The following article first appeared on Substance.com:
For years in North Philly, the heart of Philadelphia’s heroin and crack trade, narcotics squads have exercised incredible powers among the poor blacks and Latinos they patrol. They have kicked in doors and manhandled people. They have put their hands on anyone they suspected of trafficking drugs. They have stepped on necks, literally. The fact that citizen complaints generally go nowhere has sent a clear message to the officers tasked with controlling the city’s drug trade: You can do whatever you want to whoever you want as long as they’re poor.
In 2008, when the war on drugs in the city was arguably at its most out of control, one narcotics squad did just that. They moved into new territory that not even other dirty cops considered fair game. They didn’t just push the limits of civil rights. They went totally rogue. When the local press broke the scandal, outrage was voiced, and cries for reform. Last month, after plodding forward for five years, a high-profile federal investigation into police corruption by a Philadelphia narcotics squad was dropped.
How did we get to a place where a narc squad becomes a roving pack of violent criminals and gets away with it? How can we get out of that place?
Put yourself in the mind of a dirty cop. You’ve been getting away with everything short of murder for years in your dealings with the dudes who run the drug houses you raid. It starts with pocketing some money you take off dealers—for example, subtracting from the slip you write up and submit as evidence the amount you want to spend on a weekend at the beach with your squad boys. You take property you find on dealers you frisk, and their complaints that you ripped them off are ignored because it’s their word against a cop’s. If you’re the lecherous type, you cop a feel when arresting a hustler’s girlfriend. Again, if she complains, you get away with it because, you tell Internal Affairs, she’ll say anything to stay out of jail. Your abuses increase incrementally, and it keeps going your way. It seems like everyone else does it; you’d almost be a fool not to.
“This one cop in the 12th District [of Southwest Philly] acts like he’s Santa Claus,” a young hustler who used to sell crack near Elmwood Avenue told me, “except in reverse. He takes our shit and gives it to his kids.” The officer routinely shook down the hustler’s crew and once stole his handheld PlayStation during a stop-and-frisk. I once ask one of my clients, a young former heroin seller from the Badlands, if the rumors that cops run their own dope corners are true. “Yeah, that’s the best crew to be on,” he said. “Everybody wants to be on the cop’s crew. They always know when the narcs are coming around. They never get booked.” At the time it sounded too conspiratorial not to be apocryphal, like so much other street-corner talk I’m privy to. But I now know that it wasn’t.
The more rational of the dirty cops, realizing that cops hold all the cards, decide to play it low and slow, not attracting too much attention. Turning up in the papers could get them pulled off the street, and they don’t want to abuse the privilege or wreck a good thing for everybody else. But imagine that you’re a little reckless, a little power mad. Maybe you’re a straight sociopath and you intend to strangle every bit of money you can out of what you consider a shit-hole neighborhood full of cockroaches that need to get squashed. Put all this together, and you get the rogue Philly narc squad of 2008.
The scandal came to light in 2009 in a series of stories in the Philadelphia Daily News called “Tainted Justice.” There were camera stills of narc cops cutting cords to surveillance systems in bodegas right before they trashed the stores, stuffing their pockets with money from the register, off-loading cigarette cartons and even making themselves hoagies from the deli counter. The supposed reason for the raids was sale of drug paraphernalia: 12/12s, the mini Ziploc-type plastic baggies that dealers stuff with dime rocks of crack and nickels of weed.
The bodegas were never suspected of trafficking drugs. Even without the evidence that the raids constituted nothing more than street-level shakedowns, this was the drug war at its most illogical and self-defeating: committing major amounts of law enforcement resources to target otherwise legitimate business committing minor misdemeanors. The newspaper series, which won a Pulitzer Prize, was a triumph of old-school investigative journalism. The reporters, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, went onto the hardest blocks in Philly’s dope zone and relentlessly knocked on doors to trace fraudulent drug warrants. They sifted through mountains of court documents. They weathered withering pressure to pull the story from pugilistic lawyers representing accused cops. They endured being accused of being cop haters and spent months looking over their shoulders, fearing retribution from men in blue. (Ruderman and Laker flesh out the story in Busted, a book that details evidence of these and other police abuses, including sexual assaults.)
