Domestic violence is a difficult topic. It batters people in so many ways. We mostly focus on the victims, rarely the perpetrators. Sometimes, though, it might do us good to shift our points of view. Particularly when the perpetrator in question is. Only eighteen years old at the time of the crime.
Should a single series of bad decisions made by a child cast a shadow over an entire life?
We at Turning Leaf don’t think so.
Meet Tyler, who was once a teenage boy who made a series of mistakes that had drastic repercussions. This is his story.
* * * *
“I was bad,” says Tyler with a laugh when speaking about his childhood. He’s now 22-years-old but sounds older when you listen to him. He sounds like someone who’s seen a lot. Probably because he has.
Bad, in Tyler’s case, mostly meant getting in fights at school. He always dealt with anger by using his fists. Part of it was that no one ever showed him any other way. “Everyone hid things from me,” he says. “No one told me how to feel or act in certain situations. I always had to go with it, and anger was my main go-to.”
“My mama already had her hands full with my brother. She had too much to handle. So she shipped me off to live with my grandma,” he says.
When things got to be too much for his grandma, he was shipped back off to his mama. Then back to his grandma. Tyler’s granddaddy was his only rock. His best role-model. “He was like my dad,” he says. “He’d be the one to tell me what to do. Calm me. He taught me things like how to cut grass and work on cars. That’s when I was actually happy.” His granddaddy died, though, when Tyler was only thirteen.
His actual dad was available but not present. He was always working. “Any time I needed him I could call him,” he says. “But he wasn’t physically around. Yeah, I can hear you, but I can’t physically walk up to you and be like, ‘Can you help me with this?’”
Life went on with Tyler ping-ponging between his mama and his grandma, changing schools and starting over far too often. “I was always good at making friends,” he says. “But I didn’t like starting over. And with the back and forth, I started of feel like nobody wanted me. They were always pushing me off on someone else.”
When Tyler reached high school, his dad came and brought the rebellious boy to live with him. His dad set a better example. “In him, I could see for my own eyes how a man is supposed to carry himself,” he says. Change, though, is difficult, and by then, Tyler was already set in his ways. Fighting, making his own path. Doing what he needed to do to get by, including getting into the street lifestyle.
“My parents were always telling me to work hard,” he says. “But then I see my cousins selling drugs. They were driving nice cars and I think, I want that.” He started selling drugs at 18. He liked the ease of it, the way he didn’t have to work for his money. Sometimes he’d get a job, mainly to make his parents happy, but he’d only keep it for a week or two, get a paycheck, and then he’d quit. A ticket from the police for possession of marijuana wasn’t anywhere near enough to make him change.
And in the end, anyway, it wasn’t drugs that put Tyler in prison. It was his old go-to: anger. Violence.
A huge part of it was the stress of becoming a father. Tyler’s girlfriend got pregnant. Any parent knows the feelings surrounding having a baby: the intense joy, but also the fear, the abject terror, of suddenly being responsible for a whole new life. “When he was born,” says Tyler. “I can’t even describe it. The first time I held him…it was a good feeling.”
Tyler tried to turn things around for his new little man. He stopped selling drugs and got a job. “I told myself I didn’t need to be doing this when I have someone to take care of.” The changes only lasted a month or two, and the teenage passions of Tyler and the baby’s mother buckled under the strain.
Then, an argument with his own mama in the front yard got loud. A neighbor came out to intervene. “I took my anger out on him,” says Tyler. He spent a week in jail before bonding out, but after that, he says, “the charges just built up on me.”
The baby’s mother put a restraining order on Tyler after he got out of jail. She was afraid for her safety and that of her son. “It messed with my head,” he says. “How can I see my son? He’s right down the street and I can’t see him. I pass the neighborhood and I can’t see him.”
And this is the part where I remind you: Tyler was only 18 years old. A child with a child of his own.
He resorted, again, to his old friends: anger. Violence.
“It was never physical,” he says. “I never put my hands on a female.” But the violence, the anger, came out through threatening phone calls. Voicemails. Text messages. He wanted to see his son, and the baby’s mother was standing in his way. He did what he thought he had to do.
