By Edward M. Panzica PA
In my thirty years practicing law I’ve been the attorney of record
on at least 2,500 dependency cases, and I have been attorney of record on at
least twice as many criminal cases.
There is nothing groundbreaking in suggesting that bad childhoods result
in crime and criminal behavior. The
analysis is elementary. Poverty leads to
drugs, and vice versa, both result in crime, and the presence of either make
good parenting nearly impossible, bad parenting leads to neglected children,
who are more likely to grow up impoverished, and then turn to drugs, and then commit
crimes. Then these children have more children and…you see where I’m going
here. To suggest it is a cycle is a
cliché, of course. But occasionally, I
come across a case that reminds me I represent real people with real stories,
not clichés or tropes, and I am reminded that the cycle is real.
Federal sentencing guidelines don't include family circumstances.
wrapped up a case with young man who was being held on some Federal
charges. The specifics of the charges
are not relevant, suffice to say it was not a violent crime, but it was
punishable by up to 10 years in Federal Prison, and my client (I’ll call him
Freddie) had enough (mostly) drug charges convictions to run up his potential
Federal Guideline range to every bit of that 10 years. He was caught red-handed and fully confessed (on
tape) long before I started representing him.
It wasn’t a question of whether he was getting time, it was how much,
and my representation needed mitigating circumstances to argue for less time
behind bars. Freddie was only 26 years
old but had already served more than 6 years in 2 different state prison
stints. He was very street, but clearly
bright and engaging. When I asked him
about his background he began weaving a story that was so improbable it had my
eyes rolling. Surely, I thought, he was
lying, or at least exaggerating. During
my representation, I called his old dependency case workers and subpoenaed
every record available, and learned Freddie exaggerated nothing.
Records from Michigan’s
version of Child protection Services and interviews with his last
clinical/case-managers, as well as members of his family confirm the Freddie’s
personal history constitutes nearly a worst-case example of an American child
born into abuse and neglect, and reads like a hackneyed, pulp-fiction depiction
of the horrors of foster care system and the poverty cycle. The following are some of the “highlights of
The family background does matter.
Freddie was born in Michigan, the 5th of 6 children
born to a mother whose own life was defined by abuse and addiction. There is no indication at all that Freddie’s
mother was ever able to provide the him or his siblings with a stable home, and
she had an extensive history with the child protection teams and child
dependency courts her own state that included the following details:
- Before Freddie’s biological parent’s rights were terminated they
had their children removed at least 8 times for a variety of reasons, including
gross neglect, severe physical abuse, substance abuse, sexual abuse, and
- The family’s first child removal was before the Freddie was
born. The cause for removal was the
mother leaving her two small boys in a running automobile in enclosed area (The
family had been evicted and was living in the car) The Freddie’s brother (I’ll
call him Scott) remembers the incident, although he was only 5-years-old. Scott was rescued by a fireman and survived.
Freddie’s other brother (Jimmy) was not as fortunate and died in the car from
the carbon monoxide poisoning. Jimmy was
four years old. The mother was not
charged criminally, and she was brought through the dependency system and
completed a case plan well enough to have her children returned to her – and
she wasn’t done having children.
- One of the Freddie’s first memories is the local police raiding
the family apartment, with guns drawn and shots fired. The reason for the raid was to execute a
warrant for the arrest the Freddie’s father – wanted for raping one of the
Freddie’s older sisters. Freddie’s father
was eventually convicted of a first-degree sexual offense and sentenced to 20-30
years in prison. An appellate court
decision concerning this case that pointed out this incident was only one of
many dozens of examples where child protection teams were called to investigate
the family, and specifically noted the climate of fear that pervaded the home.
- After Freddie’s biological father was removed from the scene, the
family’s poverty only increased. Mom was
rarely employed and neither the Freddie nor his brothers remember living in one
spot more than a few months. On more
than one occasion the entire family was forced again to live in the family
automobile, sometimes for extended periods of time. The records confirm the 6-member family was
once sheltered when they were found all living out of a station wagon. The date of the shelter was December 24. Merry Christmas.
- When Freddie was 6 years old, he witnessed a murder in the
apartment he was living at the time. At the time of the murder, he was being
babysat by his older sister Lisa. He remembers his sister’s old boyfriend
shooting her new boyfriend in the head and seeing the brain matter being
splattered on his toy, a stuffed raptor dinosaur. He also recalls the police
descending on the apartment along with Child Protection, which resulted in yet another
removal from his mother’s custody.
- Many of the Freddie’s stories of abuse, confirmed by his family
members, involve one of his mother’s paramours (I’ll call him Sonny). The family members unanimously confirm Sonny
was “mean biker” with sadistic tendencies who would beat the children when he
got drunk. Sonny bred dogs for fighting and
once punished the Freddie by forcing the dog to bite him on his arm, which
accounts for scars on his face and left bicep.