When the story broke, the cops on the rogue squad were taken off the street. After an internal review, the police commissioner recommended that federal authorities investigate the allegations for possible criminal charges. Time passed. Last month, as the statute of limitations loomed, the case was dropped—reportedly due to weak witnesses and a lack of evidence.
The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) celebrated its victory, saying that none of the accusations leveled at the officers were “that drastic.” The neighborhoods where cops terrorized law-abiding bodega owners sent up an outcry as the outcome confirmed their claims that the justice system is separate and unequal in dealing with citizens in poor communities of color. Dagma Rodriguez, one of the three women to accuse officer Thomas Tolstoy of sexual assault, made a video statement sharing the pain that this outcome caused her.
In Busted, Ruderman and Laker make the case that the “recurrent cancer” of police corruption is why a watchdog press is vital to the healthy function of cities. But there is scarce evidence that investigative journalism has curbed police corruption in Philadelphia. Corruption has persisted in clockwork fashion from the height of print journalism’s powers in the Watergate 1970s to its current Internet-era collapse.
In 2012, an officer was arrested for selling heroin; he was one of 40-some officers charged with corruption after the “Tainted Justice” investigation. That may be evidence that “Tainted Justice” sparked more oversight, but more likely it’s an indication that police corruption has continued with abandon despite it. Last year, Jeffrey Walker, another rogue narc-squad officer in West Philly, was charged with robbing drug dealers. He pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Courthouse insiders say that Walker will finger as many as 15 dirty cops who are still on the streets. The city’s capacity for police corruption seems to be bottomless.
The root of police corruption, not just in Philadelphia but nationwide, is partly the war on drugs—a fact that the press, watchdog or not, often overlooks. The drug war has given the police carte blanche to operate lawlessly in poor neighborhoods, where anyone who complains of ill treatment can be labeled a drug user or dealer whose word can’t be trusted. The cash-based black market for drugs makes it a ripe target for greedy cops who feel that their official compensation isn’t adequate for the risks they take. The morally questionable methods that cops adopt to make arrests, like recruiting drug addicts as paid confidential informants, create a situation where falling on the wrong side of the law can become commonplace for making big busts. When cops come to court with a weak case, they can commit perjury and the system will give them the benefit of the doubt.
The problem can’t be solved internally. The local FOP resembles a mafia clan, complete with an omerta code and enormous influence over its particular sphere of local politics. Every officer knows that a rogue cop may get pulled off the street and stuck on desk work for a while—maybe he even loses his job—but the FOP wins nine out of 10 cases in arbitration.
The drug war has created in police departments the same kind of monsters that the Catholic Church did during decades of covering up sexual abuse and reassigning accused priests to different parishes. Eventually the priesthood became a magnet for potential predators once it was abundantly clear that abusing children held no consequences. Likewise, Philadelphia’s police department attracts power-abusing would-be criminals seeking the cover of a badge. Good officers who honestly serve the public rarely come forward to denounce those in their ranks who are ruining the reputation of their profession.
The only solution is to pull the plug on the drug war that propels this corruption. If the tons of cash fueling the black market were drained into controlled and regulated forms of dispensing legal drugs to registered users, police would lose interest in policing what little remained of the drug underworld. Law enforcement resources could be redirected into more intensive efforts against violent crime rather than squandered on operations targeted at bodega owners selling plastic baggies. A Marshall Plan for moving those who lose their gigs in the drug black market—the only reliable employer in the poorest Philadelphia neighborhoods—into a legitimate labor market offering a livable wage would reduce the possibility of drug sellers diversifying into robbery and other criminal work.
The legalization and regulation of drugs, however, is a long-term strategy. There are much more modest ways to begin stripping away the perverse incentives that create corruption in law enforcement. Decriminalizing petty selling of all drugs would remove from the criminal justice system the so-called microtraffickers who clog my caseload—the kids who generally aren’t packing guns and are just trying to earn to eat but who nonetheless are chased down by narc squads for easy collars. We can outlaw the use of paid confidential informants, abolish civil asset forfeiture and reform sentencing.
The drive for change must also come from within poor communities. Political disorganization has been the norm for too long, fueled by contempt for a system known to be rigged, where justice cannot be found. Embittered disengagement cannot create change. But there is a growing sense that the dynamic may be shifting—in Colorado and Washington’s marijuana legalization, say, and the recent election of progressive mayors in New York City and Newark. People want police to stop occupying and bullying their communities under the name of public service. If they come together to work toward that end, it will happen. But until major changes in our drug policies are made, expect the cancer of police corruption, and its many human costs, to persist.
