Saturday, April 5, 2008

"I ain't no criminal no more!" [Dan, UHW staff]

It was about 5 years ago when I first met Amanda. We were just finishing the renovation on the house next door to where her mother lived. Her mother was taking care of Amanda’s children and we were seeing lots of them because they were curious about what was happening at the ‘crackhouse’ next door.

As we were finishing up this lower-unit apartment the kids were encouraging Amanda to see about renting it. She was in need of housing because she was finishing up a residential treatment program for using crack cocaine. Her addiction led her to prostitution and assault with a deadly weapon in order to support her habit. The treatment program she was leaving was the courts recommendation since she was a first-time offender. It was intended to ‘get her attention’ and keep her away from jail time.

The treatment program did, in fact, get her attention and she came out with renewed hope about a life with her children. Urban Homeworks did rent her the apartment, though many of the details of her history were not fully known at that time. It appeared to be a workable setup- having Amanda’s mother next door to help with the kids made it possible for Amanda to pursue work as a residential house cleaner.

Before long, however, the company that Amanda was working with hit financial trouble and had to close their doors. Amanda was now an unemployed, single mother with a criminal record. Despite having a good work history and a letter of recommendation from her supervisor, Amanda could not get a job. Each time she was apply and things would seem favorable, but quickly turned into disappointment with the employer ran a background check. Cleaning companies were not going to hire someone with a drug history and an assault charge to clean homes for elderly or disabled people.

Amanda lost hope. She was falling into financial trouble and she felt powerless
to do anything about her circumstances. Although it would seem that having the
support of her mother next door would be a help-that too was a heaping on of disappointment and hopelessness. Much of Amanda’s drug history was rooted in her mother’s house and when she fell into despair, her mother offered her an ‘escape’ to ease the pain.

Amanda’s started using again. She found herself back in drug court and back in front of the same judge explaining what had happened to her in the last two years. I went with her and asked the judge if he would consider another residential treatment program if we agreed to help her maintain her housing while she was away. The judge agreed, Amanda went away and came back a new woman. She had renewed her vows of recovery and starting attending Narcotics Anonymous support a couple times each week.

It was about a year after this that she told me she was moving. She discovered that the temptation to use drugs was tied, in part, to her location in the neighborhood. Too many people that she had used drugs with were still attempting to draw her into the old habits.

Amanda did move and called me her ‘advocate.’ She said that as her advocate I would need to “call her every once in a while and ask how I’m doin.’” If I let too much time pass between calls, she would call me and tell me how she was
doing and scold me for not calling enough. Another responsibility of mine as
Amanda’s advocate was to write her letters of support to show to employers.
She continued to apply for jobs in cleaning or cooking but was running into the same old challenges.

On February 14, 2008, I got a call from Amanda and a request for a letter of support. She was going back to court, but this time she was attempting to have her criminal history expunged. According to an information page on criminal expungement, “While it is easier to expunge a dismissed case than a conviction case, no one can accurately predict how a judge will decide your request for expungement.” Amanda charges were not dismissed and she had a second
appearance in drug court that did not look favorable for her. Despite my
doubts about her success at having her criminal record expunged, I knew that she was maintaining her recovery and was a good mom, so I performed my duties as her advocate.

I received a phone call from Amanda on February 26, 2008. In fact I received about 10 calls, but was unable to answer them since I was working with volunteers that morning. On my way back to the office I called her. She must have seen my number on the caller ID because she didn’t even say ‘hello’ when
she answered. She began reading something. Between her excitement and the
fact that she was talking incredibly loud I couldn’t make out everything that she said, but I heard, “February 25…courtroom 319…presided over by judge Herron…commenced hereof…criminal record hereby…EXPUNGED!!!

She laughed and wailed on the other end of the phone and yelled, “I ain’t a criminal no more, Dan!” I told her how proud of her I was and that although I wasn’t sure how that court appointment would turn out, I was overjoyed for her.
She told me that she felt sure that she could get a job now and that she wouldn’t have to feel so bad when she turned in her application. She didn’t say this, but I got a picture of her and the weight of past being lifted. Her identity had been shaped by the presence of one word- criminal. When she received that letter, every other word on that page erased that criminal identity she had assumed. Every word on that court document served to strip the lie that she was a criminal who could not be trusted. Details like the courtroom number, presiding judge and even the court reporters name was cause for celebration because Amanda felt reborn.

She celebrated that afternoon by having a BBQ. She cooked everything she knew how on that little backyard grill and as the aroma of her celebration wafted through doors and windows, down streets and alleys, everyone would know that Amanda was free.