Michelle, Michael & Matthew

Ridgeway Family

“I was holding Matthew and I realized that he didn’t know any of it. He didn’t know I’d been abused. He didn’t know I’d been homeless. His impression of me—his idea of who I am and what I am—was entirely up to me. I wanted to be a better person so I could be a better mom. I wanted to teach my son that there is absolutely nothing he can’t overcome if he wants it bad enough and if he works hard enough for it.”

Heartache’s UpsideFall 2014 Spotlight |

Shocked when their infant son was placed into foster care, Michelle and Michael channel their grief into action.

Everything fell apart on a Saturday in November 2011.

Michelle Ridgeway came home from her third-shift waitressing job and went to get her 3-month-old, Matthew, out of his crib. He was a little fussy and she noticed an odd swelling on the side of his head.

It was a half-dollar size, not obviously painful or bruised. It moved under her finger when she touched it. Her husband, Michael, left to go to work as usual and Michelle, a self-described “hypochondriac” when it comes to her child, decided to get him checked out.

When the pediatrician examined Matthew’s bump a few hours later, she asked if there’d been a recent head injury. No, Michelle said. Nothing. The doctor recommended an X-ray at the hospital, but she cautioned that the Department of Social Services might get involved if Michelle showed up with an injured baby and no explanation. Michelle was unfazed. “I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m a good mom. I love my child more than life itself, let DSS investigate me. I’m not worried about it.’ So I took him to the hospital.”

The X-ray that day revealed Matthew indeed had an injury, and it was a small skull fracture. Michelle was devastated and suddenly in big trouble. Within a matter of hours, she’d gone from concerned mother to child-abuse suspect crying and vomiting in an interrogation room at the police station. Matthew was no longer hers to take home; he stayed at the hospital in the custody of DSS. Michelle and Michael were not allowed to visit.

“I had no idea,” Michelle says. “None. No idea what was going on.” What Michelle didn’t know then—and wouldn’t know until she demanded polygraph tests—was that Michael had dropped the baby a week earlier while trying to burp him after a bottle. He didn’t see blood and he thought Matthew would be OK. He was afraid to tell Michelle, much less the authorities, what he’d done.

That decision triggered a six-month nightmare for the young family. It also brought them into the care of Methodist Home for Children and changed their lives forever.

Julie Stone met the Ridgeways in April, five months after Matthew was placed into foster care. As an in-home counselor at Methodist Home for Children, she coaches families in crisis, and it was her job to help Michelle and Michael function better as a couple and as parents when Matthew came home.

Julie Stone

Julie Stone, LCSW, Family Preservation Specialist

What she saw were two people desperate to get their son back, but also struggling, living day to day in dead-end jobs and an off-kilter marriage. They’d been working opposite schedules so one of them could always be with Matthew.

They’d been too busy and exhausted to spend time together. Both were feeling terrible guilt over Matthew being in foster care, and Michelle was angry.

But to really understand their story, you first need to understand their history. Michelle and Michael had met in a homeless shelter. They’d both lived through domestic abuse, and this shared trauma had created a powerful bond between them. Michelle had escaped a violent relationship, suffering cigarette burns and broken bones, and she’d been diagnosed with PTSD. She was so conflict-averse that she’d do anything to avoid difficult conversations and she’d swallow hurt, disappointment or frustration rather than deal with it. Michael was a completely nonthreatening partner—nine years younger, a high school dropout who struggled to communicate his own emotions or needs. He’d grown up severely neglected and abused, in and out of households with no parenting and no role models.

Individually they were carrying a lot of emotional baggage, but together they’d hoped to make a better life. They moved to Wilmington and stayed at the Good Shepherd Center while they got jobs—Michael detailing cars and Michelle waitressing. By January 2011, they had their own place to live. A few months later, they were surprised but delighted to learn they were expecting a baby.

Matthew was born August 11, 2011, and from that day forward, Michelle loved him with a fierce and protective heart. He was the center of her universe—the star in her life. Michael, meanwhile, was receding to the edges, feeling and acting less than a full partner. He finally had the family that he’d missed as a child, but he hadn’t escaped the role as an outsider, even in his own home.

