My Relationship with Voting

My Relationship with Voting…I have been voting for 40 years. Today was the first time I have voted in San Francisco since I was 18 years old. It was not lost on me, that I am living in my grandparents’ house. The same house where I would be first exposed to voting by my grandparents.  The house my grandfather bought in 1957 was $15,000 with a down payment of $500 (which a combination of their saving and others chipping in).

On Election Day, when I was a little girl, my grandparents would take me with them to vote. I can remember them getting dressed up, in their “Sunday Best” as we used to say and do. This phrase did not only represent “church” clothes, but a lifestyle of looking your best when you had someplace important to go or an event to attend. For Ernest and Louise Escort, going to vote was absolutely someplace important to go. They would vote early in the morning, taking pride in being the “first” ones to vote. We would walk right around the corner to the Polling Place. Of course, when I was 4 or 5, I didn’t understand the significance of what they were doing. Once I understood the significance, the price paid, regardless of how what I think about the process, the government or anything else about this country, I knew I had a responsibility to always exercise my right.

In a way, it was true, they were actually some of the first ones to vote. My grandfather was born in 1912. My grandmother, 1914. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. My grandparents were 65 and 63, respectfully. I am 58. They waited their over half their lives to be able to exercise their “right” to vote. I have been voting my entire adult life. My grandfather voted in every election until he passed away in 2014. Obama being elected POTUS hit a little different when you can remember when Black people couldn’t vote.

As I pulled up to Oceanview Park, now Minnie and Lovie Ward Recreational Center, to drop off my ballot, I saw a Brotha standing outside of a car, talking to someone inside the car. I parked, as I walked toward the stairs, I heard the him say, “Our people fought, went to jail and died for us to be able to vote.” I smiled, held up my absentee ballot and waved it at them. As I walked down the stairs, I heard him say, “That’s what I’m talknbout”.

I think about the “right” to vote frequently, not just when there is an election. People LIT-TERRR-LEE died for us to have the “right” to vote. Why did people have to die for that which was afforded a right in the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution? Well, because, you know racism, anti-blackness, hate, a threat to white supremacy, all of the above.

The question is often posed, “How did we go from fighting, going to jail and dying for the right to vote to indifference about that right?” There is no one answer. I know for a fact my proximity to Black people who couldn’t vote requires me to vote. Every. Single. Time.

This Heart Work

Let me first start by saying I am making a commitment to myself to be more consistent with blogging. As I have said before, I write as an outlet to the range of emotions I experience on a daily basis. I write because it is cheaper than therapy and always available to me.

As I prepare to leave New York today, touching down in the Bay late tonight and back to work tomorrow, I am grateful for this life I have intentionally created for myself. I travel as a form of Self Care. I do Healing work as a form of Self Care and because Black and Brown communities are constantly under siege. Black and Brown bodies are constantly surveilled, harassed, arrested, over incarcerated and murdered by police without consequence.

When I left work last week, I worked endlessly to make sure a man, who was in custody, would be able to be a part of his 17 year old son’s Rosary and Funeral. The 17 year old died in a bike accident. “Be a part of” means be “present” via Zoom. It is heartbreaking to deliver the news (I didn’t in this instance), check in with someone after hearing life changing, devastating tragic news and continue to follow up with them. For those in custody for years, I remember the anniversaries of these losses. I check in periodically especially during holidays and other special days.

I share this not for any accolades or support. I share this because working with those behind the walls is Heart Work that will break your heart. There is really no way to describe what it is like to work in a jail. Some people come to the jail to do their work. I work in the jail. My office is in the jail. I am always traveling and involved with many other things for that reason. More than 40 hours every week I am in a jail. When you are called to do this work, when you see the humanity in others, working in a jail lands a lot differently.

For me there is a constant checking of self. I literally work for the very system that disproportionately arrest, convicts and sentences Black and Brown people. I am constantly around people who fail to see the humanity in those who are incarcerated. Inmate, prisoner, convict…but do you know his/her name? Do you know he is more than his/her charges and/or conviction? Do you know that “hurt people hurt people” is not simply a cliche? Are you aware that, conversely healed people can help others heal?

Untreated trauma and unprocessed pain manifest in many ways. One thing I know to be true is America can not arrest nor incarcerate its way to safety. If that was true, with 2.2 million people living in cages, we would be the safest country ever. No, until we understand that jails and prisons are not the answer, we will never be that great nation people swear America is.

The other day I was building with someone who, at the age of 5, witnessed a murder. The murder occurred right in front of his house as he played outside. When he was 8, as he looked out his bedroom window, as kids do, he witnessed the police kill a young man. There was no conversation about what he had seen, much less any type of treatment. That man today is serving life without the possibility of parole. He was 19 when he was sentenced. All that anger, fear and pain is going to manifest in some shape, form or fashion. His story, his trauma is no aberration.