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In his best-selling—and uncannily prophetic—2009 book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, author Nick Reding compared crystal meth to a “sociocultural cancer.” The easy-to-make stimulant can spread with the speed and destructiveness of a disease, but curiously, it can take many years to take hold, like a cell mutation triggered by decades of bad decisions. The subject of Reding's book was a struggling town in Northern Iowa called Oelwein, home to a population of 6,415. A once-wholesome community, Oelwein had fallen on hard times during the past decade, when the collapse of its industries—including many family-run farms—threatened its citizens livelihoods as well as their way of life. In classic post-traumatic stress mode, Oelwein fell victim to the crank epidemic, becoming a midwestern focal point for speed dealers.
Reding spent years reporting and writing Methland, which struck a chord in a nation experiencing a painful recession. He pointed out how economic problems had spurred towns like Oelwein to become unlikely centers of the drug trade. A sizable percentage of the town's citizens ended up becoming addicted to meth or pills. Others were engaged in manufacturing or transporting illegal drugs.
To mark the recent paperback release of his book, Fix columnist Jeff Deeney talked to Reding about the current state of Oelwein and similar towns across America. Deeney works as a drug counselor in inner-city Philadelphia, where he regularly witnesses what life is like for the dealers and addicts who remain invisible to most of us. Like Reding, he has witnessed first-hand the toll that America's declining economy has taken on the underclass, who have increasingly come to view drugs not just as an escape but also as a rare avenue of opportunity. The two writers talked recently.
Jeff Deeney: Have you been back to Oelwein since the book was first released?
Nick Reding: Yes. Several times. The paperback version of my book has a new afterwards about my first visit back, when I appeared at a town hall meeting at which a lot of local people got a chance to vent their spleen at me. There had been a big uproar after Methland was published because many residents felt that I had maligned their town, sensationalizing it, painting things blacker than they were. I got death threats and all kinds of negative stuff. So we all needed to take a few hours to clear the air. It was not a particularly great experience, as you can imagine, but at least the death threats stopped.
Deeney: How have things changed there in terms of the meth problem and the local economy, the two main subjects of your book?
Reding: Both have gotten better—against all odds—given the collapse of the financial markets and the continuing recession. For some reason Oelwein has bucked the national trend. They’ve also moved their meth problem in the right direction. The down side is that all the problems that were plaguing hat town have moved across the street and down the road—the same poverty, crime, drug addiction, and at the same order of magnitude.
Deeney: Methland tells the story of the meth epidemic through its effect on several townspeople, including some who were dealers and addicts. What's happened to them since the book came out?
Reding: Some of them are doing quite well. I’m still in touch with Lori Arnold, who is Tom Arnold’s sister and the biggest meth dealer in the history of the Midwest. She went to prison twice for manufacturing and trafficking. She’s now out of prison, married, lives in Arizona, and as far as I know she’s clean and doing fine. There’s a guy named Major in Independence, Iowa, who rode in a bike gang. When I checked in with him last year, he'd been clean for about three and a half years. So that’s all good news.
Deeney: In Oelwein you observed the hopelessness that comes in the wake of the collapse of industry and the middle class, and how it's linked to crystal meth trafficking and addiction. Over the past year, the Occupy Wall Street movement has appeared, dramatizing the enormous inequality of wealth in this country. Methland highlighted this development several years before it became a political issue. Have you given any more thought to how the chipping of the wealth upward may impact communities and drug problems?
Reding: The economic decline, which seems so recent, has actually been building in the Midwest and most of the country for nearly 40 years. When there are fewer and fewer people who benefit from the wealth that exists, and growing numbers of people are losing their jobs, their houses and their sense of middle-class security, you have what economists call a death spiral.
The recession also sucks revenue out of the stream, so not only do towns lose jobs, they also lose the related businesses—the café, the car shop, whatever—that benefit from a strong economic environment. You also lose social services, which is no small matter. The number of cops arresting meth makers and dealers decreases, and so does the number of social workers and drug counselors who deal with the meth addicts.
This was the dynamic that played out in Oelwein and then, tragically, went national. But the economic crisis has reached the point that the question isn’t who’s the bad guy and why did this happen, but what do we do about it?
