ST. PAUL — When Natasha O’keefe got the call that her adoptive daughter was in a serious car crash last April, she said her heart stopped.

Dede Jackson, 17, had planned to walk in St. Paul with a couple of her friends earlier that day, and made a last-minute decision to get into a car with two boys she didn’t know well but recognized from school. What Jackson didn’t know was that the car was stolen, and when one of the boys saw a police car down the street, he began driving erratically, lost control and crashed into two trees.

She had been in the car less than 10 minutes but suffered life-threatening brain injuries as a result.

'You're just in shock'

As someone who knew Jackson nearly all of her life, O’keefe and her husband, Lamonte White, were about halfway through the lengthy process of adopting Jackson and her two younger siblings when they got the news that Jackson had been taken to the pediatric intensive care unit at Regions Hospital.

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The former Summit-University resident said it was the worst call a mom could get.

“That drive, it seemed like it took forever to get there,” she said. “You can’t breathe when you see your child laying in the bed. You’re just in shock.”

In a process that would normally take a family three to five more months, within 72 hours Ramsey County social workers were able to finish the paperwork to finalize the adoption process of Jackson and her siblings before she passed away.

Megan Mitchell, the family’s social worker, was nominated earlier this year by her colleagues for the Ramsey County Employee Achievement Award for her work to go “beyond the call of duty” in facilitating the adoption.

Mitchell worked with the family for a long time, and had known Jackson and her siblings for years. Immediately after hearing the news of Jackson’s accident, Mitchell said the first question on her mind was could it be possible to complete the adoption of Jackson and her siblings before she passed away April 30.

“These kids had, as lots of kids in foster care do, certainly a variety of struggles. And it became clear very quickly, once they were with Natasha and Lamonte that this was certainly where they were meant to end up,” she said.

Lamonte White, left, and Dede Jackson in an undated family photo. (Courtesy of Natasha O’keefe)
Lamonte White, left, and Dede Jackson in an undated family photo. (Courtesy of Natasha O’keefe)

‘What was going to happen to them?’

Jackson grew up taking care of her 12-year-old sister and 15-year-old brother, who both asked to remain unnamed for this article. Although Mitchell said it’s relatively common for children nearing the age of 18 in the foster care system to choose not to be adopted, that wasn’t the case for Jackson, because she wanted to be adopted along with her siblings.

“I remember talking with the two younger siblings, before they had the opportunity to go to the hospital to see Dede before she died, and the first question that one of them had asked was, ‘What was going to happen to them?’” Mitchell said. “For me, that’s something I will never forget.”

Finalizing the adoption was an undertaking, and something Mitchell said maybe couldn’t have even happened under nonpandemic circumstances.

Despite hospital restrictions that limited the number of Jackson’s visitors, the pandemic allowed her team to do the court adoption process via video rather than in-person. This change gave them the crucial time they needed to finish the process just hours before Jackson passed away.

“Dede, being the oldest sibling, was always very much protective of her younger siblings and that was probably her most important role,” Mitchell said. “And, you know, it really felt like in some ways, a gift that Dede was able to give her siblings, that they had their forever home.”

Remembering Dede Jackson

Known for her small stature, feisty personality, Air Jordan sneaker collection and immense love for her family and friends, Jackson wanted to go to law school and use her own experience in the foster care system to help other kids, O’keefe said.

“For (her siblings), Dede was their consistent,” she said. “And making sure they were all adopted together, it was letting them know that they have a consistent family, that they’re not going to have to go anywhere else.”

When Jackson and her siblings moved in with O’keefe in late 2018, O’keefe remembered how much Jackson loved having her own room. The two of them were close and would text every morning about their day. O’keefe said she always encouraged Jackson because she knew she had great potential.

After hours and hours of paperwork, fingerprinting, foster care classes and monthly check-ins from the state, the goal for the family was finalizing the adoption.

“I think for us if it wouldn’t have happened, it would have been devastating for us. And I think for all of the other kids, it was like a relief, like this isn’t hanging over their heads anymore,” O’keefe said. “That was like Dede’s last gift to them, because she fought hard … I think she had some magical thing going on to make sure that happened before she had to leave.”

At her memorial service last May, O’keefe said nearly 200 people came to say goodbye to Jackson. The whole family wore special shirts with her face printed on them, white Levis, jean jackets and white Vans — Jackson’s favorite clothes. After seeing that her head was partially shaved for surgery, they even had a special wig made for Jackson.

“Right now, the hardest thing is knowing me and Dede had plans for this year, like, she was gonna go to prom and she was gonna have senior pictures taken. It’s the ‘What if she was still here?’” O’keefe said. “I mean, it doesn’t even feel real sometimes. Even after moving, I still feel like she’s gonna walk in the door. And I don’t know if that feeling will ever leave.”

Moving forward

Since Jackson’s death, O’keefe has been vocal about the problem of vehicular theft in the Twin Cities. In 2020, car thefts were up 11% in St. Paul and 41% in Minneapolis. The driver of the car in Jackson’s case was charged with vehicular homicide in August and pleaded guilty in December.

Solving this problem involves engaging communities and fostering support for single parents and others who may not be able to keep a closer eye on their children because they’re working, she said. It also requires more than just a “slap on the wrist” punishment for kids, including better support and educational opportunities for teens.

“I’ve wrote to some of the legislators and, you know, I don’t think that I will stop until I know something’s done,” O’keefe said. “Because I think if there was more done or more community awareness and help, that these kids wouldn’t be doing this. It takes more than just parents to raise kids.”

There are currently about 400 youth in the Ramsey County foster care system waiting to be adopted, and about 870 in the foster care system today. O’keefe said older children are less likely to be adopted.

Jackson — full name Deonia Takkarrian Jackson — is survived by her two younger siblings, adoptive mother and father, two step-siblings, a host of cousins and aunts and many friends. She would have been 18 on April 1.