In Black and Brown communities we have liquor stores but no grocery stores. We have a police stations and substations but no Trauma Recovery Centers. In most cities we have a Victims of Violent Crime Program that is part of the Office of the District Attorney. Who, in the hell, thought that was a good idea for Black and Brown communities? There is a Black Mom in SF who has one son in jail charged with murder. Her middle son was murdered in San Francisco. The same entity who is prosecuting one son is, what, going to help her get “closure” and “justice” for her other son? The same District Attorneys office? Is it me or is that just another way this system is all wrong.

This Healing work, this Heart work is not for the faint at heart. It is not for anyone who isn’t willing to rage against the machine. Every time I think about leaving my job, I am reminded if I am not there, who will advocate for them? Who will be relentless in pushing lines for changes? Who will stand on their principle of never putting paper and press releases over people? Who else will refuse to refer to those in custody as inmates regardless of who they are talking to or in a meeting with? Literally if not me, then who?

If you have a loved one incarcerated, regardless to whether or not they did or didn’t commit the crime, reach out to them, write a letter or check out flixshop where you can send a postcard for less than a dollar. If you don’t have a loved one incarcerated, count your blessings and consider reaching out to someone who is incarerated. You never know how close someone is to giving up. I spoke to a young man who told me he hasn’t had a visit in over 10 years. he is a Juvenile Lifer (see my post on that). He was 15 years old when he committed his crime. He was sentenced to 25 to life. He is 37.

No one should live in a cage. No one should be judged by and known for the worst decision they ever made. No one should be considered beyond redeemable. No one should be in prison longer than they have been free.

This Heart Work Is Heart Breaking.

The Death Penalty, Hypocrisy and Me

Tonight’s execution of Brandon Bernard is heartbreaking, infuriating. Yet, it is not surprising in the least bit. Brandon Benard was 18 years old at the time he crime his committed. It is a fact that he was not the shooter. Yet, Brandon was sentenced to death. (Let me clear, shooter or not, no one should be sentenced to death.) My point here and the basis of my outrage is the continued hypocrisy of America. It is a well known fact it is the position of medical experts that the brain doesn’t fully developed until age 25. This scientific information was the basis of CA Senate Bills 260 and 261. These bills granted relief to individuals who committed their crimes between the ages of 18 to 25. However, it excluded certain offenses and sentences. In essence, in my opinion, these exclusions were effectively saying that the scientific evidence was only true sometimes; not if you were convicted of a sex crime, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole or sentenced to death. (Approximately one-third of those sentenced to death in CA committed their crimes between the ages of 18 and 25.) This scientific information was certainly not true in every state and definitely not for the Federal government. Hypocrisy. 

Mr. Benard was executed tonight because he was young and Black at the time he committed his crime. He was sentenced to death because his victims were white. Let’s be clear about how the death penalty (and the punishment system) works in this country. Brandon Bernard, a teenager at the time, committed his crime in Texas. The same state where a white teenager, Ethan Couch, killed 4 people and injured 5 others, when he drove drunk. His sentence? He was sent to a swanky rehab facility in CA. Why? Because he was white and his family was wealthy. More hypocrisy.

My interest in the death penalty began when I was a teenager. I knew early on that it was administered in an arbitrary and capricious manner. I read about it, studied it and in college wrote papers on it. I had no idea back then that the entire system was unfair and unjust. The same argument I had against the death penalty as a teen in the 70’s holds true in 2020. 

In 1987, I had first real job as an adult. I was an Investigator at Santa Clara County Office of the Public Defender. I began, as most investigators, working on misdemeanors followed by a Juvenile caseload. I remember thinking that it was unbelievable that the county was actually paying me to be nosy. I met some incredible, hard working attorneys and investigators. Some of which I am still friends with to this day. It was while working at the PD’s office that I became intimately involved with the death penalty. 

In 1988, I was assigned to work on my first death penalty case. I was both excited and scared. It’s crazy how 32 years later, I can still remember our client’s name and every detail of the case. Mary Yale was the attorney. She was a phenomenal attorney and a great teacher. She never treated me like the baby investigator I was. It was a jury trial and our client was not sentenced to death. 

In the early 2000’s I had the opportunity to do more death penalty work. This time it was post conviction Habeas appeals. This means that my clients had already been found guilty, sentenced to death and were housed at San Quentin on Death Row. The memory of being being locked in a plexiglass visiting “room”, sitting across from my clients, who were living under a death sentence, will be forever be etched in my memory. The surrealism of working for the state to save someone’s life. The state, which is the same entity trying to kill them. Even more hypocrisy. 

In the 7 years of doing this work, 4 men were executed. The first, Mr. Massie, I stood vigil outside of San Quentin when the execution took place. The second and third, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Bledsoe, respectively, Amicus briefs were filed by HCRC, where I worked at the time. I remember the energy in the office as attorneys scurried to write these briefs for the courts. Although neither were HCRC cases, the brief was written as “a friend of the court. I doubt the solemnness, in the office, when every appeal was denied, the days leading up to the execution dates and the days following the execution will ever be forgotten. The forth execution, Stanley “Tookie” Williams, I actually had the privilege to do some work on his clemency petition and more work after he was executed. Executions land a lot different when you’ve experienced that kind of proximity. 

