To protect the privacy of our child clients, all names are changed.
When CFCR attorney Colleen Mullan met “Keith” he was 13 years old and had already been in and out of trouble. Over time, misdemeanors charges like petty drug stuff and shoplifting escalated into felonies: weapons, robbery — some of it circumstantial, some of it disproportionate.
He is, according to Colleen, “a terrible criminal” — just no good at it. And so, he gets caught – a lot.
But everyone agrees there is something about this young man that stands out. Quiet and slow to warm up to people, he is nevertheless extremely likable. Keith is smart, funny, and has a way about him that people are drawn to without ever being showy or flashy.
Keith lives in a one of Charlotte’s low income housing communities, part of Charlotte Housing Authority. The area is full of drugs, crime, and all the other issues poverty brings with it. He was born in prison and his mother has been largely absent all his life. His father was out of the picture from the beginning and while Keith occasionally sees his six siblings, he has always lived separately from them.
Instead, Keith has been raised by “Ms. Lester,” a round-about “distant” relative who took him in when he was a baby. Ms. Lester has her children of her own, all younger than Keith. She too is poor, a single mother, well intentioned and devoted to Keith but lacking the support and skills she needs to manage him effectively.
Over time, the charges against Keith got more serious as did the challenges to his family. They had no transportation, not even enough money to take the light rail, so in order to get to court appointments they would walk from Southside (at least a couple of miles each way). No transportation meant they didn’t have a way to meet at the Council offices for court preparations, so our ability to schedule meetings was limited and often had to be done on the fly – and seldom felt adequately prepared.
A turning point in the story came with Keith’s admittance to Youth Treatment Court. YTC offered a real fresh start and a full team to support Keith and his “mother.”
At that time, Keith was still getting into trouble – sometimes directly, sometimes by association, which culminated in a crisis for him and his family. Because of his outstanding charges, Ms. Lester received a 3-day eviction notice from the housing authority. If Keith remained in the picture, she and her family would have to move. She desperately wanted to keep Keith with the family, but as a single mom with other children of her own and no place to go, Ms. Lester had no choice –this 14 year-old would have to leave.
So Keith was placed in a group home, not always an optimal environment, but there he seemed to thrive. Working with an in-house therapeutic team, he received counseling and support and his behavior improved almost immediately. He began mentoring younger kids and showing real leadership. School attendance improved dramatically, discipline referrals decreased, and he brought his grades up.
Things were moving ahead for Keith. Keith stayed with the program and his team was planning to successfully discharge him from the group home during the winter to live with his sister. But at the last moment, she decided that she could not care for him. Upset that he had to stay at the group home longer than he wanted to, Keith showed real maturity. Instead of falling back into bad choices and habits, he kept his head up and persevered.
This spring, Keith successfully graduated from Youth Treatment Court and was terminated from probation. At the graduation ceremony, everyone was moved by the progress he had made. Judges, the team and family members spoke glowingly of his efforts and the potential of this young man. Colleen spoke as well about how most kids would have given up but Keith persevered and was willing to trust. In her words, “He deserves every accolade he gets.” At the end of the ceremony, Colleen presented him with a Kindle to help him continue to pursue his love of reading.
Over time, trust developed between Colleen and Keith as he began to see and understand her as his advocate and was able to confide in her. He continues to contact her today when he needs advice or feels vulnerable. The temptations and challenges he faced in his past have not changed, but Keith has and our hopes for him are that he stays strong and knows folks like Colleen are there for him.
While people assume he wants to play basketball because of his height, Keith says he wants to grow up to help the homeless or help others because he sees how hard life can be and he wants to give back.