When she was 8, Regina Meaux did what a lot of young girls do.
She slipped her little feet into a pair of too-big high heel shoes and played grown-up.
Were they her mother’s shoes? She can’t remember. She’s 32 now and her own children are older than she was then. She can only look at that picture, taken more than two decades ago, and wonder.
The photograph shows her from the waist down – pink shorts, scraped knees, green crew socks and battered white pumps. She teeters amid rain puddles on the broken asphalt at the Fire Station Motel in Garden Grove.
Her name back then was Regina Bartlett, and her life was a struggle against a toxic pairing of poverty and bad parenting.
Today, she’s determined to give her own children a better chance. But she is dealing with the loss of her young son while trying to raise his older sisters in a safe place they can call their own.
She’s needed help, something that didn’t come soon enough when she was a child.
When an Orange County Register photographer took that photo of her at the Fire Station, it was part of an arresting look into the lives of children like Meaux and her two siblings — “Motel Children.”
Regina Meaux, named Regina Bartlett when this photo published in 1998, plays grown-up in high heels at the Fire Station Motel parking lot. (File photo by Daniel Anderson, Orange County Register)
A photo of Regina Meaux, now 32, shows her at age 9 when she was being shuffled around in the child welfare system. She found happy moments during visits with her social worker and her special advocate. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Choulochas)
Regina Meaux breaks down in her new apartment while talking about her 5-year-old son, Ivan Sandoval, who died in a car accident in June. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux is reflected in a mirror on a dresser in her daughters’ room where they keep memories of their brother, Ivan Sandoval, who died in a car accident at age 5. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux keeps her son’s picture and finger print close to her heart on a necklace after the 5-year-old died in a car accident in June. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A fire-engine red casket for Regina Meaux’s 5-year-old son, Ivan Sandoval, was paid for through GoFundMe money after he died in a car accident in June. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Choulochas)
Regina Meaux shows the “Ivan” tattoo she got in memory of her 5-year-old son, Ivan Sandoval, who died in a car accident in June. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux’s youngest daughter, Nicole, wears her brother Ivan’s name and age on her shoes with pictures of the things he liked — including pizza —as she visits his grave on Saturday, September 18, 2021. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux keeps a shrine on her car’s dashboard in honor of her 5-year-old son, Ivan Sandoval, who died in a June car accident with his father at the wheel. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux and her 14-year-old daughter Danielle, center, and Nicole, 13, visit the Anaheim grave of Meaux’s 5-year-old son, Ivan Sandoval, on Saturday, September 18, 2021. The boy died in a June car accident when his father’s car hit a tree. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux, in red, with her brother Xavier Thompson-Ukkerd, former Court Appointed Special Advocate Tracy Hallford, third from left, and former Orange County social worker Margaret Choulochas on Saturday, September 18, 2021. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux, left, with her younger brother and sister in the only photo she has of them together as children. (Photo courtesy of Regina Meaux)
Regina Meaux keeps an unopened box of cracked m&m’s as a memory from a cheerleading trip she made to Las Vegas with her daughters and 5-year-old son, Ivan Sandoval, who died in a car accident last June. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux now has a place to call home with her two teenage daughters in Anaheim on Saturday, October 9, 2021. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Danielle Moreno, 14, keeps a blanket with pictures of her 5-year-old brother, Ivan Sandoval, on the wall of her bedroom as a tribute to him after he died in a June car accident. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux’s apartment is filled with keepsakes from her son Ivan Sandoval’s life that was cut short from a car accident at age 5. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux visits the Anaheim grave of Meaux’s 5-year-old son, Ivan Sandoval, on Saturday, September 18, 2021. Sandoval died in a June car accident with his father at the wheel. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux and her brother Xavier Thompson-Ukkerd were reunited in adulthood after being separated as children in the foster care system. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux and her 14-year-old daughter Danielle Moreno visit the Anaheim grave of Meaux’s 5-year-old son, Ivan Sandoval, on Saturday, September 18, 2021. The little boy died in a June car accident with his father at the wheel. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Regina Meaux, named Regina Bartlett when this photo published in 1998, swings on a railing outside her room at the Fire Station Motel. She was 8 and had learned a poem in school: “Up and down, where is the way to London town? Where? Where? Up in the air? Close your eyes and you are there.” (File photo by: Daniel A. Anderson, Orange County Register)
In this photo published in 1998, a mistletoe sprig is knifed to the wall of the room where Regina Meaux, then 8 and called Regina Bartlett, lived. (File photo by Daniel A. Anderson, Orange County Register)
Regina Meaux is about 13 in this photo she took with her Court Appointed Special Advocate, Tracy Hallford. Meaux spent much of her childhood in Orange County’s child welfare system. Hallford, who became a teacher, reconnected with Meaux when she was a young adult, as did one of Meaux’s social workers, Margaret Choulochas. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Hallford)
When she was in the child welfare system, Regina Meaux made this card for Margaret Choulochas, a social worker at the time for Orange County in its adoptions division. Choulochas, whose maiden name was Cusack, reconnected with Meaux in her adulthood and recently helped Meaux and her two daughters find an apartment. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Choulochas)
Published in August 1998, the stories and photos drew public attention to the children and the places they called home – rundown, rent-by-the-month pockets of poverty, where drug use, violence and crime thrived. “Motel Children” won multiple awards and honors, including Pulitzer Prize finalist in photography.