Fast forward 15 years later, I had the opportunity to facilitate healing work with a man who spent 30 years on death row. A man who’s trauma was palpable. His death sentence had been vacated and his “new” sentence made him parole eligible. While working with him, I gained a greater and deeper understanding of the trauma before prison, the trauma of prison and the trauma in prison. How does the mind recover from 30 years living under a death sentence? He was given 6 dates over those 30 years. Thankfully he is now “home”. 

The Federal government and 28 states kill its citizens to send a message to its citizens that killing its citizens is wrong. The ultimate hypocrisy. For the past few days, much less weeks, the impending execution of Brandon Benard was not the lead story of news broadcast. For the majority of the today, Brandon Benard’s impending execution was not trending on social media. 

America, the greatest country in the world. Unless you are Black, Brown or poor. American just may be the greatest hypocrisy in the world.

What I Know , What I Don’t

Good Morning King,

I was left feeling unsettled after our phone conversation as I didn’t realize that we had limited time to talk. I was running my mouth about random and ridiculous stuff and we didn’t have time to circle back to what was bothering you.

I will never, ever know what is is like to be you living in the Belly of The Beast; the mental and emotional toll of incarceration. I am going to share with you what I do know. You are not merely a man, but a King. You have greatness deeply embedded in your DNA. When I think about how our ancestors survived being stolen from a land, continent and culture that was theirs; survived months on ships bursting at the seams with human cargo; survived the Middle Passage; slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow. How we continue to survive oppression, systematic racism and racist people, microaggressions. We not only survive, we manage to thrive. Why? Because we have greatness in our bloodline.

Once our lives have been interrupted and disrupted by trauma, tragedy and pain, we are forever changed. Trauma, tragedy and grief manifest in many ways. We have good days and bad days; bad days and worse days. We may even have some days where the pain is overwhelming and debilitating.

In and with all of that, you have to deal with people who not only don’t see you as a man, they often don’t see your humanity. I don’t know how that feels either. I don’t know how that lands with you and what thoughts and feelings flood your mind and your body. I hear in your voice though.

Healing looks like many things. Healing is knowing, understanding and accepting those things which we have no control over. Does that make them impact us any less? Perhaps sometimes yes and sometimes no. I make no excuses for the behavior of others. I do know that people show up with their own trauma, history and stories. If they were healed, they would see your humanity; they would not judge men and women behind walls; they wouldn’t mistreat people based on their perception of who you are based on words on paper; they would know you are more than the worst decision you ever made. If they were healthy.

I know you know the race isn’t given to the swift nor the battle to the strong but to those who endureth to the end.

You are Greatness. You are a Leader. You are on your Healing Journey.

Be encouraged.

Stay Making Every Day Count,

Queen Magic

“Juvenile Lifers, Why America?”

The title alone should be enough to cause people to take action, at the very least, notice. Yeah, but no.  Do you even know what the term means? We Americans, if we are going to be honest, tend to be self-absorbed and self centered. If it doesn’t affect or impact us, how concerned are we really?  What, exactly, are “Juvenile Lifers” or “Youthful Offenders”? More importantly, who are they?

In approximately 1996, California, being the progressive, liberal state that it is, passed legislation to lower the age, at which juveniles could be tried as adults, from 16 to 14.  I have always had an uncanny ability to remember dates and details.  This event was not a difficult one to remember as I was working as a Probation Counselor at Juvenile Hall in Santa Clara County.  I can still remember too many of the names and faces of those kids who became Juvenile Lifers.  Fortunately, I have seen some of them make it home. Unfortunately, many are still in prison.

Not long after the age was lowered, I quit that job.  I couldn’t stand seeing them coming back from court with sentences that were longer than they had been alive.

P :  “I took a deal for 19 years to life, Mrs. H.”

Me: “How is that a deal?”

P:  “They told me if I went to trial and lost, my minimum exposure was 70 to life.”

P was 17. He was not charged with murder.  He is still in prison.

I quit Juvenile Probation to teach high school. I took a significant pay cut.  Yes, America, we pay more to lock youth up than to educate them. And that still rings true today.

Before I write about my recent encounter with 3 Juvenile Lifers, at a Transformative Justice Symposium, I feel compelled to write about the first Juvenile Lifer I ever met.  I met CM before I knew juveniles could be sentenced to life; before I learned anything about the horrors of America’s unforgiving prison system.  I met CM when we were kids. He played football with my brother. PAL Football to be exact. He had three brothers and all of there names started with a C.  He was my age, the next brother was the same age as my brother.

When we were 16 years old, CM burglarized a home and killed a man.  He was tried as an adult and sentenced to life.  That was 1979.  (In those days, juveniles tried as adults began their sentences at the California Youth Authority  then went to prison, usually after their 25th birthday.)  CM is still in prison. It was been 38 years. Thirty-Eight. Years.  He was 16.  He has been to the Parole Board many times.  The most recent was 2011, he was given a 15 year denial.  That means he is not eligible to return to the Parole Board for 15 years.

