his wife started to leave Avery with her stepbrother for days, sometimes even weeks at a time. They would tell Avery it was for work, but Avery noticed signs she’d later attribute to drug use – erratic behavior, bad skin, pills.
Avery said the couple would go to Wal-Mart and spend hours stocking up in preparation to leave the kids by themselves.
Someone noticed, and Child Protective Services opened a case. Eventually Avery and her brother were taken from their father. They lived with a foster family, a local pastor, and finally her aunt.
While Avery’s life in Waskom, Texas, unraveled, Stephanie Skupien’s life in Spokane was slowly emerging from a haze of addiction.
“I guess I can say it wasn’t really my dad’s decision, it was the drugs’ decision because he was on drugs,” Avery said. “And when you’re on drugs, I guess you don’t know what you’re doing.”
‘He left his daughter with me’
Amy Filler started dating Tony Skupien about nine years ago, she said. The very first weekend that they “hung out” he disappeared for several days, leaving behind one important thing – Avery.
“He left his daughter with me,” Filler said. “And I couldn’t get ahold of him, and I had no clue what to do with this little girl.”
When he showed up again he “gave me this line of bull crap and I fell for it,” Filler said. They continued to date. Things didn’t get better as the months progressed. Everything came to a head one day when she caught the man in a lie. He said he’d been working late, but she’d found a jail booking receipt in the back of his pickup.
“I started following him. Come to find out he’s the liar,” Filler said over the phone. “He’s on drugs. Disappearing to get high.”
They broke up, but Filler was worried about little Avery.
“I thought you said the mother is the crackhead?” Filler said she asked Tony. “Where is the mother?”
The mother, Stephanie Skupien, had just moved back to Spokane to be with family. She was pregnant and broke, and she’d given up on finding her only daughter.
Then she got a message from Filler on Myspace. The two started talking and Filler told Skupien about Avery – how she was doing and where she was.
Thinking back on that time, Filler said she can’t believe she stayed with Tony Skupien. But what’s worse, she can’t believe she didn’t contact Stephanie Skupien sooner.
“I wish I would have contacted her before I left him,” she said.
she ever made’
“It’s really kind of hard,” said Stephanie Skupien’s mother, Jeanette Williams, while watching her daughter and granddaughter chase each other. “Because Avery doesn’t really remember me.”
Williams is a tough woman. A former long-haul truck driver, both her children were drug addicts. Her son still is.
“There is hardly a family today that it (drugs) doesn’t touch,” she said. “I’m the parent of not one, but two of them.”
Williams told both her children that they shouldn’t mess with drugs, not even “the first time,” because of a history of addiction in her family. They ignored her. In Skupien’s case, Williams said, the drugs led to a series of bad relationships, which in turn led to children. Williams has raised two of Skupien’s three boys.
In 2007, just before Tony drove off with Avery, Stephanie and Tony had broken up. But, Tony convinced Stephanie to move back in with him. Williams said she warned her daughter not to go back, that if she did he would take Avery. Stephanie Skupien ignored her mother’s advice. Shortly after, he drove off with 3-year-old Avery.
“Biggest mistake she ever made,” Williams said.
‘I probably could
have filled an ocean with the tears I shed’
When Skupien got the message from Amy Filler on Myspace, she’d already moved back to Spokane. She was pregnant with her second son and she was trying to stay clean.
“She had no money,” Williams said. “She was an addict. Tony was, too, but he had money. Stephanie had none of those avenues to help her.”
Skupien said leaving Avery with Tony broke her heart, but she had to think about her two boys. At that point in her life she was struggling just to care for them.
“I probably could have filled an ocean with the tears I shed over the nine years Avery was gone,” she said.
Skupien did not see Avery until 2009, when she drove to Texas to see her daughter for six hours. Shortly after that, she relapsed. Skupien gave her two sons to Williams and “did what was right for them.”
She started using crack, then meth. Williams remembers finding her daughter slumped on the curb by the Cenex on Northwest Boulevard. She’d buy her a meal at McDonald’s and a hotel room for the night, but she wouldn’t bring her home. She didn’t want the boys seeing their mom – not in that state.
“Things just went from bad to worse for her,” Williams said. “It’s pretty heartbreaking as a parent when you have to go do that.”
Meanwhile, Avery’s living situation in Texas was getting worse. Lennie Landry, a longtime friend of Stephanie Skupien’s, said she rarely saw Avery, or her father, around the small Texas town they all lived in.
“Stephanie just watched her little girl grow up in pictures,” Landry said. “That was like her biggest downfall was that her little girl was gone.”
‘I can blame her
for picking up
Tony Skupien’s a big guy. “He’s not fat, he’s like chubby, I guess you could say,” Avery said.
One recent evening, Avery was flipping through her phone looking at pictures from her life in Texas.