Deeney: In Methland you describe labor conditions at the local poultry factories, where people work under crazy conditions pulling incredibly long shifts, wearing giant chain-metal suits in sub-freezing temperatures. You show how these conditions helped foster the use of crystal meth. And not only the use. Compared to the local poultry factories, the prospect of selling meth can look pretty attractive, even with all of its legal and ethical risks.
Reding: The argument I make in the book is very simple: The harder it is for people to make money honestly, the easier it will be for an increasingly large portion to chose to make it dishonestly.
Deeney: The same problems are happening in the inner city, of course, where one of the very few ways to make a lot of money is by selling drugs. Unfortunately, it's a career path that usually leads to prison or the grave before the big score.
Reding: When people lose 66% of their paychecks overnight at a local meat-packing factory because cheap immigrant labor from Mexico is available in substantial numbers, the shock waves that result are not just local and immediate—they quickly spread out in time and space. It takes a long time for people to figure out how to overcome that kind of a cataclysmic shock to their system, and during that time they have to find a way to survive. They have daily needs to meet, so they may start selling drugs. Meth is the easiest drug to sell because you can make it yourself and do it pretty cheaply.
Deeney: How did Oelwein get its meth problem under control?
Reding: Basically, the mayor, the police chief and many members of the community got together and said, "Our number-one problem is not methamphetamine but the fact that our economy is in tatters." In order to start turning that around, they recognized that they had to lure companies that will pump money back into the system—but in turn, one of the biggest obstacles was being known far and wide as a meth town.So in that context, they dealt with the only part of the problem that they had the authority and power to control, which was the small-time manufacturer.
Oelwein cleaned up its own back yard. They put a lot of law enforcement focus into it, and at one point they were busting two or three meth labs a week—in a town of 6,000 people! Since then, they’ve been able to add more than 500 cops—one for every eight or ten people, which is huge for a small town. But the drug-cartel part of the supply problem is too overpowering—nobody’s going to get a handle on that.
Deeney: How would you rate the federal response to the meth epidemic?
Reding: Ever since Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2006 [which regulates mail order and chemical companies selling precursor chemicals], the federal government has done nothing at all. In fact, it has never done anything very effective to combat meth, and the state governments have actually done even worse. In fact, taken as a whole, the response has in many ways made the business easier—at least the business of producing and selling it.
Deeney: How about the growing popularity of bath salts—the synthetic version of methamphetamine. Bath salts may be even more toxic than the real thing. Have they been taken up out there?
Reding: I don’t know, to be honest. But I can think of a funny analogy: This bullet is more deadly than that bullet, but when either one hits you in your head, they will kill you.
Deeney: Are you working on a new book?
Reding: Yes, it’s kind of a follow-up to Methland, about what the Midwest will look like in 50 years. I’m taking the long perspective because, as I said, I learned while doing Methland that the meth problem was really 40 years in the making—at first slow, then very fast.
The new book is called Heartland and is set in seven towns that I think are indicative of each region and where the whole middle of the United States is heading in this century.
Deeney: One of the great questions about street drug culture is why meth never took hold in the big urban centers of the East Coast. Even as the drug plowed chaos across the Midwest in the 2000s, it barely reached North Philly or the South Bronx. There are a couple theories who: The black and Latino drug crews, who have a stranglehold on the city’s drug corners, may be trying to prevent new drug they don't have a monopoly on from entering the marketplace; or maybe the media-forged stigma of meth as a hillbilly drug for poor rural whites made it seem alien to inner-city addicts. There's still time for meth to take hold, of course. Where do you see the meth problem in 50 years?
Reding: You know, I haven’t focused on meth so much yet because I’m working on the large trends of economic and cultural decline.
But one thing I can’t turn away from—it’s kind of like a car accident—is that the pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists now have carte blanche and play an even greater role in how legislation is written.
Every time a state or federal legislator attempts to introduce a bill that would restrict the over-the-counter sale of cold drugs, the pharma lobbyists come in and just tear the legislation apart. So you can still buy over-the-counter cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine and make crystal meth in your bathtub.
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Susan was a crack addict and prostitute whose life was saved by Jesus Christ. That’s what she would say when you met her; she had no compunction about sharing details of her sordid past because the Lord cleansed those sins from her.