Freddie’s brother, Scott, recalled a story where Sonny “taught” him not
to eat food without permission by locking him in a room with a large, angry
Rottweiler for nearly 12 hours. Freddie also recalls Sonny inviting his biker
friends over, where they would disappear into his older sister’s bedroom.
Does the system for child services work?
The Department of Child Services
did not get around to terminating Freddie’s parent’s rights until he was eleven
years old, and it took another three years for a new family to adopt him. While the adoption was pending, Freddie was
offered the choice to keep his birth name or assume a new name. The Freddie
quickly chose to abandon the name of his rapist birth father, and he changed
his name, both first and last.
are clear that at the time of his adoption, Freddie had already been diagnosed
as bi-polar. He was treated with
medication for his illness, with some success, but did not do well staying on
his medication. At the age of 17, the
Freddie ran away from his adoptive family in Michigan and moved to
Florida. Since that time, and at no
point in his adult life, has Freddie been prescribed or taken any medication
for his diagnosed mental illness.
not remember a time when his life was not full of alcohol and illicit drugs,
and the juvenile records available more than bear that out. Except for his brother, Scott, every member
of his family used and/or sold drugs and alcohol, including his birth mother
and father. When his birth father went to prison, his mother’s paramours sold
drugs out of his home daily. His first
alcohol sampling was when Sonny forced him to drink a cup of vodka. It was in a
Burger King cup.
away from his adoptive family at the age of 17, and moved down to the Tampa Bay
area, where he briefly lived with his brother Scott. When he could avoid excessive drug use, he
began to thrive. At 18, he bullshitted is way into a job as an assistant
manager of Mexican restaurant, where he learned to do payroll, pay taxes, file
w-2s, keep the books, and even make Mexican food. It wasn’t long, though, that drug
use cost him both his home with Scott and his job. The next ten years found him largely homeless
and often in trouble with the law.
Freddie cannot remember an incident where he broke the law that was not
directly related to being impaired, or being in search of a drug that could
track of his family until this latest arrest.
Except for Scott (who has a wife, three children, a stable automotive
job, and will soon achieve an engineering degree) all the Freddie’s siblings
have had life experiences like Freddie’s.
Two of his older sisters have both battled substance abuse and
occasionally worked in the sex industry, as did another sister, who apparently
died very recently from an overdose. She was 29 years old. Freddie’s younger brother also ran away from
his adoptive home and has a criminal record substance abuse issues. He can currently be on YouTube plying his
skills as a cage fighter. Six children
born into poverty and abuse, five of them ended up dead or incarcerated by age
If you think
Freddie was just a bad seed, think again.
Before the drugs took hold, he was an A student. He is a talented artist and musician who
showed me he could do complicated math problems in his head. During one of his prison stints he got
certified as an auto mechanic, during another he got certified as an
electrician. On his own he taught
himself to speak Spanish, because he thought it would be helpful on the
street. Freddie is not a sociopath. He knows his life is screwed up, and mostly
Research indicates there is a connection between family and crime
plenty of research to back up my obvious premise – lousy childhood = criminal
behavior, in one such study the authors found child abuse may double the
probability that the abused child grows up and engages in criminal
Paper No. 12171
authors Janet Currie and Erdal Teki)
Other research suggests chaotic families causes social withdrawal, which
in turn leads to criminal behavior.
There is data available that witnessing domestic abuse leads to patterns
of more abuse (both for victims and perpetrators). Other studies have been able to compare
identical twins separated in infancy that indicate (surprise!) the twins that
grow up disadvantaged tend to accumulate worse criminal records than the ones
adopted into functional homes.
So where does all this research get us? Damned if I know. Identifying problems are the easy part. Suggested answers abound , starting with
pre-birth counseling and contraception, pre-natal care, expanded social
programs, overhauling our child welfare and foster care systems. Another school of thought insists throwing
money at poverty is ineffective and even counter-productive. and fails address
the “root cause” of decaying moral fiber and loss of religious faith. Like I say, damned if I know. I had a young man who needed a reason for a
judge to go below guidelines, not begin a social debate. So I gave it a shot.
Consideration for marriage, family, and life.
So how did it work out for Freddie? Well, the judge read my sentencing memorandum
with attachments and noted Freddie had it tough, she also noted he had a comically
shitty childhood, as well as untreated addictions and mental health issues, she
even, on behalf of our society, apologized for what he had been through. Faced with the algorithm of the Federal
Guidelines, she even gave him a break.
Then she gave him six years of incarceration
actually OK with the sentence, considering the guidelines and how much time he
could have received - and there are some things in the works that may allow us
to get the sentence reduced in the near future.
It didn’t feel like a win for me, and it certainly wasn’t a win for
society. Freddie committed the crime,
and he is paying for it - and I suppose
he has done wrong by society, but not before society did wrong by Freddie.
Experienced attorney makes a difference in defending against criminal charges.
Contact us if you need help.
- Root Causes of Crime
- Distruction of the Family Unit