I was a Child Thief…Until being Arrested Scared me Straight


My Life, the short Version

My home life wasn’t good growing up.  I didn’t have any father figures or mentors and my mom was never mentally healthy enough to teach me things about life and what I should do or don’t do in the world.  We moved around a lot because we was always getting evicted from our Section 8 houses or apartments.  I was always a quiet kids that didn’t want to make waves.  My little brother was deaf from birth so my mom had to manage his disability, while living on welfare, feeding her two kids, and maintaining a roof over our head through Section 8 Housing.  I learned how to survive in emergencies.  If our water got cut off, we went to the hydrant or a neighbor’s and filled up a water jug for the day or night.  If our gas was cut off, we used a hot plate or kerosene heater to warm us up or the water.  I remember going to school with black soot in my nose from the kerosene smoke.  It was embarrassing, but it was my life.  We used buckets of warm soapy water to wash up and that was sufficient.  Phone cut off, but didn’t need it when your friends were just down the street.I had a best friend that lived on the block in a crack house because her mother was strung out on drugs.  But she was the sweetest woman and walking into that house with these drug addicts wasn’t unusual to me because my best friend was in there, but looking back is was indeed dangerous and that was another side of my naivete.  But that’s living and survival…in North Philly during the 70s and 80s.

I don’t know exactly when I started stealing things.  It was just something to do and it was little things at school.  Pens, pencils from desks or little nick-nacks that were laying around at the time.  I was an excellent student in elementary and middle school, so it wasn’t obvious that I was a thief, but it was my dark side.  I remember stealing packs of paper at one time from my school.  Why I needed the paper?  I didn’t.  There was a room with all these supplies and I took some paper, pens, and pencils and stored it in my locker.  Maybe because I was invisible and this was my way to feel alive.  I was soooo quiet you would forget I was in the room, but I was a frightened little girl who use to see her mother battered and beat so my quietness was for good reason.  I didn’t want the same fate.  Being an A student was no problem because I enjoyed school and it was my escape from that abusive world.  Stealing was my other side, my notice that I was alive, I believe.  But it led me down a path that was scary for a 12 year old.  A snapshot of what my life would have been if I was charged with a crime and served time.  How my life would have been different I don’t know, but I cringe at the thought.

Here’s a new article from 2008 that shows you the type of environment I would have been exposed to if convicted:

One staff member bashed a youth in the face with handcuffs, splitting the child’s forehead so wide it took nine stitches to close. Another staffer dragged a teenager down a hallway, breaking her arm. In a third case, a worker threw a walkie-talkie at a child’s head, leaving a gash that required three stitches.  All three incidents took place over two weeks in November at the Youth Study Center, an overcrowded and run-down juvenile detention center so filthy it smelled strongly of urine, according to a licensing report the state released this week. The 105-bed facility on the Parkway is run by Philadelphia’s troubled Department of Human Services.  State public welfare officials downgraded the center’s operating license until improvements are made. That allows the state to exert more control over the center’s day-to-day operations. – John Sullivan, Inquirer Staff Writer 


The Day I went Rogue

I decided with a girlfriend to rob Sam Goody’s (Record Store) in the Gallery when I was 12.  The day before we took a cassette or two and didn’t get stopped so we figured we would go again and steal more.  We went there for the intent purpose of stealing as many CDs as we could and we tried it.  We knew it had the senors on and we were trying to take some off, but wasn’t able to do all.  We walked out and the store alarm went off and we ran.  I followed my girlfriend and dropped the bag only to be caught in another store minutes later.  They handcuffed us and led us to the back of the store while they awaited police.  I don’t know what I was thinking, but to make matters worse, we decided to steal an employees items that was in the back as we waited for the police.  We went into her purse and took her ATM card, a couple of dollars (which she claimed was $50, but it was less), and her keys.  She came in the back and looked in her purse and noticed items missing and we denied we took anything.  They sent a female officer in the back and we admitted we took it and gave them what we had.  Since the employee claimed there was more missing, we actually was stripped searched and had to drop our pants, bend over and spread our butt cheeks.  That was humiliating.  I never seen things like that done so at 12 I was a little traumatized by this course of action.

After the search the police took us while we were handcuffed through the gallery and into the paddle wagon.  Since we were young they took us to the lock-up at the Parkway Youth Study Center where we were told to take off our shoes and go into a cell.  They called our parents and I was deathly afraid because I didn’t know what she would do or think.  I wasn’t a bad kid so I never had to get spankings or whuppings as a child.  I seen my cousins get it hard, but we never went to that level to get that type of punishment.  Additionally, we were sitting in a jail cell and it was a scary and lonely place.



My Penance

My mom was working under the table at a candy store so she wasn’t able to get the message till late at night.  We were living in North Philly (16th and Brown) so it was 30 minutes away by bus to get there.  She arrived at 11:10pm and didn’t speak to me the whole walk home.  She just had a disappointed look in her eyes and at that minute I felt extremely guilty.  I know my mother went through physically abuse, I seen it!  She was barely surviving with two kids and I go and rob a store for CDs.  During that whole time we had to go to through a process and they decided since I was a straight A student, that two years in a youth study center wouldn’t be beneficial to me.  They decided to have me sit in front of a panel of people (like a parole board format) and summarized what I did and my reasons for doing it.  We agreed and when it was time to go, I was nervous.  I sat in front of six women and spoke on what I did that day.  They kept asking me why I did it.  I didn’t have a reason.  I wanted to and I did it.  Plain and simple.

After the board reviewed my story and I guess my academic record and seen I was a straight A student and pretty vanilla, they proposed 4/5 things that I needed to do for this to be expunged from my record.  I still didn’t know in your youthful mind the criminal system and basically how bad my crime was at the time.  I was extremely young and naive.  The things i needed to do was:

  1. Write an apology to Sam Goody Record store
  2. Write an apology to the store employee regarding the theft of her items
  3. Attend a drug seminar for one day
  4. Attend a behavioral center in North Philly every Tuesday at 2pm for 6 months

I completed all of them and got it expunged, but looking back at my life it could have been a death sentence for me.  I wouldn’t be where I’m at if I would have spent two years a a youth facility.  Walking in there on one of my mediation dates, they were pretty violent, anger, some hopeless, and some that felt worthless.  What if I went and turned really bad?  I guess taking that prison course opened my eyes to many of my classmates on the inside that were convicted as youths and now pushing towards senior citizen status without smelling the outside on a regular basis like I do each day.  Till this day, I don’t know why I decided to go rogue and steal close to 15 CDs and that employee’s items from her purse.  But the experience allowed me to never disrespect my mother again and the look of hurt and disappointment shattered my resolve and I stayed in the shadows being good because I knew what it took for her to keep us alive, as black children in this world.

I am an educator now with a beautiful daughter.  Just recently we sat at dinner and I told her this story.  I’m not ashamed because there are many stories that are good and bad that she heard.  But it’s my story and I wanted to share it with you.  How a naive, and quiet black girl ended up on the wrong side of the law at one time in her life.


The Former Parkway Youth Study Center in Philadelphia


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