The reality of that photo of Meaux? Playing grown-up was more than pretend.
Something she does remember from her early years is being left alone – often – to watch over her younger sister and brother. That happened with a lot of the motel children. Sometimes, a parent had to work and had no child care. Other times, a parent wanted to party. Her mom did both. Police eventually took Meaux and her siblings away.
“Motel Children” captured the precocious behavior and precarious lives of children who lived at the now-demolished Golden Forest Inn of Anaheim and the Fire Station Motel, a place where the Great Wolf Lodge water park and hotel now stands on Harbor Boulevard.
Only the future could answer lingering questions about the children. What kind of adults, and parents, would they become?
Meaux’s response: She vowed not to end up a motel mom.
She made that decision at 17, caring for her own newborn, with a second child on the way.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to be a good mom. I’m not going to let them go through what I did.’”
‘Our sweet Regina’
As a second-generation, unmarried mom, she’s faced heartbreak from childhood into adulthood. This year, the worst of all the bad happened.
She lost her youngest child in a car accident.
Meaux’s little boy, Ivan Alexander Sandoval, 5, died in a June car accident, after the truck his father drove slammed into a tree in Anaheim. Ivan was not in a car seat, police said, and though he lived for another week he never regained consciousness. Meaux stayed at his hospital bedside as machines kept his tiny organs pumping until they could be harvested for donation.
During those bleak hours, two people from her past stepped forward. Margaret Choulochas, a former county social worker, and Tracy Hallford, a one-time volunteer advocate for abused and neglected children, never forgot the girl they still call “our sweet Regina.”
They hoped to do for her now what the limitations of Orange County’s child welfare system prevented all those years ago – find somewhere for Meaux and her two daughters to call home.
They lost track of Meaux for a few years, after she went to Juvenile Hall. But they found her again as a young adult on social media, and she seemed to be doing well, caring for her children and working on furthering her own education. They applauded from the sidelines.
“She was part of the reason I went on Facebook,” Hallford says. “I was Googling her all the time, just wondering how she was.”
After Ivan’s accident, Hallford and Choulochas showed up at the hospital where Meaux was keeping vigil. They have stuck by her since.
Before Ivan’s death, Meaux was struggling with lost hours and wages at her job, both results of the pandemic. She also was frustrated in her search to find a place to rent. She spent a year on a waiting list for housing assistance.
The night of the accident, Ivan and his father were headed back to the motel where the family was staying. Meaux was not far behind, in her own car with her girls, 14 and 13 at the time. Her cellphone rang. They heard the boy’s dad screaming.
Ivan’s death severed Meaux’s relationship with his father and triggered a sense of hopelessness. She told Choulochas she felt like a black cloud always followed her and that “nothing ever worked out for me.”
Choulochas knows as well as anybody the tough childhood endured by Meaux, among more than 70 kids on her caseload at the time. Meaux’s case was one of the “most complicated and tragic” that Choulochas says she handled in 10 years of social work.
“She’s just the classic kid who fell through the cracks.”
Difficult years, determination
A decade after the Register’s “Motel Children” ran, similar circumstances for another generation of impoverished children growing up in the shadow of Disneyland were spotlighted in the 2010 HBO documentary “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County” by filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi.
In between those two exposés, Regina Meaux grew up. But not at a motel; in the child welfare system.