In 2026, when he will go back to the Parole Board, he will have served 47 years.  He was 16 when he committed his crime.  I think about him a lot. I mainly think about this Criminal (un)Justice System.  Remember Ethan Couch? The Texas teen who drank, drove and killed 4 people in Texas. He got probation. He was too rich and spoiled to be responsible for his actions.  Even when he violated his probation, fled to Mexico, he was sentenced to 2 years. CM is still in prison. Thirty-Eight years after he killed someone when he was a teenager. 38 years. He was 16 years old.

A Juvenile Lifer is a person who commits their crime before the age of 18 and is sentenced a number of years that end with “to life”.  The crime could be murder but there are many crimes that carry a life sentence. A Youthful Offender is a person who commits their crime between the ages of 18 and 25 and receive a life sentence (or, what is tantamount to a life sentence). Senate Bills 260 and 261 have granted some “relief” to Juvenile Lifers and Youthful Offenders based on the medical science regarding brain development.  (However, that relief does not apply to those Youthful Offenders who were sentenced to LWOP – Life Without The Possibility of Parole or Death. But, that’s another post.)

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to participate in a Transformative Justice Symposium at San Quentin State Prison.  The day consisted of 6 circles comprised of survivors, those who caused harm (inmates), District Attorneys and community members.  Survivors shared the stories of their loved ones who had been harmed or murdered. Responsible Parties shared their crimes, taking full responsibility and accountability for the harm that they caused their victims and the victim’s families.  Prior to them sharing their crimes, they shared some of their personal stories, some of the causative factors of how/why they became violent. It should be noted that causative factors are NOT excuses but ways for people to understand their violence on a deeper level.

There were 3 men in my group.  All of them are Juvenile Lifers.  D was 14 when he committed his crime.  He was 16 when he was convicted of 2nd degree murder. He was sentenced to 15 years to life.  He has been incarcerated nearly 20 years.

D and his friend had been jumped and beaten up at a party.  For days following, this “beat down” was the talk of the neighborhood.  He was the talk of the neighborhood.  The rules of the hood are that you retaliate or face further victimization from the hood and a reputation of being “soft, a punk, a sucka, a mark”. As a 14 year old kid, who has to live in this neighborhood, what were his options in his 14 year old mind? He killed a man to avoid further victimization.  These are the “Commandments Of The Hood”; these are the rules you live, and often die, by.

D spoke of growing up in prison. How does a 16 year old survive in a prison with grown men? What does it even mean to “grow up” in prison?

C was 16 at the time of his crime. He took a “deal” for 20 years to life.  He talks about not understanding what that meant.  He talks about “signing his life away” for fear if he didn’t agree to the deal, he could face never coming home (LWOP).  He has been incarcerated 20 years.

C talks about not having support going through this ordeal.  C tells of growing up with an abusive step-father and an abusive and neglectful mother.  He speaks of his step-father who would beat he and his younger brothers when they pee’d in the bed. His step-father would make them sleep in the urine soaked bedding and force them to go to school without baths, reeking of urine.

C spoke of having a mom addicted to crack cocaine.  He was the oldest of three boys. At the age of 7, he was responsible for his younger brothers who were 5 and 3.  He told the story of his mom leaving them, late one afternoon, on the stoop of an apartment complex.  She told them she would be right back.  She came back the next morning.  They sat on that stoop all night. Alone. He talked about not being able to be afraid or cry because he had to comfort his younger brothers.  He was 7.

W was 17 at the time he committed his crime of murder.  He was sentenced to 54 years to life.  W admits to being illiterate until he was 22 years old.  He could not read or write by his own admission.  I can’t help but wonder what it was like for him to go through the legal proceeding being illiterate.  I wonder about the attorney who represented him. I actually wonder about the attorneys that represented all of them. I guess that too is another post.

W could not read or write but he could steal and perfected burglarizing arcades and popping open the money boxes to games.  He spoke of everyone in his family engaging in criminal activity. He said his mother referred to herself as a “Hoe” teaching him that girls needed to pay him and if she could sell her body the girls he “dated” could sell theirs too.

When he spoke of family members picking him up from Juvenile Hall, they would ask him how he got caught and “teach” him how to be more efficient at crime as to not get caught next time.  W told the story of being in Solano Juvenile Hall for a week because no one had gas money to pick him up. When his uncle finally picked him up, he told W he brought his “tools” so he could break into the arcade games to get gas money to get back home.

In the short time we sat in circle that Friday morning, I remember thinking what chance did they really have of not going to jail or prison.  When the people who are supposed to love and protect you are the very ones that harm you, what is the likely outcome?  When the people who are supposed to guide you and be role models are living out there own harm.  How many systems failed these boys before the adult prison system told them they had a place for them? A place where they would fit right in because there are thousands who look just like you, who are already there.