Of course, we know: it wasn’t the right thing to do. But Tyler couldn’t see any other way. He wound up with a charge for criminal domestic violence and was sentenced to three years in prison. In the end, it was a good thing. “It was good to get time away from a lot of stuff,” he says. “I could sit back and reflect on things.”
That’s not to say it was easy, though. His son was only six months old when he went in. Tyler missed all the firsts: first Christmas, first birthday, first steps, first words. There were no visits. He wasn’t even allowed to send letters. The one he tried to send got him in trouble, so he resorted to writing letters, reading them, then throwing them away.
Today, Tyler is a young adult with a felony on his record. He’s come to Turning Leaf to learn a different way. A better way. “It’s the life skills I need,” he says. “Growing up, I didn’t learn a lot of those skills. My parents didn’t talk about things to me. I never saw arguments. I had no idea how to deal with stuff. So I used to shut down, and let that shit eat me up inside. Now I’m learning how to communicate.” In short: he’s growing up and learning how to deal without resorting to his old playbook.
His main goal now is to work on gaining visitation with his son. “I want to have a good relationship with him,” he says. “I want to let him know he has somebody who cares about him. I want to teach him the stuff I had to learn on my own so he’ll know how to deal with it. So he won’t be running around lost.”
* * * *
So he won’t be running around lost. Let that sink in.
Tyler was lost.
So, too, I’m sure, are many of the people in the world who try to solve problems with violence. So often, they simply need to be found.
Tyler, we’re so glad you came to Turning Leaf to find yourself and your voice. We are here with you and for you and we know you’ll succeed in making the most of your second chance.
The majority of men who come through Turning Leaf are older. We see men in their thirties, forties, and even fifties. They’ve been on the streets for decades, in and out of prison for just as long. It can take years – a lifetime, even – to decide to change, to get off the streets and away from the lifestyle.
This week we’ll meet someone different. His whole life has been rough. Complicated. An unrelenting challenge. And today, at the ripe old age of 19-years-old, he’s already had enough. He wants a better future, and he’s finding it at Turning Leaf.
This is Rome’s story.
* * * *
Rome spent his childhood in Charleston and Virginia. They spent few years here, a few years there, as his mother sought employment that would support Rome and his two brothers. A middle child, Rome was an imaginative kid, which may have helped him cope with the curveballs life continually lobbed his way. He never met or even spoke to his father, who’s been in prison for the entirety of Rome’s life.
Bouncing between states wasn’t the worst part. “We were basically homeless for parts of my childhood,” he says. They stayed in homeless shelters for months at a time. His granny was in the picture and sometimes they stayed with her, but relationships between mothers and daughters can be fraught, so sometimes his mother took her boys and set out on her own.
Rome always remembers stealing things. “Granny would be running me through the store in my stroller,” he says. “And I’d take candy and stuff. She didn’t know.” And since she didn’t know, she never told him not to do it.
By middle school, instability took its toll. Rome was placed in special education classes for students with learning disabilities, a tough label for a kid who just wants to fit in. “I wanted to make a name for myself,” he says. “I wanted people to envy me and like me.” To make that name, he turned to the street life, getting in fights and stealing items bigger than candy bars. At thirteen, he was arrested for second degree burglary and running away. He spent two months in a detention center and 45 days in an evaluation center. After that, DSS intervened when his auntie reported that Rome and his brothers weren’t being cared for by their mama, and he was sent to a group home.
“It was horrible. Like prison,” he says. The staff sometimes teamed up with children who picked on Rome, adding their voices to the fray. He learned there to try to laugh, to keep smiling, as a way to deflect further confrontation. But he never turned away from a fight, either. He still wanted to make that name for himself.
Rome was in the group home for around 14 months before he was able to return to his mama in Charleston. There, he found more trouble on the streets. He was selling weed, usually armed, and definitely in the wrong crowd.
