Updated: Sep 17, 2021
I am the stepmother to a very hard headed Black man. Once, a boy, a very defiant, impulsive Black boy. I immediately noticed he had defiance issues and his attention span was off. I knew the diagnosis; ADHD with Oppositional Defiance. His teacher Mrs. Cheryl knew too and she tried to help. In so many ways. She put his desk next to hers; he waited until her back was turned and he would get up and just be a menace to the other children. He would run down the aisles slapping them in the back of their heads and it was hilarious, to him. But not to his frustrated teacher and stepmother who believed school was the only way out for black kids with no jump shot or fast ball. He was eventually expelled from this middle school. Then, we had to fight just to to get him out of the next middle school. I knew they pushed him along because of his age. He was 16 and a freshman. My fast tract was high school, then vocational college or the military. If not high school, then most definitely getting his GED was priority.
I was certain he wouldn’t be able to complete high school without medication. However, I really wanted him to experience the prom, homecoming, and just the beauty of high school. I wanted prom pictures and most importantly for him to have options! I appealed to his dad one more time but he was adamant, “NO MEDICATION”! He had admitted he too had been diagnosed with ADHD and his mother wouldn’t give him the Ritalin. Instead, it was a cup of black coffee every morning before school. Who’s idea this was, I didn’t even investigate because it’s no surprise that there would be a mistrust of the mediation. Black people and their fear of modern anything has often been to their own peril and detriment. Yet, to this day my husband doesn’t drink coffee. But he will sip a Caramel Macchiato, Black and bougie at its finest! The irony. Being a Black dude from the inner City of Baltimore there hadn’t been much exposure to macchiatos. And unfortunately not much exposure to alternative treatment options for ADHD. Behavioral modification, therapy? Please, Black people are just now admitting depression, bipolar disorder and all of the other amalgamation of mental disorders. 30 years ago therapy was not “avant- garde”not as it seems to be now!
The beautiful state of Georgia too, had limited resources for people dealing with kids with ADHD; no alternatives or suggestions. No counseling, no free form schools. I told my husband, if my stepson didn‘t finish high school he was going to wind up in jail and a teenage father. I had seen this path walked by so many other black and brown boys. Much to my dismay, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think in retrospect, I should’ve fought harder for the medication but we were fighting so many other battles with him, medication was sidelined. I was trying to save him from jail or worse.
I tried after school programs, activities, sports, and the saxophone. I thought having something to focus on would help him redirect his attention span. Help him to FOCUS. I spent so much time chasing him and his impulsivity that I was often thinking, “You must be crazy”. I am a perceptive person and I could tell when he was bullshitting me. It was the shift in his body language, the failure to make eye contact; the little things, along with the “6th sense” my grandmother blessed me with. I knew when he got kicked out of every program. I knew when he had been up to no good. I knew life was going to be hard for him but I couldn’t stop the head on collision with the law that was inevitable.
When he started getting into neighborhood trouble, I warned my husband; Georgia will give him a “F” for the dumbest shit. That “F” being a felony. We would have to be vigilant in keeping him out of the system. I stayed on him about everything. I was a “keep it real” type of mother. I believed in keep it a buck, 100. I told him his life if he choose to not get his high school diploma or GED. He had no talent for me to cultivate. He wasn’t an artist, athlete, or a rapper. And eventually the damn day came when I would have to fight the system on his behalf, as I knew it would. I did not want any police contact because I knew once it starts it’s a never ending cycle. But low and behold here we were; he was tagging signs in our neighborhood and got busted when he was 12 going on 13. He and his friends was stealing the spray paint from the local auto store and BAM! TAGGING the signs within their own neighborhood. They had to have been the worlds dumbest criminals tagging THEIR NAMES on stop signs and subdivision displays. Fortunately having a stepmother who was a nurse and a dad who was a plumber, helped. We had money and means to make restitution and the wherewithal to suggest this form of punishment vs. a misdemeanor. After all, kids will be kids. Even black kids. That’s what we implored to the town council. It was up to them the punishment. It was decided he would write a letter of apology to the town council and clean up the signs. That was the deal we were able to work out to avoid a record. Lucky him and me because Law and Order was a staple for me and I knew I had Jack McCoy skills. “Let’s make a deal” was just the tip of the ice berg.