Christ may have removed the sins but he left much of Susan otherwise unchanged after she got clean; at 35, she looked at least a decade older, her graying hair matched by a haggard expression—all testimony to her many years on the Philadelphia streets. She still had a hot temper and a foul mouth lacing sentences with old addict slang and obscenities when provoked. Her street name—“Light Skin Susan”—came from her high-yellow tone; in North Philly’s black community complexion remains a salient characteristic, leftover from the old days when blacks with light skins were seated in the front pews in church, a symbol of status. But Susan had chosen, or been compelled, to live in a state far removed from status and other social niceties. She retained more than a touch of the profane, putting off many of the church ladies she now worshiped with.
As her social worker, I thought Susan's hard-earned earthiness was devilishly funny, but a coworker—and a North Philly church lady herself—thought that it was high time Susan left the devil alone and started acting her age. She was prone to flirtatiousness that arguably pushed the bounds of Christian propriety. But I found the flirtations mostly harmless, and if Susan got sassy there was usually another church lady around who was quick to chide her.
Susan’s addictions had driven her to crimes more harmful than tricking; she stole cars and even got entangled in a bank heist that went bad. Convicted of armed robbery, she did five years in prison. She was no stranger to jail cells, having been in and out of Bucks County Correctional Facility north of Philadelphia on drug charges over the years. At the time Susan got booked on the bank heist she was living in Bristol, a small town outside Trenton, NJ, across the Delaware River from Philly. Home to poor blacks and working-class whites, outlaw bikers, dealers who cook meth in their kitchens, Bristol is tough stuff for the suburbs.
But Susan fit right in Bristol's roughneck scene. She shared a house with her alcoholic mother who, at the august age of 61, improbably added cocaine to her addictions. When Susan went to jail, her mother got custody of Susan's three children. Grandmom partied for days, openly snorting lines of coke with men half her age in front of the kids. Susan knew that her mother was unfit to have her children, but she didn’t want to roll the dice with the foster care system where she had good reason to fear that they would be mistreated or abused. The children fared only slightly better with Grandmom, who took the extra welfare money from the state and spent it on booze and coke.
When Susan was released from jail—after having simultaneously got religion and kicked crack—she vowed to get her children back. She said the Lord would see it through.
Even with God at her back, her road back to mainstream society was bumpier than she had ever imagined—and they weren't just speed bumps. There are city agencies tasked with “easing the transition” from inside to outside the wire, but in reality most ex-cons are left entirely to their own devices—even when it comes to the bare necessities like finding a job and a place to live. Susan’s felony conviction for armed robbery closed the doors even to low-wage jobs and cheap apartments. The path of least resistance for most offenders hitting the streets fresh from jail and without a dime to their name is, of course, to go right back into the drug market, engaging in the same hustles that landed them behind bars in the first place.
Even though she was penniless and homeless, Susan was determined not to follow this path. She had been saved, and had every intention of forever living in the light of the Lord. The sole source of hope in Susan’s life was her church—an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) house of worship in North Philadelphia that she began attending as soon as she got free. The church came through for her at first; after proving her sincerity, she was given a job there—as a janitor paid meager wages to clean the big, old building—and a fellow parishioner rented her a room in his apartment. She held to her belief that the Lord was opening doors for her, even if just a crack.
Susan’s life got more complicated when her eldest daughter, Ashley, showed up on her doorstep, right off the bus from Bristol. When Ashley turned 18 and her welfare money stopped, her grandmother kicked her out of the house. Grandmom told Ashley to go be her mother's burden now, no matter that the girl was six months’ pregnant. Ashley crashed on a couch in Susan’s small room in Northy Philly.
Another complication was that Susan's host sexually harassed Susan from the moment she moved in. He groped her repeatedly while they were alone together in the apartment and tried to crawl into bed with her at night. Not even the presence of Susan’s pregnant daughter asleep in the same room deterred him.
This was the situation when I first met Susan, barely back on her feet a year after leaving prison. I worked at an agency that provided housing for homeless families. Susan came there hoping to find an apartment that would give her a base of stability from which to get her life back together. She told me eagerly about her plan to petition for custody of her children as soon as she had saved enough money to get a bigger place where the family could be reunited. If we didn’t help her, she said, she would have to go to the homeless shelter, where the women smoke crack, her drug of choice. She was desperate not to lose her clean time.
