Susan was a crack addict and prostitute whose life was saved by Jesus Christ. That’s what she would say when you met her; she had no compunction about sharing details of her sordid past because the Lord cleansed those sins from her.
Christ may have removed the sins but he left much of Susan otherwise unchanged after she got clean; at 35, she looked at least a decade older, her graying hair matched by a haggard expression—all testimony to her many years on the Philadelphia streets. She still had a hot temper and a foul mouth lacing sentences with old addict slang and obscenities when provoked. Her street name—“Light Skin Susan”—came from her high-yellow tone; in North Philly’s black community complexion remains a salient characteristic, leftover from the old days when blacks with light skins were seated in the front pews in church, a symbol of status. But Susan had chosen, or been compelled, to live in a state far removed from status and other social niceties. She retained more than a touch of the profane, putting off many of the church ladies she now worshiped with.
As her social worker, I thought Susan's hard-earned earthiness was devilishly funny, but a coworker—and a North Philly church lady herself—thought that it was high time Susan left the devil alone and started acting her age. She was prone to flirtatiousness that arguably pushed the bounds of Christian propriety. But I found the flirtations mostly harmless, and if Susan got sassy there was usually another church lady around who was quick to chide her.
Susan’s addictions had driven her to crimes more harmful than tricking; she stole cars and even got entangled in a bank heist that went bad. Convicted of armed robbery, she did five years in prison. She was no stranger to jail cells, having been in and out of Bucks County Correctional Facility north of Philadelphia on drug charges over the years. At the time Susan got booked on the bank heist she was living in Bristol, a small town outside Trenton, NJ, across the Delaware River from Philly. Home to poor blacks and working-class whites, outlaw bikers, dealers who cook meth in their kitchens, Bristol is tough stuff for the suburbs.
But Susan fit right in Bristol's roughneck scene. She shared a house with her alcoholic mother who, at the august age of 61, improbably added cocaine to her addictions. When Susan went to jail, her mother got custody of Susan's three children. Grandmom partied for days, openly snorting lines of coke with men half her age in front of the kids. Susan knew that her mother was unfit to have her children, but she didn’t want to roll the dice with the foster care system where she had good reason to fear that they would be mistreated or abused. The children fared only slightly better with Grandmom, who took the extra welfare money from the state and spent it on booze and coke.
When Susan was released from jail—after having simultaneously got religion and kicked crack—she vowed to get her children back. She said the Lord would see it through.
AA is marginalized in poor black communities because it isn't allied with the all-powerful black church. "Sharing" your dirty laundry is anathema. A North Philly church lady told me, “If you got problems you just go to church on Sunday and scream your head off and then everything’s fine."
Even with God at her back, her road back to mainstream society was bumpier than she had ever imagined—and they weren't just speed bumps. There are city agencies tasked with “easing the transition” from inside to outside the wire, but in reality most ex-cons are left entirely to their own devices—even when it comes to the bare necessities like finding a job and a place to live. Susan’s felony conviction for armed robbery closed the doors even to low-wage jobs and cheap apartments. The path of least resistance for most offenders hitting the streets fresh from jail and without a dime to their name is, of course, to go right back into the drug market, engaging in the same hustles that landed them behind bars in the first place.
Even though she was penniless and homeless, Susan was determined not to follow this path. She had been saved, and had every intention of forever living in the light of the Lord. The sole source of hope in Susan’s life was her church—an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) house of worship in North Philadelphia that she began attending as soon as she got free. The church came through for her at first; after proving her sincerity, she was given a job there—as a janitor paid meager wages to clean the big, old building—and a fellow parishioner rented her a room in his apartment. She held to her belief that the Lord was opening doors for her, even if just a crack.
Susan’s life got more complicated when her eldest daughter, Ashley, showed up on her doorstep, right off the bus from Bristol. When Ashley turned 18 and her welfare money stopped, her grandmother kicked her out of the house. Grandmom told Ashley to go be her mother's burden now, no matter that the girl was six months’ pregnant. Ashley crashed on a couch in Susan’s small room in Northy Philly.
Another complication was that Susan's host sexually harassed Susan from the moment she moved in. He groped her repeatedly while they were alone together in the apartment and tried to crawl into bed with her at night. Not even the presence of Susan’s pregnant daughter asleep in the same room deterred him.
This was the situation when I first met Susan, barely back on her feet a year after leaving prison. I worked at an agency that provided housing for homeless families. Susan came there hoping to find an apartment that would give her a base of stability from which to get her life back together. She told me eagerly about her plan to petition for custody of her children as soon as she had saved enough money to get a bigger place where the family could be reunited. If we didn’t help her, she said, she would have to go to the homeless shelter, where the women smoke crack, her drug of choice. She was desperate not to lose her clean time.