I knew ADHD definitely didn’t mean “slow” as so many young men got labeled when they had this diagnosis. OR not diagnosis just the symptoms. This held true especially young black men who are likely to live in Urban settings with subpar school systems and no support. A vicious cycle and just another example of health care and societal disparities. My stepson is funny and very quick witted. But at 5 feet nothing, at that time he looked younger than his age. He was 16, a freshman in high school, and lived in Georgia. Southern states seem to be in a constant state of antebellum-ism. The laws enforced arbitrarily, over policing, and just general “are you kidding me” type of nonsense. Laws designed to set people up for failure especially those who may not have had the acumen to KNOW better. My main concern was the fact that he was now 16 and him trying to kick it to the freshman girls tender 13 or 14 year olds. He was too old for them. I never thought about the age difference thing UNTIL Georgia. Society normalizes 14 and 16 year olds “dating”. Over sexualizing black and brown children and ignoring other factions of society caused a lot of children of color to get jammed up. The case of Genarlow Wilson was a cautionary tale for me. Look him up.
Georgia was a wasteland when it came to their school system and resources and I wanted to move back to the North. ASAP. For my stepson‘s sake. My brother, a special education teacher could help me navigate the school system there. I was even willing to move to the “burbs”, though I had a home in the city. I wanted to save him, so desperately, from himself mainly. He, my stepson, loved getting in his own way. But I couldn’t save him. He was too tunneled to what I was trying to prevent from happening. I felt suffocated and limited in support. Because unfortunately the dynamics of his parents bitter relationship spewed onto him and he became a casualty of their wars. And I knew eventually we would loose him to the system because I couldn’t do it by myself. Later, after this incident, I decided to leave. My stepson getting expelled from high school was the feather that toppled my sanity My husband, my stepson, our home and the state of Georgia I literally felt could kiss my ass. At this point I had to save myself after trying to save him, I was exhausted. Mentally and emotionally. Any intervention I tried was met with resentment and of course opposition by my stepson. And it was only so many years of “You’re not my mother” I could take. I wasn’t his mother, so why was I running myself ragged? Why wasn’t she stressed out up at nights? It’s because I had seen this before in my own brother that I didn’t want this life for my step son. My brother started going to jail at 15 and hasn’t stopped. Even to this day he sits in jail as does my stepson.
Well, before we could get settled in high school, that tagging incident came back to haunt him. We were on our way from registering for high school classes, when I get a call from a detective telling me there was a bench warrant for my stepsons’ arrest. He, along with his 4 brothers, had missed a court date. Huh? What are you talking about.There was a lot of back and forth with me ultimately stating we would be in court to address this. It’s an error and we would clear it up. The first problem was my step son was an only son and his THREE sisters lived in Maryland. I had no idea what they were talking about but we showed up to address it, no problem mistaken identity. His name had to have been transposed on someone else’s file. We had our disposition and outcome from that tagging incident from THREE years ago.
When we got to court, the public defender is immediately telling us he can’t represent my stepson because he was representing his brother. Wait a minute! First of all who are YOU? Have you ever met this young man? Do you recognize him? This isn’t that kid, whoever you think he is, there is a mistake! We’ve never lived in Powder Springs, GA. I had school records, the deed to our home, and his birth certificate. I was firing off these questions as the District Attorney approached and proceeded to tell me the police officer who arrested him was here to identify him. Excuse me? He was never arrested by anyone in Powder Springs, he has no record what are you saying? And why are you here, you’re violating attorney client privilege. She was livid. Because how dare I question her! But I had watched enough Law and Order to feel like Jack McCoy in that moment. Also those criminal justice classes I had taken at community college helped too.
She wanted a white cop to look at my black stepson along with the PICTURES of other black boys and tell the court if he was the same kid from THREE years ago?? What type of fool did she think I was? My stepson was already in court, already accused, so there is already the presumption of guilt. This was slanted. And as a black woman herself did she not realize how detrimental this was? Did she not realize that this was a black families worse nightmare? He was innocent and I knew he was innocent. And I was fighting. I strapped up my “Tims” and was prepared to go to war. Timberland boots are the quintessential urban dwellers combat outfit.