What kind of country do we will live in when black boys who had nothing get life sentences and white boys who have everything get probation?

These are 3 men, who shared a minute part of their life before their crimes, have become amazing men.  I cried as they spoke of the things they are now involved in, interested in, participating in.  I cried because I wondered why did they have to come to prison to find their worth, their greatness, their humanity, support and encouragement? And after they found all these things, why are they still there?

I have been doing this work long enough to know that stories (and outcomes) like theirs are not the exception but the norm behind those walls.  My heart breaks for those who have lost loved ones to violence.  AND, my heart breaks for those whose deeply rooted neglect, harm, fear and pain manifest in violence.

How do we interrupt pathologies? How do we interrupt generational cycles of drug use, abandonment, neglect, poverty, illiteracy and violence?


This Is Heart Work That Breaks Your Heart

Minors, who are 14, 15, 16 or 17, can not legally buy tobacco, alcohol or get a tattoo. They can not vote.  They can not enter into a legal binding contract. They are unable to leave school early, get a permit, driver’s license, passport or married without the permission of a parent.
And yet, at 14, 15, 16 or 17, they can be tried as an adult and go to state prison.
NS has been in prison since he was 16 years old. Prison. Not Juvenile Hall. Not the Department of Juvenile Justice (CYA). Prison. California State Prison. Since he was 16 years old. “I raised myself in prison” were the words he said today.
At the age of 10, his Dad took him to loot during the LA Uprisings. His mom was a “smoker” and “everyone in the neighborhood knew”. At the age of 12 he was raped by an older cousin.
He joined a gang cause there is no minimum age or parental permission required.
At the age of 14, after being “disciplined” by his gang and his loyalty questioned, he killed a rival gang member. He was sentenced to 35 years to life. He was 14 at the time of the murder. He was 16 when he was sentenced. He is 33 now.
As he told his story today, he was fully accountable for the crime he committed. That is what is “supposed” to happen right? He is absolutely remorseful for the harm he caused his victim’s family. That’s what “we” want, right?
But who is held accountable for his harm? Who is held responsible for not nurturing and loving him?  What happens when those who are supposed to provide and protect you, don’t? With no parental guidance, in the ’90’s, in South Central LA, what were his real life chances of not going to prison or dying?
Like I have said before….who is raising our babies?
Gangs, the block, the death style – open and available 24/7, no requirements, no parental permission needed.
Despite the trauma and tragedy that my family has experienced, my heart breaks every time I hear the stories of how the seeds of violence and criminality are planted in those behind the walls. I am never surprised at how the untreated trauma and the unprocessed anger, fear and pain manifest.
In the United States of America, there continues to be over 2,000 men and women in prison who were sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole as Juveniles. Please read that sentence again. Some cases do not even involve homicides (even if they do the sentence is inappropriate).
A guy I grew up with named Clay Morrison, at the age of 16, was tried as an adult. It was 1979. He is still in prison.
I do not know how many Juvenile Lifers there are in California, much less the United States.  What I do know is that we need to do better.
Someone recently asked me when I was going to retire. I will not stop working, I will not stop fighting, I will not stop writing until the following things happen:
  • Every person sentenced to LWOP as a juvenile is released.
  • Every Juvenile Lifer is released.
  • The Death Penalty is abolished.
Only then, will I think about having a seat. Until then, I fight, I sit in circles, I encourage, I write, I speak and I continue to believe in the power of transformation, redemption and that no one should forever pay a price for the worst decision they ever made

So Much For Security

I can’t believe how long it has been since I posted on my blog page. I have learned that this process, while cathartic, is also extremely painful as I relive every moment of my experience of my son being shot 17 times and surviving.  I have told this story many, many times. I have recalled details to family members and friend. I have shared our experiences with other Crime Survivors and those behind jail and prison walls because of the harm they have caused others. Vinnie, Trevor and I have spoken, at length and in detail, from each of our perspectives.  And yet, putting the memories to thoughts to words has had a profound impact on my mind, my heart and my healing journey. So, I take a break with the knowledge that, no matter how painfully difficult, I must keep on this journey. There are others who’s healing journey will begin because I had the courage to share mine. And so I continue… Continue reading

Why I’m Going Back To Jail

I have spent the past 2 years working in the Child Welfare System in San Francisco as a Social Worker in the Adoption Assistance Program. I learned a lot of things. Working there also confirmed and reiterated things I already knew, indirectly, but had not experienced first hand. I’ll get to that.

I arrived on my first day having no idea that the Adoption Assistance Program existed, much less what it was. In fact, going to work that first day of February 2014, the only thing I knew was where to report and who to report to. I soon learned that when kiddos are adopted through the Foster Care System in this country, every family is awarded a monetary benefit for that child. That Adoption Assistance is be received until the age of 18. In certain cases, that age can be extended to 21 if certain criteria is met.