Police put the siblings in protective custody on Aug. 18, 1998. Her sister and brother eventually would be adopted. Meaux, 8 at the time, would not.
She cycled through a series of failed foster care families, group homes, Juvenile Hall – by her own count, 30 placements over a half-dozen years. That included some of the most restrictive residences for troubled youth, complete with padded rooms and restraints.
She ran away at 15 with a 17-year-old boy she met during coed group activities. They stayed together in the Anaheim neighborhood where he grew up, sheltered by his friends. At 16, Meaux was pregnant. A second daughter was born 11 months after the first.
Ivan, born in February 2016, had a different father.
Meaux’s difficult years in the child welfare system made her tough, resilient. A fighter.
She worked a low-wage service job. But she also took online college classes, majoring in child development and education studies. She eventually landed a better job, working with developmentally disabled adults.
She stayed in Anaheim so her children could go to one school and not endure the sting of being the new kid in class, over and over, as she often was. She kept her girls, both A students, involved in a youth football and cheer program, volunteering as a team mom. Her oldest daughter, a sophomore, vaulted to her high school cheer squad. Her eighth-grader played flag football this year.
No one knew Meaux was once one of the Register’s “Motel Children.” Until recently, she didn’t even realize it herself.
But there’s a lot Meaux won’t forget about her childhood, a lot she can’t forgive. The biggest ache was losing her sister and brother.
“Why,” she asks, “did they take us apart?”
Abuse and neglect
Sometime around the age of 13, when she and a friend broke into a shuttered group home where they had once lived, Meaux got a look at her records. The thick file of confidential documents had been left behind in an unlocked cabinet.
“I felt terrible,” she says of what she read. “I felt sad.”
Her parents met in a hospital, while both were under treatment for mental illness. They had a sexual relationship for about two months. Pregnant by the time she was released, her mother soon moved on to an abusive boyfriend. He would father Meaux’s younger sister and brother. When she was little, Meaux believed he was her father, too.
Both Meaux’s birth parents were White, while her siblings’ father was Black.
Meaux learned even more about her early years this past September, when her brother — with a persistent Choulochas at his side — retrieved some records from the Lamoreaux Justice Center, the Superior Court in Orange that handles juvenile, family law and domestic violence cases. The documents included information about five different reports of alleged abuse or neglect from 1991 to 1998.
“Motel Children” tells of a Christmastime 1997 visit by Garden Grove Police to the Fire Station Motel. An asthma attack sent Meaux’s mother to the hospital. A paramedic summoned police, concerned about the children’s living conditions. The refrigerator had been empty, the room a mess. By the time police arrive, their maternal grandmother, visiting from Oregon, is cleaning up with Meaux’s help.
The officers question the grandmother. But before they leave, they remove a sprig of mistletoe and the knife stabbed into the wall to hang it. Losing the mistletoe upsets Meaux. She runs outside, curls up in a ball in the velvet dress she’s wearing, and rocks back and forth on the motel walkway.
Sometime later – it’s unclear if it’s days or weeks – her mother is alone with the children and crying because she doesn’t have money for rent. Social Services has contacted her. The children worry about being taken away. They’ve seen it happen to other kids.
Then, their turn comes.
The public response to “Motel Children” would generate $200,000 in donations, along with tons of food, clothing and toys. Government officials promised better resources. Community groups announced plans for organized activities for the children.
Some of those things happened. But none benefited Meaux.
Less than two weeks after publication of “Motel Children,” Meaux, a month shy of turning 9, her sister Stephanie, 7, and her brother, Xavier, 4, were sent to live in girls and boys cottages at Orangewood Children’s Home, the county’s first stop for abused, neglected and abandoned children. Their mother had left them unsupervised that night while working at Knott’s Berry Farm.
Police took the children away, on allegations of general neglect. The motel room was “filthy, smelled of urine, and infested with cockroaches and ants,” according to the county documents. The children would open the refrigerator door to reach the microwave on top of it: “The racks were bent in the middle from where they had climbed up the refrigerator.”
Interviewed by social workers, Meaux’s sister spoke of her father “beating up my mom, but only when he’s mad.” Meaux’s brother said he was afraid of his father and “I don’t like him.” Meaux said that when there is fighting, “I lock myself in the room and cry on the bed.”
