LIBERTY, Mo. — In 2014, Washita Williams became the first (and only) member of her family to graduate from high school. It was a momentous occasion that, unfortunately, has been marked by strife ever since.
That high school diploma failed to open the doors Williams was hoping for because she was still missing an even more important document: her birth certificate.
“I was born July 12, 1994, in the bathtub at home in Oklahoma, Midwest City,” Williams said.
Public records detail a life filled with abuse until she was nine and her mother fled Oklahoma and moved to Missouri with her seven children in tow. Williams said her family lived in different shelters until her mother found work and an apartment. Once their life became more stable, Williams was sent to school. She was then 12 years old.
“I did not know how to read,” the 26-year-old said. “I did not know how to write. I did not know how to do anything.”
Liberty Police Lt. Heather Massey, then the school resource officer at South Valley Middle School, said she will never forget Williams, a shy, sweet little girl who desperately needed a friend.
“We were shocked. None us had had a student that old that had never attended school,” she said. “Not home schooled. Nothing.”
Massey often ate lunch with her, sharing the details of her own life in hopes Williams would feel comfortable to trust her if she ever needed help.
“She was always afraid,” Massey said. “She was worried about her family and being taken away from her mother. She had so much to deal with.”
That’s why it was so remarkable when Williams, defying the odds, graduated from high school. But it was only then that she faced her biggest obstacle of all. She didn’t have a birth certificate. Without one, Williams couldn’t get a job or even a driver’s license.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I hate paying taxes.’ I actually can’t wait to be able to pay taxes,” Williams said.
With no family to assist her, she has written multiple times to her birth state of Oklahoma for help. But Oklahoma wanted her to first provide documents proving that she was born there — primarily medical records. But there are no such documents because Williams was born at home, never saw a doctor and neither did her mother while she was pregnant with her.
For seven years, Williams has fruitlessly searched for answers.
She said at times she’s been so depressed she’s thought of suicide. She often pored her despair into poetry, including a haunting poem about her father who she hasn’t seen in nearly 15 years. Another is about coping with sadness. She read us a few lines.
“Take a breath. It’s OK. Life goes on every day. Bad things happen all the time. Cry it out. You’ll be fine.”
Then Williams saw a story on FOX4 Problem Solvers that gave her hope.
The story involved a young man in Independence who was facing a similar struggle trying to get his birth certificate. He was finally able to convince a judge to order the state of Missouri to issue him a birth certificate since no other state would claim him.
Williams called FOX4 Problem Solvers hoping that we could help. However, getting a judge’s order requires an attorney who could argue Williams’ case in court. That cost money, something Williams doesn’t have.
So Problem Solvers contacted attorney Alicia Johnson at Legal Aid of Western Missouri to see whether she would help Williams for free. She’s now reviewing her case.
But this story doesn’t end there. Problem Solvers also arranged a surprise meeting with Williams and Massey. The two haven’t seen each other in 10 years.
It was an emotional moment, particularly for Massey who had no idea that the little girl who once couldn’t read or write had managed to graduate from high school.
“I’m so proud of you,” Massey said, hugging Williams.
“I’ve missed you,” Williams told her.
The two plan to stay in touch as Williams continues her quest for the one document she needs to live a normal life.