Susan’s case looked tough but she had a lot going for her. In the year she had been out of jail she hadn’t relapsed or reoffended. Her income was nominal but she worked hard for it. Susan’s church believed in her, and in resource-starved African-American communities like North Philly, the power of the AME (and other churches) is almost total.
The minister at Susan’s church was a tiny woman of advanced age and outsized presence; her eyes shone fiercely bright and clear, and her voice was still strong enough to fill the sanctuary to the rafters during services. There have always been women like Susan around the reverend, hanging on her every word and attending to her needs. Ex-convicts, former prostitutes, recovering addicts—they gravitate toward her aura of faith that conveys a sense of safe harbor and the hope for grace. There are also the working mothers dropping by on their lunch breaks and the neighborhood men, those hulking pillars of community stability, who come with them to get a noonday dose of strength that keeps their days full of lightness and their spirits high.
Susan said she knew the joy of being filled with the Holy Spirit when she attended services several times a week. She said she knew that her faith would see her through, that faith coupled with works works miracles. Convinced that Susan was a solid prospect, the agency funded a small apartment, and Susan soon moved in, along with Ashley and Ashley’s newborn baby.
Yet Susan was more than a devoted member of the flock; she was wholly reliant on the church for social, spiritual and financial support. As strong as this single-minded devotion and dependence may have appeared to Susan, I knew that putting all her eggs in one basked was a very risky proposition. I had seen such apparently solid arrangements melt into air, leaving my clients with no recourse, nothing. So I counseled Susan to build networks of support outside the church. In particular, I asked her if she was interested in professional counseling or 12-step recovery groups. But she rejected both out of hand, saying that she would get what she needed from the church.
This attitude is fairly common among African-Americans addicts in poor neighborhoods in most large US cities; ironically, while the biggest complaint about AA and NA among skeptical middle-class white addicts is the dependence on a Higher Power, in urban black communities 12-step recovery groups are marginalized because they aren't explicitly allied with any church. In addition, the confessional mode of "sharing" that defines the AA fellowship is alien to the ethic of African- neighborhoods, where airing your dirty laundry in public is disappoved of rather than viewed as a method of establishing trust and fellowship. For the same reason, professional psychotherapy is frequently dismissed as a "white" treatment; given the church's influence, mental health issues are widely viewed as caused by a lack of faith remedied by more regular attendance at Bible study.
When I was new to doing social work in the black community, this widespread attitude confused me and frustrated my efforts to help my black clients. An an ex-junkie, I could vow for the benefits to be gained from both recovery groups and therapy. A North Philly church lady coworker set me straight. “A lot of black don't feel that AA and therapy are alien to everything they know," she told me. "If you got problems you just go to church on Sunday and scream your head off and then everything’s fine."
But for Susan, it turned out, everything wasn’t fine. While Jesus and the church were pulling her in one direction, the judicial system had made an unwelcome appearance and was pulling her in another. The entire time Susan was in prison, the state of Pennsylvania was running a tab on all the welfare dollars her mother received in her children’s names. Consequently, per state law, Susan was held responsible for the total amount upon her release, and soon the welfare department came calling to get its money back.
In our sessions, Susan showed me a raft of increasingly threatening official letters with eye-popping dollar figures that had her practically hyperventilating. The state wanted in excess of $25,000, and wanted it now.
A hearing was scheduled at the Bucks County Courthouse, where Susan was asked to provide documents proving that she had a job and could start paying her child support debt or face returning to jail in contempt of a court order. Obviously, on her janitor’s survival wages Susan had absolutely no capacity to both pay the state and keep a roof over her head. This Sophie's choice is a common dilemma for tens of thousands of single mothers returning to the community from prison who owe the state for the dollars their children depended on in their mother’s absence.
Many states require the moms behind bars to assume the burden of child support if they wish to keep their children from being lost in the foster care system. Yet the vast majority are like Susan, devoid of resources except the pennies she might ear from her prison job—and what loving mother (it need hardly be noted the crack addicts and prostitutes do not negate materal love) would even think twice about "defrauding" the system to provide her children with at least minimal security?
I will never forget how painful it was, watching Susan, who had never in her life caught a single break, have to stand before the American justice system and nearly beg for mercy. But for this black woman in this white judge's court room no mercy was to be had.
This cruel no-win predicament drove Susan to desperation. “Do they know how hard it's going to be to hold down a job if I wind up in a homeless shelter?” she asked me. “Don’t they understand that I’m walking with the Lord and trying to get my life together?”