Her mother’s on-again, off-again, live-in boyfriend was a drug abuser with a criminal record. He had several arrests for domestic violence.
“I do remember him punching her,” Meaux says.
He hit the children, too. Meaux worst of all.
‘Mad at the world’
Despite her upbringing, Meaux was a gifted student at Peters Elementary in Garden Grove. She remembers walking to school alone with her sister, holding hands, when they lived in an apartment nearby. She had perfect attendance, good grades. A teacher reported that she initially had trouble getting along with other children and was disruptive, but that she settled down.
The family transported their belongings in a shopping cart when they moved to the motel, sometime in 1997. Meaux remembers being left alone with her siblings “a lot,” told not to leave the room or answer the door. Neighbors reported that their mother locked them inside while she went visiting.
They ate microwavable TV dinners, soup, instant noodles. Meaux recalls sleeping with her sister on the floor beside the bed. She had a Cinderella blanket; sister Stephanie had Pocahontas.
They all cried when they went to Orangewood.
Meaux’s brother punched people. He lived in the boys cottage and his sisters could only see him for short visits. Choulochas, who back then went by her maiden name Cusack, can still hear his lisping plea, “I want to see my sistuhs.”
Meaux was angry – hitting, biting, screaming, cursing.
“I was just mad at the world,” she says now. Where before, “I was a good person. I was a good student. I loved to read. I loved to color.”
But the girl at Orangewood was described as “manipulative” and “lies straight to your face.” County documents say Meaux suffered from “extreme anxiety.”
To Meaux, those reports only talk about the bad things she did – and without context. Like the time she peed on the floor at Orangewood: “We came from school and the staff wanted us to go straight to our room for shift change. Well, I told them I needed to go to the bathroom. But they said I needed to go to my room. So I just peed on the floor. What else did they want me to do?”
One therapist wrote that Meaux gets “highly agitated quickly, but is workable and has a sweet side.”
Meaux says she missed the life she once had at the motel, as dysfunctional as it was.
“I wanted to see my brother. I wanted to see my mom. I wanted to go home.”
Their mother failed to follow an 18-month family reunification plan. With the fathers disengaged as well, the court severed all parental rights.
A maternal relative in 1999 tried keeping all three children but could not handle Meaux or her brother, who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They went back to Orangewood after a couple of months. That was the last time, until adulthood, that all three siblings were together.
The same relative would adopt Meaux’s sister, who grew up in Southern California but now lives in North Carolina. Meaux and her brother bounced around in the system. Then he was adopted by an African American lesbian couple; his adoption would not go well.
When Hallford began her four-year tenure as an Orange County Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, she specifically picked Meaux to mentor, touched by what she calls “the great need” of an 11-year-old girl on her own in the system, both her sister and brother gone.
“They were adopted. She was not,” Hallford says. “How would that make her feel?”
Choulochas was a senior social worker in the county’s adoptions division from 1998 to 2008. Her success in finding homes for older children, typically the hardest to adopt, earned her the honor of Social Worker of the Year in 2005. Meaux acted differently when she was with Choulochas and Hallford. There were outings to Red Lobster, her favorite restaurant, nature walks, craft-making.
“She was always respectful to me,” Hallford says. “She was a soft-spoken girl. She was kind, appreciative.”
Two other attempts to place Meaux with relatives failed.
She went to live with her paternal grandparents in May 2000. It lasted six weeks before she was back at Orangewood, headed for another group home.
A social worker wrote, “The grandparents were unable to control the behavior of the child, set limits or provide any structure.” In that same report, Meaux said: “I felt very lonely at my grandparents’ home. They didn’t talk to me or listen to me.” And when her father, diagnosed with a severe mental illness, visited, “He sat there and stared at me. I’m afraid of him.”
In July 2000, a maternal aunt who wanted to adopt Meaux began a series of visits. She attended Meaux’s school meetings, readied a house for them to live in, and knew Meaux’s behavioral issues, which had escalated after she left her grandparents’ home. But that effort fell apart in late 2003.
“She really tried,” Choulochas says of the aunt. But, “there was an incident where Regina was really explosive and (the aunt) said, ‘I can’t manage this.’ It broke her heart.”
Responsibility of motherhood
By the summer of 2004, Meaux, 14, was in Juvenile Hall, accused of stealing a van that belonged to a group home. Meaux and some other girls at the home took the keys, but she says they didn’t drive it off and, instead, were caught sitting in it. In defiance, she keyed the side of it.