These amounts range from a base rate to specialized rates depending on the needs of the adopted child. These benefits are dispersed on or around the first of every month. The Adoption Assistance Program is a benefit created by Congress in 1980 to encourage the adoption of special needs kids and to remove the financial disincentives for families to adopt. A great number of these children’s “special needs” were being exposed in utero to drugs or alcohol. If could also be being born to parents who, for a myriad of reasons, were unable to care for their child. The child enters the Child Welfare System and the Foster Care System. Eventually, the parents parental rights are terminated when, they are unwilling or unable to meet the courts requirements for re-unification. The termination of parental rights, subsequently, leads to these kiddos being adopted.

In theory, permanency or adoption sounds like a viable, if not great, solution to avoid kiddos lingering in Foster Care. Yes, in theory. So what is the problem? Our Foster Care System is the problem.

During my many years working in the Criminal Justice System, I viewed the Foster Care System from the lens of those for whom the system had failed. You’ve heard the stories of kids being bounced from foster home to foster home; siblings being separated; kids aging out of Foster Care with no where to go. Those kids became adults and then,some, obviously not all, became my and my colleagues clients.

One client, who’s story I will never forget, is on death row. He, along with one of his sisters, was convicted of a string of robbery murders. She got LWOP or  life without the possibility of parole.  Another one of his sisters had been in and out of jail, most recently finishing a federal sentence for bank robbery, when I began working on her brother’s case. The third sister had struggled with drugs and alcohol, been arrested numerous times for prostitution before her naked body was found in a vacant lot in LA, having been strangled to death.

How is it that 4 siblings could live such tragic lives?  All had been sexually assaulted for years by thier step-father. My client endured years of physical and sexual abuse and was made to sleep on the floor of the laundry room, every night. Two of the sisters had 2 children each. Fathered by their step-father. Fathered by their step-father.  What does this have to do the Child Welfare System? There were volumes and volumes of files from Social Services with allegations of abuse by the step-father and neglect by their mom, who had well documented history of domestic violence. There were written reports of allegations that the step-father had fathered the girls children. The children were removed, placed in Foster Care, where they were further abused and eventually were returned home.  These four siblings were not protected at home nor were they protected in the system that was designed to protect them.

Is this an extreme case? Only if you haven’t had any dealings with the Foster Care System to Prison Pipeline. In a less horrific case but equally as tragic, a teen age boy, with a father in prison and a mother who is a crack addict, is placed in the care of his 20 year old sister when his mom dies. His sister, at 20, already has 2 children of her own. She is barely able to care for her children and not able to provide for her teen-age brother as well. He begins to steal to eat, to have decent clothes, to survive. He begins to get arrested resulting in out of home placement – group homes. He begins to run from the group homes. And the cycle of arrest and incarceration begins. Once he turns 18, homelessness and drug use becomes part of the cycle.

At the age of 19 or 20 he goes to prison. He paroles, 4 years later, with no family, no resources, no support and the cycle resumes. At the age of 25 he is arrested for armed robbery and is facing 20 years. His public defender, after obtaining his Social Service files, is able to negotiate a plea deal of 12 years. At 26 years old, he began his second prison sentence.

During my 2 years at SF’s Human Services Agency, I experienced first hand how the above tragedies occur. I also saw first hand people who work tirelessly and endlessly to keep kids out of the system. People who work diligently to find good, appropriate homes for kiddos. This post isn’t about what is right with the system.

This is about a system that does not have enough resources or money to do the very best with kiddos who have already experienced extreme loss and often trauma. This is about a system where the volume of cases compared to the number of caseworkers has us starting off behind the eight ball.

Adoption can be a wonderful thing and definitely a viable option for many different people, both single and married; both traditional and non-traditional families.  However, the rush for “permanency” can not supersede being intentional and honest with some of the challenges that can arise when adopting “special needs” kiddos as well as in transracial adoption and non-traditional families.

Just cause we don’t talk about these very real issues doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I raise these issues doesn’t mean I’m against transracial adoption or homophobic. Kids, especially pre-teens and teens, deal with a myriad of issues growing up in the “best” of circumstances. What is the conversation when a teen girl, being raised by 2 dads, continuously states, “I want a mom”? When a African American, pre-teen boy, being raised by two white dads, transfers to a predominately minority to school, begins to get into fights, does it occur that he may be getting some grief on the playground from his peers regarding his parents? When I ask had they considered that as a possible reason for his “all of a sudden” acting out, the response was, “He never said anything about it”.

And yet, when I raise issues, concerns, questions about how this system malfunctions, I am met with either indifference or “it is the way it is”. Not by everybody, of course. However, people do seem okay to operate in chaos and disorganization. Not me. Not with people’s lives, especially kiddos.

It didn’t take me long to figure out, I could not take on the Child Welfare System. I had spent nearly 30 years fighting the Criminal (un)Justice System. I have been yelling and screaming about the arbitrariness and disparities in this system since I was 14 years old. All this recent talk about ending mass incarceration, makes give the side-eye and say, “You all are late to the party”.