I accompanied her to the courthouse intending to speak with the judge and explain Susan’s special circumstances. I hoped that the court would grant leniency and allow me to continue working with Susan; she was off the streets, off drugs, back in housing, back to work. She was a success of the system. How could Bucks County not do the right thing and hold off on onerous monthly support payments until she was a little more stable?
But the judge, a middle aged, white Republican appointee in a county notorious for its GOP family court judges with a special beef against black women from Philadelphia running up welfare bills on their county’s tab while sitting in jail, refused even to give us a word at the bar of the court. He asked Susan for documentation proving her employment status and when she told him her job at the church was paid under the table, he snarled derisively, “Isn’t that the American way?” clearly insinuating that Susan was not only a common criminal, but a tax-dodging welfare mother, too.
Susan protested the high amount of the monthly support payment, explaining that if she paid the debt she couldn’t afford a place to live. I will never forget how painful it was, watching this woman, who had never in her life caught a single break, have to stand before the American justice system and nearly beg for mercy. But for this black woman in this white judge's courtroom there was no mercy to be had. Her criminal record of violent crime, her drug addiction, her prostitution—all of her vices outweighed the spiritual transformation and personal rehabilitation she had experienced in prison, not to mention her clean-as-a-whistle record in her new life.
The judge merely mocked her, saying, “You’ve got a place to live now: Bucks County Correctional Facility for 90 days.” The public defender tried to interject but the judge was already calling for the next case.
And with that, a sobbing Susan was hauled out of the room in handcuffs, back to the same jail she had walked out of the year before.
Susan did her 90 days but came out of jail a lost woman. She feared returning home to Bucks County, even to visit her children—the judge told her the next time she came to court without a good enough job to make support payments she would spend six months behind bars for contempt. So she blew off her next court date, choosing to catch a bench warrant rather than endure another pointless jail sentence.
To further complicate her life, Susan’s relationship to her church went bad. In her irresolvable and maddening plight, she had come to resent the reverend who, like many prominent Philly clergy with political clout, had easy access to capital in the form of grants and loans for extravagant projects like building luxury housing for senior parishioners. But when Susan asked for a raise—of one dollar an hour—to help make her rent while putting money aside to pay back the state, the reverend pleaded poor. The money was just not in the budget, she told Susan, end of discussion.
Where was the mercy? Susan wanted to know. She stopped going to evening services but still kept a Bible on her kitchen table; she read her favorite uplifting passages while paging through the paper’s Help Wanted. She said that while the church might fail her, the Lord never would, and that she was determined if nothing else to stay away from a crack pipe. As circumstances steadily wore her down, it sounded more and more like she was trying to convince herself that she didn’t want to use. I told her as much, urging her to seek help either in the rooms or in outpatient treatment. I told her that I would help her find an AA or NA meeting with a diverse membership or group therapy for single mothers in recovery. But Susan still rejected them.
But when Susan asked for a raise—of one dollar an hour—to help make her rent while paying back the state, the reverend pleaded poor. Still, Susan said that while the church might fail her, the Lord never would, and that she was determined to stay away from a crack pipe.
Susan’s daughter Ashley also knew the signs; she started pulling away from her mom as she sensed the old addictive behaviors creeping in. Ashley had seen her mother relapse more than once and just couldn’t handle another disappointment.
Then Ashley confided in me that her mother had copped over the weekend.
“It’s nothing! It’s just a nickel bag!” Susan told me when I confronted her about it during our next home visit. “It’s not even a relapse, I smoked so little.”
“Come on, Susan,” I said. “You’ve been smoking crack for 15 years. When have you ever smoked just a nickel bag?”
Susan fell silent. After a moment she said, "I told the ladies at the church I was using again and they said it was no big deal as long as I started attending services." She was grasping at straws, and we both knew it. "At least I'm going back to church," she said finally.
I told Susan that her priorities were mixed up: How did she plan on making rent she could already barely afford if more and more of her money went to the dope man? She swore that it was all going to work out.
Any social worker will tell you that if a client is bent on making a bad decision, there’s nothing you can do to stop them. You just hope they’re still around when the consequences hit so you can help them work it out.
From there, Susan’s relapse followed the simple mathematics of addiction. A nickel bag became a $20, and a $20 became a $50. Soon after she relapsed, she got evicted from the apartment the agency had placed her in and that she worked so hard to keep. Now re-addicted and newly homeless, she vanished into North Philadelphia, back to the streets that she had tried so valiantly to escape. I never saw her again.
Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia social worker and a writer who is in recovery. His column, "Street Beat," runs biweekly in the The Fix.
Republished with permission from The Fix