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Overcoming obstacles: West Branch’s Lozier found his way with help of foster family


Published: Sun, July 16, 2017 @ 12:10 a.m.

By BRIAN DZENIS | bdzenis@vindy.com

SALEM

One of the finest moments of Rob Lozier’s West Branch career was the football team’s season finale last October.

Lozier put up 230 all-purpose yards and scored three touchdowns to help down rival Salem, 27-0, but that game also featured a difficult choice. It was Senior Night, the time when players’ names are called along with their parents. Lozier was torn.

Only a handful of adults and even fewer of his peers know the past of the Warriors football and track team captain: that he had spent most of his life in foster care — three multi-year stints in two homes through three organizations and at least 10 caseworkers. He was emancipated when he turned 18 last August.

On that October night, he was at the game with his foster mother, Marci Craig. Also at that game was his biological mother, Wendy Warne.

“It was hard for me. I really thought about it and realized I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for [the Craig family],” Lozier said. “They’re the reason I was able to have a successful athletic career, so it made sense to walk with them. They’ve done so much to help me get to where I’m at.”

A series of tough choices from Lozier himself and the adults in his life have taken him from a broken-down trailer in Hanoverton to a full ride at Cleveland State. Warne gave up her parental rights to Lozier and his sister, Jessica, in 2011. He reconnected with her when he was emancipated.

“When I lost him, I told him, ‘This is to better you.’ If he stayed with me, he couldn’t be the awesome football player he is and everything,” Warne said. “I told him he needed to take advantage of the situation and make the best of it.”

When Rob was in the locker room before a game or getting ready to jump hurdles, his past was with him. He made sure it stayed with him.

“I don’t talk about it. I don’t want people to look at me differently,” Lozier said. “If I say I grew up in foster care, people would treat me differently and I didn’t want them feeling bad for me.”

He’s a rare case. As of last July, there were 13,683 children in the foster care system, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. Two-thirds of those children have spent less than two years in the system. Rob is among the six percent who’ve spent five-plus years in the system.

A social worker called the Craigs out of the blue to ask if they could take Rob in as he was starting high school. Marci had known Rob since he was in second grade playing flag football for a team her husband Brian coached.

The pair, along with their sons, Mitch and Max, brought him into their home.

“We did it because we knew this kid. He was a good kid,” Marci said. “We didn’t want to lose him. He was this kid in our school who was always polite. We talked about it as a family and we decided we want to help somebody.”

‘THEY JUST TOOK US’

Rob goes by Bob to his biological family. He’s the youngest of Warne’s three children. Warne said she put her first child up for adoption because she had given birth when she was 16 and Rob never met her.

She was 20 when she had Jessica and Rob was born two years later. Warne was with Rob’s father for several years. They drank and did drugs.

Rob also has a half-sister, Leslie, who shares his father, but lived with her mother. His first home was a trailer that had no electricity and a sizeable hole in the roof. His father was often absent and has no relationship with Warne or her children today.

It didn’t take long for Rob to realize his life wasn’t normal.

“We didn’t have anything nice. The clothes we had were 25 cents from garage sales. We didn’t have a washer or dryer and we smelled pretty bad. I was bullied and we had to roll an extension cord to a neighbor to get some power,” Lozier said. “Any food we had was in a cooler on our back porch. Most of the time, animals got in it and we would be screwed.”

Rob learned from Leslie — who is a decade older than him — that she and neighbors reported Warne to Columbiana County officials multiple times. The county came for Rob and Jessica when he was in elementary school.

“It was the first day of second grade. My sister and I got called down to the office and we were sitting in a room full of people and we had no idea what was going on. It was a madhouse,” Rob said. “One of the ladies came up to us and said we were going somewhere for a while — it isn’t permanent — but it will be a while.

“There wasn’t a goodbye. They just took us,” Rob said.

Warne learned her kids were gone via a note on the door of her home.

“It was all bad choices pretty much,” Warne said to sum up why her children were taken away.