I had long seen the flaws in the Child Welfare or Foster Care System and the results when it failed. From the inside, I saw a lot of the contributing factors. I knew I had to return to the fight I was familiar with. I had to return to the Criminal (un)Justice System. The one I knew so very well. The system I had had a relationship with for so many years.

The system where I saw change occur on the inside and now was beginning to see change occur on the outside. I accepted a position with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. Yes, I decided I had to go back to jail.



Leaving Him At Highland

The remainder of Saturday, once Vinnie was out of ICU, is pretty much a blur. I remember there being a continuous stream of people coming to the hospital to see him and support me.  Tootie and JeNae were on rotation in his room. Those two have got to be the elite squad of Top Flight Security when it came to monitoring, observing and enforcing visiting time limits. I was primarily stationed in the lobby to monitor who would visit and to lay down the rules. No crying. Get all our crying out before you go in to see him. He is going to respond based on how we react to seeing him.

I was doing a fairly good job of keeping it together until other people broke down. Other than my initial breakdown with Var, there were one other instance that stands out that first day. Sister, or TiTi as Vinnie calls her, called and wanted to speak to him. I held the phone to his ear. I am not sure what she said to him. However, what he said to her and what followed almost broke me down. He asked her to sing, “Sing that song TiTi, you know the one”. She began to sing, “I just want to praise you, forever and ever, for all you’ve done for me…” Til this day I can not hear that song without remembering that moment in the hospital (and later at church when 2 days after being released from the hospital, he insisted on going to church, but that’s a later post). As Sister sang, tears began to roll down Vin’s face. All I could do was hold the phone and pray, “Lord thank you for sparing my child and please help me to keep it together”.

About 8 pm, the fact that I had been up for over 36 hours and I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten hit me. We had already decided we would stay at Tootie’s house in Fremont so we could be in close proximity to the hospital as opposed to being way in Antioch. We decided it was time to leave. As difficult as it was to leave the hospital, I knew I needed to eat and get some rest in order to be back first thing Sunday morning. Thankfully he had a room to himself and after a stern, borderline threatening conversation with the Powers That Be at Highland, it was agreed that Var could stay at the hospital with Vinnie.

Then there was the drive home. We were in my car. I was driving, Tootie was shotgun with Chelsea and JeNae in the back. To this day I do not know why they decided that the drive home was the time to go in on me about how calm I was when I called them. But they did. And go in on me they did. This family is known for reenactments and reenact my phone calls to them is exactly what they did. It is difficult to recapture, in writing, their imitations of me calling them but suffice it to say, my calmness was clearly a problem. They both agreed that it took them a more than a few seconds to compute the information I had conveyed because of calmness and the lack of emotion in my voice.

We laughed as Tootie told JeNae her response, the one out loud and the one in her head. To me she said, “WHAT Rotchie? What did you say?” In her head, she said, she thought, “I know this _____ didn’t just tell me my Godson has been shot. She couldn’t of said that cause she sounds way too calm”. She told us how, after she hung up with me, she started yelling at Big Papa to get up, she jumped out of bed, turned on every light in the house while yelling for everybody to get up, they had to get to the hospital because Vinnie had been shot. Anybody who knows Tootie can definitely envision her doing just this and then yelling louder cause nobody was moving fast enough.

I remember the pause on the phone as I told JeNae. She said her brain, too, was computing what I had said. Her pause was partially my calmness but also  her disbelief at what I was saying. Vinnie wasn’t about that life. I don’t remember her exact response, I just remember by 11 am Cameron was picking her up from Oakland airport.

As they recapped how calm I was, it then became how I’m always calm and how I get on their nerves with that. “You can’t never yell and scream?” I couldn’t believe during this time of tragedy, they were talking about how much I got on their nerves and made them sick. They were really going on and on and on about it. We laughed and laughed. I was driving and laughing. I was laughing so hard I was crying. Here we are driving down 880 on a Saturday night, after the worst night of our lives, tired, hungry and laughing uncontrollably. I told them to stop making me laugh cause I was driving and I couldn’t see if I was crying due to laughing. Somebody came up with the thought of us having a car accident and how the ensuing headline would read, “Son Survives 17 Gunshot Wounds, Mother, Sisters and Godmother Die In Car Crash”. And with that, of course, we laughed some more.

We finally make it to Tootie’s house. Tootie, who finds any reason to go to WalMart on the late night tip, decided she really had a legitimate reason to go. She convinced Chelsea and JeNae to participate in her WalMart run because she “needed to get some stuff for me”.

Exhausted and emotionally drained, I laid down to try and get some sleep. The next thing I remember is being awakened, at 1 am, to Tootie’s being excited to tell me about the jeans she found me for $5.00.  Not sure why that couldn’t wait until morning but clearly it couldn’t.