That disconnect and the fear it inspired in Michael were partly why he didn’t confess to dropping Matthew. He worried that Michelle would leave and take the baby with her, so he said nothing—until the polygraph results showed he had something he needed to get off his chest.

When the truth finally came out, Michelle was angry. But she was also shocked by what it laid bare about their relationship—what she hadn’t seen. “My thought was, ‘What a horrible wife I am! My husband thinks I’m going to disappear because there was an accident? How did I not give him that faith in us?’ ” Michelle says. “I never took the time to realize that, with his background and with what he’s been through, I wasn’t adding a sense of stability. I forgot to say, ‘Yes, Matthew’s number one but you’re a close second.’ We never had that conversation.”

The frankness in Michelle’s reaction is rare among couples who’ve been ordered into counseling by family court judges, Stone says. Both she and Michael had an openness to self-improvement that was key to everything that happened next. “They were like sponges,” Stone says. “They knew they needed help and they really wanted to use the opportunity to soak as much out of it as they could.”

Stone taught them how to identify feelings, how to communicate, how to disagree. They learned how to plan—one month out, one year out, five years out—and take the right steps to get where they wanted to be.

Most important, though, Stone convinced them that a gainful life was within reach if they’d believe in themselves. Years of living through domestic violence, homelessness and degrading poverty can have a paralyzing effect on a person, Michelle says, eroding away all sense of self-worth and hope.

“It’s like you don’t count,” she says. “You’re part of the background. You’re part of the trash that blows through the city.”

Before she met Stone, Michelle didn’t feel capable of change and she didn’t have goals, other than a single-minded focus on getting her son back. She remembers the doubts that dogged her when Stone urged them both to go back to school. She was certain that her application to Cape Fear Community College would be rejected. “I didn’t have the confidence or the belief in myself that I could do better,” she says.

To her great surprise, she was not only admitted to college but also offered scholarships. With some confidence and coaching, she was able to ditch the waitressing job and start bookkeeping for a local business while she went to school. Today she’s the office manager at a venue grossing $1 million in annual sales and she’s on track to receive two associate degrees in December: one in business administration and one in business and marketing education.

“I remember the first time someone talked to me—a businessperson talked to me—as an equal,” Michelle says. “It blew my mind, because even though I wasn’t that insignificant person anymore, inside I still felt like I was.”

For Michael, the transformation has been no less complete. He earned his GED and works full-time, detailing cars six days a week, while he pursues a certificate in collision repair and refinishing technology at Cape Fear Community College. He and Michelle are in the process of buying their first home, and he plans to open an auto restoration business.

On April 29, 2012, Matthew came home to his parents after six months in foster care—a fraction of the 12 to 18 months Michelle had been told to expect. Today, he is a happy, inquisitive 3-year-old. He loves books and climbing, and he wants to do everything for himself. The months he spent in foster care are well documented and always will invite scrutiny by doctors, teachers and anybody else who knows, Michelle says. But it’s OK now.

“I would not wish what we went through on anyone. Ever,” she says. “But we came out the other side of this a stronger, more productive, more communicative, more caring family than we went into it.”

For that, she’s thankful—and for the chance to remake herself while Matthew was still young. She recalls the day it dawned on her what she had to do. She was visiting Matthew in foster care and Michael was at work, so she was alone, rocking her baby in her lap.

“I was holding Matthew and I realized that he didn’t know any of it. He didn’t know I’d been abused. He didn’t know I’d been homeless. His impression of me—his idea of who I am and what I am—was entirely up to me.

“I wanted to be a better person so I could be a better mom. I wanted to teach my son that there is absolutely nothing he can’t overcome if he wants it bad enough and if he works hard enough for it. How can I do that if I’m a dead-end waitress working the third shift in a hole in the wall?

“And if I want things to be better, I’m going to have to do it because nobody’s going to knock on the door and hand me a better life. So I kept that in mind every day—when it was 11:30 at night and I was studying for a calculus exam that I didn’t quite get, and the work emails were going off on my phone and I just wanted to lie down—that it was all for Matthew.

“But somewhere along the way it really became for all of us, as a family.”