On the night of Rome’s seventeenth birthday, he and his homeboy were chilling together when some guys called, wanting to buy weed. They walked over to meet the guys. Rome’s friend pulled out his stash, and one of the guys said, “That’s all you got?” Rome pulled out his as well. “Then, the dude tried to punch me or something,” he says. “The other dude grabbed my homeboy and tackled him. He was in motion, tackling him to the ground, and I already pulled out my gun and starting shooting.”
As you might expect, the situation only escalated. “I was mad,” he says. “They stole my weed. I was trying to get some change so I could get a haircut. I wasn’t nervous or anything. They didn’t have a gun, until they took one off my homeboy.”
“My homeboy was on the ground with one of the dudes. The other was in the corner shooting at me. I shot the dude on the ground three times, then shot the other dude. At that point, I was scared. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t run and leave my homeboy.”
The girlfriend of one of the guys came out and said she was going to call the cops. “I wanted to be like, ‘Call them! Call them,’” says Rome. “But I wasn’t able to. Because then the dude pointed the gun at my homeboy’s head and told me to stop shooting. So I did. He got up, my homeboy got up, and we ran.”
Rome stopped home long enough to grab some clothes and a bag of stuff. The police arrived at his house pretty quickly, but Rome was already gone. He was on the run. He slept in cars for the next three nights, hiding out during the day. “The police got tired of looking for me so they called in the U.S. Marshals. It was kind of exciting. I mean, I got them. They couldn’t find me.”
Rome was planning on turning himself in eventually, thinking that he’d shot the other guys in self-defense, but the Marshals found him first. They hauled him off to county, where he awaited trial on two counts of attempted murder and the commission of a violent crime with a deadly. He spent eight months in county, then took a plea deal to assault and battery in the first degree and a simple marijuana possession charge. The judge took his age into account, and he was sent to Turbeville Correctional Institution for a year and a half.
In prison, the teenage boy first tried the same tack that he’d been using to get through life on the outside: he fought everyone and anyone, trying to make a name for himself. But something sort of amazing happened there – some older guys took him under their wing. “People were giving me good advice,” he says. “I read a lot of books, and some of the guys stepped up and were like a replacement for my dad. They taught me how to be a man.”
Their best advice? “The streets aren’t fun,” he says. “The streets don’t love no one. At the end of the day, you have to get out of the streets somehow.”
Even though he was young – still a teenager – he listened. He learned. He saw the men around him who were facing ten, twenty, thirty-year sentences, and he knew he didn’t want to be one of them.
When Rome got out, everything felt different. “People were beefing, but I’m not trying to have anything to do with that,” he says. His mama’s friend told them about Turning Leaf, and his mama made the call with Rome sitting by her side. At 18-years-old, he became one of the youngest students ever to join the program.
“I feel comfortable there,” he says of working and learning among much older men. “Sometimes the classes are boring. I sort of already know some of the stuff. A lot of situations in my life, I could’ve flipped out but I didn’t. I’m humble.” Still, he knows the time he spends there is incredibly valuable.
Rome is very quiet and is using his time at Turning Leaf to learn how to communicate more effectively. He is spending a lot of time these days doing deep thinking about life and spirituality. His world view has broadened.
Now, his future feels brighter. Anything is possible. “I want to have my own spot for me and my girl,” he says. “I want my own car. Maybe my own business someday. I want to be able to support my family.”
* * * *
Rome, you may be one of our youngest students ever, but you’re certainly proving yourself wise beyond your years. Life has thrown you curveballs but you’re still at the plate, and we couldn’t be more proud of you.
Communities often address crime through a cycle of prison time and release. This cycle leads them back to old habits, separated from their families and a drain on tax payer dollars. That is why The Turning Leaf Project (TLP) exists—to work with individuals who cycle in and out of the criminal justice system in order to provide the structure needed after release from jail.
The TLP was founded by Amy Barch, 36, founder and director, who has had a passion for working with incarcerated folk since her 20s.
“I became very interested in why people commit crimes and how we can effectively respond to that behavior as a community,” Barch said.
When Barch moved to Charleston in 2010 she was unable to find any meaningful volunteer opportunities in the field of reentry and rehabilitation for the incarcerated population. This led to her approaching the jail to teach classes in the evenings a few times a week.