Tootie is one of my 5 (friends). She is my Rotchie. My ride or die. She is the Godmother (Nanny) to my boys, Auntie Tootie to my girls and Granny-Nanny to my grandsons. We have been through so much together, I could write a entire blog just on that. We may not talk often, we may not see each other often but she is that one who will drop everything when I need her and vice-versa. Our motto, when it’s time to ride out, “You ain’t said nothing but a word. Are we praying or fighting?” She was at the hospital with us every, single day the entire length of Vinnie’s stay. To this day,  I have no idea what she told her job.  Everybody needs a Rotchie in their life.

We finally got to bed. It seemed I had been sleep for 15 minutes when Var called about 8 am to say, Highland was allowing people access to Vinnie using is birth name (he was there under a trauma name).  I told Var not to worry about it, I was on my way. Clearly Highland’s lack of security had compromised my son’s safety and they were going to hear about it.

This was the first of every morning of Vinnie’s stay at Highland, in which I would receive an early morning phone call from Var about the shenanigans of Highland Hospital relative to my son’s care and treatment. Guess they didn’t know I wasn’t the one, I was the other one. Highland would soon find out, “I only look like this”.

Next…Breach Of Security = Potential Huge Liability For Your Hospital.


2015 Leave Behinds

There have been two major losses which have significantly, not only changed how I live my life, but have also changed how I view the world. The first loss was someone I loved soooooo very much. The second one was someone I didn’t know at all. Those two losses were beyond my control, nothing I could have foreseen or prevented. And yet, both could have been prevented. Both deaths, after coming out of the cloud of disbelief and resuming movement after being paralyzed with pain and heartache propelled me to do more, go harder.

I have heard people say, I have said, “Life happens”. Things occur that distract or interrupt plans or actions. This year, I realized that “People happen” that cause me to lose focus and momentum. It often results in my questioning myself, my worth, my purpose. The human mind is coldblooded. Twenty people can give me accolades and say what an integral part of the team I am. And yet, one person’s criticism will play on a loop in my head. Charles M. Blow gave me life yesterday in the form of a tweet.

His tweet reminded me of the commitment I made to self and have wavered on. Charles M. Blow tweeted, “Thinking about the new year, I don’t do resolutions, per se, but I do ‘leave behinds.’ Not everything in ur life is supposed to be…”

I reread it a few times and reflected on the melancholy mood I have been in the past few days. A few years ago, when I turned 50 and following the tragedies and traumas of the previous few years, I decided to live my life in an unapologetic way. Saying no to the the things I didn’t want to do. Not offering explanations to the things I said yes to. In many ways, most times, I have stuck with that decision. I have learned it really is a conscientious effort to to do so.

As 2015 comes to a close, I am definitely doing some much needed “leave behinds”. I am leaving behind people, things and habits. The first folks getting left are the ones who are more critical than encouraging. You never have anything positive to say? A number of years ago, when I was unemployed, I made a conscious effort to not complain. I choose to not get my chones in a bunch over things which I have zero control. Therefore, I am definitely not trying to hear other people complaining. All the time.

For all you Super Spiritual people, leaving you behind too. There are things I feel and go through that have nothing to do with a lack of faith, believing in what God can do or anything else. Guess what? Depression is real. I never hear those Super Saints telling folks with high blood pressure not to “claim it” or question their faith when they take medication. Living my life focused on my personal relationship with Jesus, my witness and my ministry has been freeing. Some of y’all so saved you don’t even know anybody who’s not.

The other people who are getting left in 2015 are those who don’t walk that talk. I have given you the benefit of the doubt. I have been patient cause we are all a “work in progress”. However, since now I’m wondering about your integrity and truthfulness, I’ma go ahead and opt out with you in 2016.

2015 has been an incredible year in my professional growth and development. I have also grown and came to term with some personal relationships. Interpersonal relationships more often than not are complicated. Whether they are familial, colleagues, friends, romantic or a combination of any. The only person who needs to understand my relationships is me and the person I am in relationship with. She’s my Soul Sister; she’s the other half of Double Trouble; he’s my VBFF; I’m her Nana; he’s Blue; I’m Coach and so it goes. We know and that’s all that matters. Stop explaining your life.

The fact that you share DNA doesn’t mean you are required to have people in my life. It definitely doesn’t mean their thoughts, opinions, criticism matter.  I learned a while ago, people either really, really like me or they really, really don’t.  I once heard a preacher say, “People don’t like you. They don’t even know you but they don’t like you. They don’t like your face as if you ordered it yourself”.  Can you be okay with that in your life? It can be liberating.

Thus, I win by losing with the leave behinds. I can give zero air time (or zero expletive for my profanity using friends lol) to things that are inconsequential to the daily struggle against a system that kills with impunity; that disproportionately under educates children based on zip codes, socio-economic status and skin color; that maintains school/foster care/sex abuse to prison pipelines. Changing the world. I’m about that life.

Writing this post on this third day of Kwanzaa, thinking about the meaning of today’s principle.

  • Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.

Imagine what community would look like if we all made this (and the other) principles a way of life.

I encourage you to look over 2015 and purposely leave some people, things and habits behind!!!!!