THE LAST FIGHT

The brother and sister stayed in the first foster home until Rob was in fifth grade. He and Jessica returned to their mother, but that stint lasted less than a year.

Warne had moved out of the trailer into a proper home, but the combination of her not quite ditching all her bad habits and Jessica growing into a defiant teenager was a source of conflict.

“[My mother] was into some bad stuff: drugs and alcohol. I’m more of a quiet guy, but my sister, she was stubborn and they butt heads a lot and it caused a lot of problems,” Rob said. “They couldn’t let the other win.”

One fight led to a point of no return when Warne was arrested on domestic violence and assault charges. In 2010, Rob had some friends who had beef with Jessica’s circle of friends. It got physical and the older kids roughed up Rob.

“They were bullying my son, and I went out for some drinks with my friend. I came home buzzed up and saw my son flipping out in the kitchen saying he was going to take it to these girls saying they were going to beat him up and his mother,” Warne said. “I was a little drunk, so I took the situation into my hands and that’s why they took my kids away. I stood up for my son.”

Warne attempted to settle the situation by waving around a machete.

“I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff. My mom had never done anything like that to me,” Rob said. “I’m a laid-back guy and I don’t argue with anybody. My sister — back then — fought everything, but I’ve seen worse than that.”

Warne was found guilty of domestic violence and assault charges from the incident. She spent two weeks in jail and was sentenced to three years of probation, plus community service. The siblings spent a week on a cousin’s couch before they moved back with their first foster family, staying there until Rob moved in with the Craig family.

In multiple conversations with The Vindicator, Lozier maintained his mother never directly mistreated him.

“My mother and I never had a problem. She’s never laid a hand on me and never done anything to me,” Rob said.

MEET THE CRAIGS

The Craigs thought it was time to get out their comfort zone.

When Marci got the call from a social worker about Rob, the family went to three straight church services on the subject. It seemed like an omen for what they were about to do.

As he was getting out of junior high, Rob’s relationship with his foster parents began to sour. There wasn’t any fighting, but he said he felt more “property” than a person.

“They didn’t go to anything I did. They never went to football games and people always asked, ‘Where are your parents?’” Rob said. “I wasn’t getting the support I needed. My sister felt the same way.”

Rob gave his caseworker two names: a teacher in the West Branch school system and Marci Craig. Marci is the vice-president of the school’s all-sports booster club and is one of the more active parents at Warriors football games and other sporting events.

“It was one of the only options I could think of. I knew they were really supportive of athletics,” Rob said. “Mitch and I went to Damascus

Elementary together.”

The teacher couldn’t take Rob because it would have meant leaving West Branch. Brian and Marci went through 40 hours of classes from the Northeast Ohio Adoption Services, had their home inspected and went through further vetting before Rob could move in. The Craigs’ children bought into the idea, but it wasn’t always easy.

“People think it’s just the kid coming in, but for Max and I, it was like, ‘Why is this kid coming to our house?’ We rolled over our stuff for this new person and there were some nights where I was upset,” Mitch said. “I wondered if [my parents] were trying to replace me and what I did wrong. Looking back, I wondered why I thought that way.”

In establishing a routine a few of Rob’s quirks emerged as the three boys learned to co-exist. He liked to play acoustic guitar late at night. He was a little messier than Max and Mitch and has a talent for sniffing out ice cream.

The Craigs keep a farm in the back of their property to raise pigs and other animals for the Canfield Fair. There was a brief period to allow Lozier to get comfortable and adjust, but then he was part of the family.

EMANCIPATION

That 18th birthday posed its own set of dangers.

When Rob was emancipated, all of the restrictions, the visits from caseworkers and other infrastructure of the system were gone in an instant. The family prepared for the moment. Marci and Brian had given Rob his own bank account and were beginning to teach him financial literacy and other life skills. He was on pace to graduate high school and go to college.

Marci was nervous.

“Last year at this time. Rob told a caseworker he wanted to live with his mom,” Marci said.