He was being accused of throwing rocks off the 26th floor with his 4 brother in Powder Springs. My first question was the 26th floor of what? And how did the driver recognize these kids from 26 floors down? Is there even an apartment building with 26 floors in Powder Springs? Where were these “four brothers”? And his dad’s name is Eric not Charles. Where was their mother? This was a tragedy of errors because wasn’t shit funny. We left court with no resolution just a return to court date with a plea deal offer. Shock camp. No one was listening. My head was spinning this had to be an episode of Punked. Where are the cameras? Where’s Ashton? Where is my Jack McCoy?
I was on fire and I told my husband I was working OT to pay for a lawyer and I suggested he get another job. I was ready to go to war. A public defender? FUCK that! This was not happening. Not to us! This doesn’t happen to people like us. We work we pay our taxes we don’t live in the “hood”. I told my husband to find us a lawyer, preferably Black. He did, vía word of mouth. However, when we met with this lawyer he told me that he wasn’t going to “take my money”. He advised me to let it play out in court and if there was still an insistence of prosecuting, he would step in then. I was not happy but I appreciated his direction. He also laughed at my interaction with the DA. He said, “Well right or wrong wouldn’t you be mad if someone told you how to be a nurse?” But he admitted that it was a good call. Especially with the line-up. He scratched his head at that one.
Court day arrived and I had on my power suit! I made sure my stepson was presentable. No baggy jeans, no t-shirt, and haircut was a must. He had mailman hair, every kink had a route of its own! We had to look anti urban. Of course our clothes was going to make all the difference. As if!
Upon our case being called, we entered the courtroom and as we’re waiting on the judge, I’m fidgeting, nervous, and close to an anxiety attack.
“All Rise!” We stand and I’m looking at my stepson and felt the glare of someone’s gaze and I look up to the steady furrowed stare of the District Attorney. She sneered and snorted in my direction and turned to whisper something to her associates. Of course it was about us because 4 sets of eyes instantly turned in my direction. I stared back in defiance. I wasn’t scared. Or intimidated.
As the judge sat, we were told we could now be sested. The DA begins her case and starts with her “facts”. I am eagerly waiting my turn because again, in my mind I was a Law and Order alum. I was not going to risk being in contempt of court by interrupting her!
Once she was done, I was waiting to show my documents when the judges’ voice said, “Shondra?” I was annoyed he was so familiar until I looked up to answer and realized that it was a familiar face! I had had a car accident 2 years ago and this was the lawyer, now judge, who represented me in traffic court! Judge Jackson! He had been to my hospital room and eventually my home several times. Had even ate dinner with us.
In a sigh of relief, I said, “Mr. Jackson! You’re a judge now!” He chuckled and said, “Yes, and you’re walking now!” My car accident had left me in a wheelchair for almost a year. And there was always the fear that I wouldn’t be able to walk again without a cane.
Judge Jackson turned to the DA and said, “She’s right, this is mistaken identity. I know these people.” The district attorney looked at me and said to him, “Recuse yourself”. To which he replied, “No I won’t, there is no conflict.” Isn’t it ironic that this modest black family knew a black judge who was able to “vouch” for them? Privilege doesn’t always swing that way for black families. The irony is that I knew this judge from a criminal traffic case. Again Georgia’s laws are so antiquated that being accused of running a ref light and pleading not guilty meant I had to get a lawyer. If I hadn’t been able to pay for the lawyer, have my insurance company send a certified report attesting to the fact that my accident couldn’t have happened the way it was reported, I wouldn’t have known this lawyer/judge. And I would’ve been charged a fine and had my license suspended. Go figure. Of course this could happened to anyone but more often than not it happens to black folks. Over policing, criminalizing non criminal behavior.
We left court with a dismissal but with prejudice, meaning she could pick up these charges again if she chose to. Fortunately she didn’t have too. But unfortunately after ditching high school, my stepson was incarcerated 6 months later, in Baltimore. And once out, his impulsiveness caused him to become a recidivist. And I’m sure it’s the untreated ADHD and oppositional defiance. But now at 23, he has to figure it out. If not for himself at least for his three daughters. There is adult treatment for ADHD. Behavioral modification therapy. Whichever he chooses, he also has to watch for these behaviors in his daughters. It is hereditary.
My rudimentary lawyer skills did help him in that moment. I was proud of the then 15 years of Law and Order I had under my belt. Jack McCoy prosecutor or not, saved my stepson that day. American treasure that show, that character, and his lessons.