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Were They Acting or Reacting?

19 · Nov · 2005

The other day I was talking with one of the investigators where I work and she was telling me the crazy cruel things people do with their kids when they are trying to steal from department stores. There was a trend back when she worked at Sears that consisted of a parent teaching their kid to steal shopping bags from behind the register, walking the store, filling the bag up and then handing the bag to the kid as they walked out the door. When security or the police chased them, the parent would most often drive away, leaving the kid who couldn’t run fast enough.

If the stolen merch was really valuable or the parents had a history of major theft, (meaning there would be significant jail time involved) the parent never came back. The kids usually ended up at a temporary state facility and then on to foster care.

I was thinking what you are probably thinking now. Who are these people that they care so little for their own flesh and blood? Who treats their child this way? And what happens to these kids?

I had this friend in middle school…. Actually, I had several friends in middle school who had parents like this. My class from Rogers Middle School would have a sparsely attended reunion unless we included tours of the state prison and local graveyards. If you think I’m kidding, I just looked up ten of my favorite troublemaker friends from that era online and six of them show up in the Oklahoma State prison database.

Anyway, there was this one guy we called “Little James” who lived in the apartments near my neighborhood. Little James was younger, shorter and less remorseful than the other kids in our group. The older James, his friend and one of my ex-boyfriends, was forever trying to keep the younger James out of trouble, but it seemed that Little James went looking for it, as if he had no common sense, or possibly no adult who ever tried to steer him clear of fighting, stealing and general meanness.

My mother never paid much attention to how scraggly or mischivious a kid looked when he or she showed up at our front door back then. Most often I would sit on the front porch talking to whoever of my friends happened to walk by on their way between those apartments and the elementary school playground at the other edge of my neighborhood. But sometimes, my mother would insist of inviting them in and giving them a glass of iced tea while sat in our living room. I remember on more than one occasion being wary of leaving Little James alone in that room for fear that he might steal something from us.

There were a few times when I ventured into the apartment complex where many of these rougher friends lived, but it was always a brief visit and I was going against my parents rule to stay away from there. Once I went with my friend Stacey, who lived there but had run away from home days before, sleeping over at my house until I told my mom and she made Stacey go back to apologize. She didn’t actually go to her mom’s apartment, but instead we went to ask a neighbor in the complex if Stacey could stay with her. I was only in the small building under a minute when the combined stench of unwashed clothes and the roaches crawling the sunlit walls made me realize one good reason why most of the kids who lived there rarely wanted to hang out at home. Aside from the gloominess and safety issues of the area, I also never met the parents of any of these kids like James and Stacey who my teachers often said only knew how to “act like a fool to get attention”. The concept of getting in trouble just to get an adult to pay attention to me didn’t wash since I was busy acting happy and interested in poetry and politics which I felt gained me a sufficient amount of attention as well.

I ended up attending a different school district for high school and lost touch with pretty much all the troubled kids I knew. I ran into some of them over the years and no one was surprised when one by one they dropped out of school or ended up in juvenile detention centers. My sophomore year of high school, though I hadn’t talked to Little James in a couple of years, I wrote a poem about him for an English class assignment. After my teacher had me read it in front of the class, she asked me if this was a real person or someone I made up.

My brother and sister and I sometimes run through our lists of whatever happened to so and so on those rare occasions when we’re all home for the holidays. We got into the habit of saying aloud with a defeated shrug that most of them were probably in jail. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I stumbled upon a website that allowed, at least my brother and I to confirm that our suspicions were mostly accurate. My concern about Little James stealing a trinket from our bookshelves is nothing now that I see that he is one of the many people on Oklahoma's Death Row.

I have no doubt there are plenty of career criminals out there who will swear they had great parents, but from what I’ve experienced, an absent or apathetic parent can turn a kids mind into a cesspool of self loathing and destructive plans as easily as a parent who hands their kid a shopping bag full of stolen merchandise and instructs them to outrun a security guard or be left behind forever.
Right after high school when I worked at a daycare I met more than a few four year old who were already mimicking some pretty insane behavior they surely learned at home. I hated their parents who were so careless and cruel, but I also hated the school of thought that says a person has a right to purposefully teach their child to hate and abuse others but fines or imprisons the owner of a pit bull who fails to control their dog that is taught to maim on command. It’s a strange society who turns away from a parent smacking around their teenager because it’s “none of our business” while we would call the police without remorse on a neighbor who doesn’t leave their pet enough water outside on a hot summer day.

If you stop and think about it, the answer to the question “Who are these people who do such horrible things that turn their children into thieves, abusers, addicts and killers, I guess a lot of times the answer could be that these are our neighbors, co-workers and friends. I want to believe that I don’t have any friends like that but that would be pretty naive and downright stupid. My parents probably thought they didn’t have any friends who neglected their kids cries for help too, but we now know that’s not true.
I don’t know exactly what the thing to do is when I see an innocent kid being led into a life of angry crime. But I know that pretending it isn’t happening doesn’t help anyone at all. Imagine if we treated parents who verbally abuse their kids the same way we treated parents who beat their kids. I’m not even talking about jail time for crappy parents; I’m talking about shunning that parent and boldly saying, ‘I don’t want to be friends with someone who abuses a child. It’s cruel.” Or what about having the guts to remark to a workaholic friend that he is cheating his/her kids by starving them of their precious time? If one person says it, the abuser can blow it off. If everyone notices and shuns the abuser, society might get the picture that being a mean or neglectful parent is NOT okay.

Maybe I’m just a meddler who should mind her own business. I wonder if that’s what all my friends were thinking when we were kids. “ I wish everyone would leave me alone. I like not having a safe place to sleep and it’s no big deal that my mom doesn’t want me around.”
Yeah, I mean, I’m sure if you asked any of the people I knew in middle school whom I now can find in the OK State Dept. of Corrections database they wouldn’t have a clue why they “acted like fools”.

Posted by Penny Rene at 10:06 PM