“This is at church. That was the day Dad was actually Dad,” she said, pausing on a photo of her father, Skupien and her. Tony’s arm is laid over her shoulder. “I think he was clean that day.”
Both Avery and Stephanie Skupien said Tony is an amazing man, when he’s clean and sober. The problem, they say, is he’s hardly ever clean and sober.
Tony Skupien declined to comment for this story.
Instead he wrote in a text message, “I have decided not to participate in this fictitious story Stephanie and Avery have told you. I cannot glorify the tragic life that Stephanie has lived and abandoned her four kids for the majority of their adolescent lives.”
However, numerous people interviewed supported key points of Skupien’s and Avery’s story, including a Court Appointed Special Advocate assigned to Avery’s case, as well as court documents.
Asked why CPS took Avery from him, Tony Skupien wrote, “I want my daughter to have her mother, but I believe it’s going to be another big disappointment for her, and she’s had many due to her mother’s habits. Pray for her. That’s all we can do.”
Avery said she was never physically abused. But she was neglected and there was emotional abuse. Her grandmother, Jeannette Williams, takes it a step further.
“She’s a 13-year-old coming into puberty and unfortunately what she’s known her whole life is drugs and sex,” Williams said.
Those experiences have made Avery unusually mature and composed, which ironically is causing some friction in Spokane. For example, in Texas, Avery would clean the house. If she didn’t, no one would. In Spokane, it’s different.
“I’m used to nobody being there, being alone,” McFarland said. “And here I am in a situation with my mom, she’s always there. I’m never alone.”
It’s a change for Skupien, too. She’s learning to be a mother to a teenage daughter. At points, the guilt she feels about leaving Avery starts to overwhelm her and she’s tempted to give her daughter everything she wants.
“As a parent it can destroy a child if we let our personal guilt from those missing years take over,” she said.
Avery said she can’t blame her mom for leaving her, partly because she knows how manipulative her dad can be, and partly because of the drug use. But, Avery does blame Skupien for one thing.
“I can blame her for picking up that needle,” she said.
‘She came to battle’
On April 26, 2014, Skupien hit rock bottom.
“I just knew in my head and my heart – my whole mind, body and soul – that I knew I had to step up and make a change,” she said. “I knew I had to … do what was right and live for my children and make changes in my life.”
Skupien quit cold turkey. It’s the least effective way to quit drugs, but so far it has worked. She started to piece her life back together. She started to see her sons more. She started going to Narcotics Anonymous. She started attending church again.
And then she heard her daughter was in foster care. She spoke to some friends living in Texas, then got in touch with the courts. They said she could come visit, but she couldn’t speak to Avery, not yet.
Skupien’s aunt, Dottie Sims, describes the whole sequence of events as miraculous. If Skupien hadn’t gotten clean at the same time Avery’s life was collapsing, Avery would have been left in the foster care system.
“Her goal in being clean was getting her children back in her life,” Sims said. “If Avery’s life wasn’t falling apart down there it would haven’t done Stephanie any good to go down.”
Linea Weaver was a CASA worker assigned to Avery’s CPS case. She was skeptical when she first heard Skupien wanted to be in her daughter’s life, but that changed.
“She came to battle when she found out she had the opportunity to get her child back,” Weaver said. “She did every single thing she could do to get Avery back.”
Avery was harder to win over. She said the first time she saw her mom, in church, she was furious because she specifically told the courts she didn’t want anything to do with her. But then her mother wrote her a letter. The more curious Avery got about her mother, the angrier her father became. That, in some ways, pushed her to move in with Skupien.
“It took a while, and my wall started slowly coming down,” Avery said.
She visited Spokane in June and stayed for a month. When she returned to Texas she’d made up her mind.
“She didn’t want to come back,” Weaver said of Avery’s visit to Spokane. “I’ve never seen a story like this.”
On July 28, a Texas court gave Stephanie Skupien custody of Avery.
‘I can’t bear
Avery McFarland is getting more comfortable living with her mother, but she still worries. If her mother relapses, Avery is left in a tough spot.
“It’s definitely a worry of mine,” she said. “She could still see a needle and say, ‘Oooh, I wanna do that again.’ ”
But her grandmother and aunt say they would take Avery in if she needed it, and the girl knows this. Both women recognize that Skupien and Avery have hard work ahead of them. But, as Williams sees it, Avery is in a better situation than she was in Texas, and Skupien has continued to show her seriousness.
“Stephanie has a wonderful heart,” Williams said. “She’s always had a good, caring heart.”
Skupien is enrolled in a Spokane Community Colleges apprenticeship program and hopes to be a heavy equipment operator. Her two sons still live with her mother, but she sees them often and Avery is getting to know her stepbrothers.
Skupien is confident she won’t relapse. At the mere thought of it, she raises her voice.
“Just the thought of knowing that if I went and picked a pipe or a needle up, knowing what that would do to my children, alone,” she pauses, collecting herself. “I can’t bear the thought.”
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