By this point, he hadn’t seen his mother in years. They were barred from contacting each other as one of the stipulations of his mother giving up her rights. After everything that had happened in his past, Rob loves his mother and sisters.

“It would have been different and not for the good. I probably would have stopped playing sports,” Rob said. “I still wanted to go to West Branch and everything, but I was willing to give it all up to be with my mom.”

Marci broke down the questions facing Rob should he leave, like how was he getting to school? How was he going to pay for things like insurance or a cell phone? The Craigs also would have taken the whole experience as a failure if he left.

“It was like a kick in the face to us. He lived with us for years and now he’s leaving for someone that hasn’t done anything for you,” Mitch said. “It would have been all for nothing.”

Warne said she’s aware her son thought of going back to her, and even she agreed he was better off with the Craigs.

“It kind of sucked. I would have liked him to stay with me, but he has so much going on,” Warne said. “It was better for him [to stay].”

Rob said that through all his years in foster care, he never ran away from his foster home. Not that he didn’t give it serious thought and even had a short-lived escape from his own mother when he was very young. He decided to stay.

“It just wasn’t a good idea,” Rob said.

REUNITED

Rob didn’t want to live with his mother, but he still wanted to see her and Marci was sympathetic to that.

“From the first Mother’s Day [Rob spent with us] and I remember seeing him kind of tearing up in church,” Marci said. “I told him, ‘I’m not your Mom, but I’ll be here for you. I’ll be your Mom for the next four years, but I won’t take the place of your Mom.’”

Warne and Rob met after one his sporting events.

“He just ran up to me and gave me a hug,” Warne said. “We hadn’t seen each other for years.”

Warne gave up her rights to Rob and Jessica as part of the fallout from her 2010 arrest and the years between then and Rob’s emancipation weren’t kind to her.

“I made myself more of an alcoholic because I was so upset about the situation. I was kicked out of the apartment I was living in and moved around for a while,” Warne said. “I was homeless for a year, and I was sort of glad I didn’t have my kids around because I didn’t want them in that environment.”

Little by little, Warne is straightening her life out. Drugs and Rob’s father were cut out of her life in one step. She admits she still enjoys a drink, but not to the point of abuse. She has never been able to drive, but does have a job and roof over her head in Hanoverton. She started attending some of her son’s football games and track meets in the last three years.

“He was always with the team. I always got his attention so he knew I was there,” Warne said.

There was a time when Rob was upset with her for giving up her parental rights, but that passed after their initial meetings.

“She told me if I lived with her, I wouldn’t have nice things. I wouldn’t have had an athletic career,” Rob said. “It was the hardest thing she’s ever done, but she knew it was best for me and that it was the best way to succeed.”

THE LAST HURDLES

Rob had a standout senior year for the Warriors. In football, he was the star running back. In track, he became the school’s highest-scoring hurdler in the Division II state tournament. He took fourth in the 300 hurdles and was named the Mahoning County Track Athlete of the Year.

He earned a full-ride to Cleveland State on a scholarship designed for foster kids and will be able to run track. The program he’s in is much more structured than for a regular student.

“They give you year-round housing if you need it. They know of all the foster kids in the state, about 10 percent go to college and only three percent graduate,” Rob said.

The Craigs are open to adopting Rob should he choose to do so, but for now, he remains independent. Fostering Rob was a learning experience for the whole family.

“I think Max and I definitely grew from this. You learn to cope with a new environment and different people,” Mitch said. “It’s something I’ll take with me to college and the rest of my life.”

Rob would like to become an athletic director upon graduating Cleveland State. His past is still with him, but it isn’t holding him back.

“Don’t let one life event change your outlook on life. Don’t use it as an excuse – I never did – since all of this has happened, I’ve used it as an advantage. I use it as motivation to say, ‘I don’t want to live a life like that. I want better for my kids,’” Rob said. “If you’ve been dealt a bad hand, don’t make people feel bad for you. Use it. There’s always a good out of every bad.

“I could have easily been an awful person. I could have felt bad for myself and had others feel bad for me. I could have used it as an excuse.

“I used it to succeed.”


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