Susan’s case looked tough but she had a lot going for her. In the year she had been out of jail she hadn’t relapsed or reoffended. Her income was nominal but she worked hard for it. Susan’s church believed in her, and in resource-starved African-American communities like North Philly, the power of the AME (and other churches) is almost total.
The minister at Susan’s church was a tiny woman of advanced age and outsized presence; her eyes shone fiercely bright and clear, and her voice was still strong enough to fill the sanctuary to the rafters during services. There have always been women like Susan around the reverend, hanging on her every word and attending to her needs. Ex-convicts, former prostitutes, recovering addicts—they gravitate toward her aura of faith that conveys a sense of safe harbor and the hope for grace. There are also the working mothers dropping by on their lunch breaks and the neighborhood men, those hulking pillars of community stability, who come with them to get a noonday dose of strength that keeps their days full of lightness and their spirits high.
Susan said she knew the joy of being filled with the Holy Spirit when she attended services several times a week. She said she knew that her faith would see her through, that faith coupled with works works miracles. Convinced that Susan was a solid prospect, the agency funded a small apartment, and Susan soon moved in, along with Ashley and Ashley’s newborn baby.
Yet Susan was more than a devoted member of the flock; she was wholly reliant on the church for social, spiritual and financial support. As strong as this single-minded devotion and dependence may have appeared to Susan, I knew that putting all her eggs in one basked was a very risky proposition. I had seen such apparently solid arrangements melt into air, leaving my clients with no recourse, nothing. So I counseled Susan to build networks of support outside the church. In particular, I asked her if she was interested in professional counseling or 12-step recovery groups. But she rejected both out of hand, saying that she would get what she needed from the church.
This attitude is fairly common among African-Americans addicts in poor neighborhoods in most large US cities; ironically, while the biggest complaint about AA and NA among skeptical middle-class white addicts is the dependence on a Higher Power, in urban black communities 12-step recovery groups are marginalized because they aren't explicitly allied with any church. In addition, the confessional mode of "sharing" that defines the AA fellowship is alien to the ethic of African- neighborhoods, where airing your dirty laundry in public is disappoved of rather than viewed as a method of establishing trust and fellowship. For the same reason, professional psychotherapy is frequently dismissed as a "white" treatment; given the church's influence, mental health issues are widely viewed as caused by a lack of faith remedied by more regular attendance at Bible study.
When I was new to doing social work in the black community, this widespread attitude confused me and frustrated my efforts to help my black clients. An an ex-junkie, I could vow for the benefits to be gained from both recovery groups and therapy. A North Philly church lady coworker set me straight. “A lot of black don't feel that AA and therapy are alien to everything they know," she told me. "If you got problems you just go to church on Sunday and scream your head off and then everything’s fine."
But for Susan, it turned out, everything wasn’t fine. While Jesus and the church were pulling her in one direction, the judicial system had made an unwelcome appearance and was pulling her in another. The entire time Susan was in prison, the state of Pennsylvania was running a tab on all the welfare dollars her mother received in her children’s names. Consequently, per state law, Susan was held responsible for the total amount upon her release, and soon the welfare department came calling to get its money back.
In our sessions, Susan showed me a raft of increasingly threatening official letters with eye-popping dollar figures that had her practically hyperventilating. The state wanted in excess of $25,000, and wanted it now.
A hearing was scheduled at the Bucks County Courthouse, where Susan was asked to provide documents proving that she had a job and could start paying her child support debt or face returning to jail in contempt of a court order. Obviously, on her janitor’s survival wages Susan had absolutely no capacity to both pay the state and keep a roof over her head. This Sophie's choice is a common dilemma for tens of thousands of single mothers returning to the community from prison who owe the state for the dollars their children depended on in their mother’s absence.
Many states require the moms behind bars to assume the burden of child support if they wish to keep their children from being lost in the foster care system. Yet the vast majority are like Susan, devoid of resources except the pennies she might ear from her prison job—and what loving mother (it need hardly be noted the crack addicts and prostitutes do not negate materal love) would even think twice about "defrauding" the system to provide her children with at least minimal security?
This cruel no-win predicament drove Susan to desperation. “Do they know how hard it's going to be to hold down a job if I wind up in a homeless shelter?” she asked me. “Don’t they understand that I’m walking with the Lord and trying to get my life together?”
