The Family Unit & Serious Crime.

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  • 28 Aug, 2017
Crime related to family, marriage, and community.

Is there a connection between crime, the family, marriage, and community?

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.

                I recently 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 Freddie’s story.

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 homelessness.
  • 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.

                The records 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.

                Freddie does 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.

                Freddie ran 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 impair him.

                Freddie lost 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 30.

                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 blames himself.

Research indicates there is a connection between family and crime .                

   There is 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 behavior. (see   NBER Working 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

                Freddie was 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  - 



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