She says of herself from those years, “I was a really bad kid.”
Choulochas corrects her: “You were a traumatized kid.”
When Hallford and Choulochas last saw the teenage Meaux in person, she was locked up.
“She came out in an orange jumpsuit,” Choulochas remembers, “and I had to say goodbye.”
Social Services closed its case on her. The two women had no more contact. Meaux says she later ran away to avoid being sent to a probation home, with “rough” girls, in Los Angeles.
In January 2008, after both her daughters were born, Meaux, 18, turned herself in to Anaheim Police. She didn’t want her delinquency to jeopardize getting a job or, worse, risk having her children taken from her.
“It was so bad,” she says of her experience in the child welfare system. “I don’t want anyone to feel like I felt, so alone and so unwanted.”
She used her 90-day sentence to get her GED, a high school equivalency diploma.
Meaux had been with Ivan’s father since 2015. They lived in a home his mother owned, raising Ivan and his sisters together. They had to move out in March. At the time of the accident, they were staying in a motel that cost $350 a week. Meaux hated it.
A GoFundMe raised money to help pay for Ivan’s funeral expenses. He is buried with his paternal step-grandfather.
But Meaux and her girls needed a place to live.
Choulochas and Hallford started a second GoFundMe drive and put them up in an Extended Stay America hotel in Anaheim. Meaux’s brother stayed with them. Their relationship has been rocky at times. He spent time in prison for assault and has his own complicated issues. But, since Ivan’s death, they’ve grown closer.
Choulochas calculated that the GoFundMe money would run out by early October. They all worried what would happen after that.
Search for housing
Meaux had met in July with a housing navigator from Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit that works with homeless people. Meaux qualified for a program called Rapid Rehousing, which pays up-front move-in costs and first month’s rent, then tapers off over a year. But there were communication problems with the housing navigator – gaps when Meaux says she heard nothing.
Illumination Foundation says there was a period when her housing navigator — one of four people assisting 30 households — was on leave. Meaux also has a case manager, and was given a list of apartments to look at on her own. Each apartment application cost her $40.
In August, Meaux resumed working full time, earning $16.25 an hour at a day program for adults with disabilities. But her housing search remained hampered by an October 2014 eviction that, she says, dated back to when her girls’ father missed an $850 payment for the apartment they once shared. At about that same time, a car also was repossessed.
Evictions have a shelf life of seven years; landlords from the Illumination Foundation list were turning Meaux down.
Yet again, it seemed Meaux might fall between the cracks.
Near the end of September, Choulochas and her husband went in search of a place for Meaux and her girls. They found a one-bedroom in Anaheim, a garden-style apartment with quiet neighbors. They talked to the landlord, who said yes to renting to Meaux and working with Illumination Foundation.
Before she moved in, at the beginning of October, Illumination Foundation had the place furnished. Meaux gave the girls the bedroom; she sleeps on a bed in the living room. Her brother moved in with a friend. She last spoke to her sister when Ivan died and she last saw her mother, who lives in Oregon, before Ivan’s birth. She is still angry with her mother.
Reminders of Ivan can be found throughout the new apartment — from the tablecloth and microwave in bright red, his favorite color, to bins filled with his toys and clothes, and mementos that line the cabinets and shelves.
“It was hard moving in without him,” Meaux says, wiping away tears with the palms of her hands.
She has resumed her online college courses, and Choulochas and Hallford hope she can get financial aid to finish her education and earn a four-year degree. The two women also encouraged Meaux to create an Amazon wish list for other household and personal care items, along with some dream gifts.
Meaux said she’s grateful for all they’ve done.
“I never had anybody help me before,” she says. “I never had anybody to be like a parent.”
The annual Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week begins Saturday and runs through Sunday, Nov. 21.
Opportunities for people to learn about the issues include these virtual events hosted by Orange County United Way, through its United to End Homelessness initiative:
— State of Homelessness Address, Monday, 12-12:45 p.m. Community leaders to discuss challenges and progress in Orange County, and talk about what comes next.
— Passing the Mic: Hearing from People Who’ve Survived Homelessness, Thursday, 12-12:45 p.m. Firsthand accounts from people who have been homeless.
Registration closes one hour before event start time. Go to unitedtoendhomelessness.org/hunger-homelessness-awareness-week. Re