I accompanied her to the courthouse intending to speak with the judge and explain Susan’s special circumstances. I hoped that the court would grant leniency and allow me to continue working with Susan; she was off the streets, off drugs, back in housing, back to work. She was a success of the system. How could Bucks County not do the right thing and hold off on onerous monthly support payments until she was a little more stable?
But the judge, a middle aged, white Republican appointee in a county notorious for its GOP family court judges with a special beef againstblack women from Philadelphia running up welfare bills on their county’s tab while sitting in jail, refused even to give us a word at the bar of the court. He asked Susan for documentation proving her employment status and when she told him her job at the church was paid under the table, he snarled derisively, “Isn’t that the American way?” clearly insinuating that Susan was not only a common criminal, but a tax-dodging welfare mother, too.
Susan protested the high amount of the monthly support payment, explaining that if she paid the debt she couldn’t afford a place to live. I will never forget how painful it was, watching this woman, who had never in her life caught a single break, have to stand before the American justice system and nearly beg for mercy. But for this black woman in this white judge's courtroom there was no mercy to be had. Her criminal record of violent crime, her drug addiction, her prostitution—all of her vices outweighed the spiritual transformation and personal rehabilitation she had experienced in prison, not to mention her clean-as-a-whistle record in her new life.
The judge merely mocked her, saying, “You’ve got a place to live now: Bucks County Correctional Facility for 90 days.” The public defender tried to interject but the judge was already calling for the next case.
And with that, a sobbing Susan was hauled out of the room in handcuffs, back to the same jail she had walked out of the year before.
Susan did her 90 days but came out of jail a lost woman. She feared returning home to Bucks County, even to visit her children—the judge told her the next time she came to court without a good enough job to make support payments she would spend six months behind bars for contempt. So she blew off her next court date, choosing to catch a bench warrant rather than endure another pointless jail sentence.
To further complicate her life, Susan’s relationship to her church went bad. In her irresolvable and maddening plight, she had come to resent the reverend who, like many prominent Philly clergy with political clout, had easy access to capital in the form of grants and loans for extravagant projects like building luxury housing for senior parishioners. But when Susan asked for a raise—of one dollar an hour—to help make her rent while putting money aside to pay back the state, the reverend pleaded poor. The money was just not in the budget, she told Susan, end of discussion.
Where was the mercy? Susan wanted to know. She stopped going to evening services but still kept a Bible on her kitchen table; she read her favorite uplifting passages while paging through the paper’s Help Wanted. She said that while the church might fail her, the Lord never would, and that she was determined if nothing else to stay away from a crack pipe. As circumstances steadily wore her down, it sounded more and more like she was trying to convince herself that she didn’t want to use. I told her as much, urging her to seek help either in the rooms or in outpatient treatment. I told her that I would help her find an AA or NA meeting with a diverse membership or group therapy for single mothers in recovery. But Susan still rejected them.
Susan’s daughter Ashley also knew the signs; she started pulling away from her mom as she sensed the old addictive behaviors creeping in. Ashley had seen her mother relapse more than once and just couldn’t handle another disappointment.
Then Ashley confided in me that her mother had copped over the weekend.
“It’s nothing! It’s just a nickel bag!” Susan told me when I confronted her about it during our next home visit. “It’s not even a relapse, I smoked so little.”
“Come on, Susan,” I said. “You’ve been smoking crack for 15 years. When have you ever smoked just a nickel bag?”
Susan fell silent. After a moment she said, "I told the ladies at the church I was using again and they said it was no big deal as long as I started attending services." She was grasping at straws, and we both knew it. "At least I'm going back to church," she said finally.
I told Susan that her priorities were mixed up: How did she plan on making rent she could already barely afford if more and more of her money went to the dope man? She swore that it was all going to work out.
Any social worker will tell you that if a client is bent on making a bad decision, there’s nothing you can do to stop them. You just hope they’re still around when the consequences hit so you can help them work it out.
From there, Susan’s relapse followed the simple mathematics of addiction. A nickel bag became a $20, and a $20 became a $50. Soon after she relapsed, she got evicted from the apartment the agency had placed her in and that she worked so hard to keep. Now re-addicted and newly homeless, she vanished into North Philadelphia, back to the streets that she had tried so valiantly to escape. I never saw her again.