by Bruce A. Smith
I just received a press release from the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office today announcing the conviction of Olujimi Awbah Blakeney in the shooting death of Lisa Melancon, the well-liked Tacoma city employee who was killed on her porch while monitoring a neighborhood altercation.
Someday I’m sure, I’ll write about Ms. Melancon and what her life was like – how she came to be standing on her front porch a year ago as a group of angry youths swarmed her neighborhood.
But not today.
No, today, I want to talk about the shooter, the young man who fired a couple rounds from his hand gun as he and three buddies drove off from a confrontation that was started by two young women who had traded nasty text messages with each other throughout the day.
I want to talk about Olujimi Awbah Blakeney because I knew Jimi.
Simply put, I was Jimi’s psychotherapist for a brief time when he was in foster care. All morning I’ve been wrestling with the ethical propriety of publicly disclosing private information, but I think the bonds of professional conduct may be lifted here because Jimi Blakeney is now a public figure – written about in newspapers and his face and story appearing on TV. More importantly, though, I think the truth ultimately serves justice, and I know the world can benefit from hearing what I know. Already, bloggers at the The News Tribune are calling Jimi “scum” and suggesting that he be “glued” to Ms. Melancon’s porch and used for target practice by righteous individuals who desire to sharpen their marksmanship.
But those folks and the value of their perspective will also have to wait for another day. Today is for Jimi.
I first met Jimi in October, 2001, just a few weeks after 9-11. I had just been hired by Gateways for Youth and Families to perform a variety of roles in their foster care program, most prominently doing in-home counseling with kids in their foster care placement. I was also tasked with providing “independent living skills” training to the young men in the Wilson Center, the transitional residential facility operated by Gateways, and this is where I met Jimi.
Jimi was almost 17 when I met him, and he had been in the Wilson Center for almost a year, which was most unusual for both Jimi and the Wilson Center.
Wilson was a twelve-bed facility that received the toughest of the tough. Originally established as a residence for children convicted of a sexual offence, such as child rape or abuse, Wilson Center evolved into a residence for foster kids who had no sexual arrests or issues – they just couldn’t thrive anywhere else, such as a private family, and that was Jimi.
In fact, the Wilson Center was the first and only place that Jimi had lived consistently for more than just a couple weeks, and nobody knew why – all we knew was that Jimi trusted us enough to stick around, follow our rules, and keep his nose clean.
Jimi was known in the foster care system as a “runner;” he always ran away from his placements.
Jimi’s running started about the time he was ten years old. Jimi never knew his father, as far as I knew, and in fact not one single kid at the Wilson Center had any significant contact with their fathers, not ever. By the time Jimi was ten his mother succumbed to alcohol and drugs, and Jimi, in effect, became an abandoned kid. This attracted the attention of DSHS, who began making interventions in the family. One outcome developed had Jimi living part-time with his mother’s older sister, his auntie.
However, Jimi often ran away from his auntie and went back with mom. Mom may have been utterly incapable of taking care of a ten-year old kid, but “mom is mom,” as he told me.
By the time Jimi was twelve or so, he was on the street more than he was with auntie or mom, and DSHS sought to put him in foster care. But he never stayed put, and went back to his home – or at least his version of what home was – the combination of street, mom and auntie.
My remembrance is that Jimi ran away from at least a dozen DSHS placements until his social worker, out of desperation, asked Wilson Center to take him in.
At Wilson Jimi bloomed. He was our oldest, our brightest, and our shining star; the rest of the kids at Wilson considered Jimi to be their older brother and a knight in shining armor. Jimi never got into trouble, never was in an argument, and always went to school. In fact, when I started at Gateways I hardly ever saw Jimi because of his active schedule.
After his day at Foss High School, Jimi came home to Wilson every afternoon about 2:30 pm. At that time I was in a team meeting that lasted until 3 pm, after which I was consumed with the adolescent tragedies that needed immediate attention.
In the meantime, Jimi helped the kitchen staff get snacks ready for a 3:15 serving to all the residents. After snacks, Jimi mysteriously disappeared for an hour or so most afternoons, and I was told by staff that he had “appointments.” Overwhelmed by other youthful catastrophes, I never probed.
However, after serving a few months in community foster care I was re-directed to spend all my Gateways time at the Wilson Center. This is when I became Jimi’s therapist, and I also ramped-up the independent living skills program. Then, I saw Jimi for an hour at least twice a week, and had additional group time with him.
I inquired about the appointments, and was told he had AA meetings.
“Jimi has a drinking problem?” I asked.
No, not really, he told me, and staff concurred, who told me that these AA meetings were an opportunity for Jimi to have positive adult role models, and that one AA counselor had kind of taken Jimi under his wing.
I was skeptical, but Jimi always seemed to get the bus in time for his downtown Tacoma AA meetings and be back punctually for dinner. Since Jimi never caused us any trouble, I let the veracity of the situation slide.
However, I did focus on job training and Jimi’s education.
Most afternoons I had work parties in the Wilson Center, teaching the kids how to use hand tools and learn some basic carpentry skills.
Jimi was my first client, and I found he was clueless. I had to show him how to hold a screw gun, how to insert drill bits – even how to bang a nail and not bend it repeatedly.
Nevertheless, Jimi was smart and a fast learner. I enjoyed working with Jimi, as I did with most of the guys at Wilson. Such endeavors also helped me learn a lot about these young men.
Jimi was friendly and everybody liked him, but I don’t think he had any real friends. He was kind of a smiling loner who knew very well how to make people happy. He certainly kept the staff happy, always volunteering for chores and clean-ups.
However, he rarely talked in our therapy sessions, stiffening noticeably whenever I probed into his life. As a result, I left his earlier life alone and just stayed in the “here and now,” such as asking: “How’s school going?” Or, “What did you think of the fight last night over what to watch on TV?”
As a result, I put more effort in the independent living skills portion of my time with Jimi, along with most of the Wilson residents. It simply was more productive – both therapeutically and functionally, as much of what I taught the kids was how to sheet rock the holes they punched in the walls the day before. In the course of plastering they would tell me what made them so angry.
In addition, part of my living skills program was to increase the use of monetary payments for helping with major chores around the facility. Memorably, Jimi spent a long afternoon with me on the roof of the Wilson Center sweeping off years’ worth of leaves and moss. As always, I had to show him how to really be effective with a broom and how to be safe on a pitched roof. After a moment or two of observing me, he had the hang of it, and was very productive – and about thirty bucks richer by the end of the day.
School was a different story. Most of the guys at the Wilson Center struggled mightily with academics. Hardly any of the guys could read or write at grade-level, and virtually all were in special ed, which I found to be a painful joke. Some of the spelling and writing assignments from the special education teachers were beyond my abilities, and clearly destructive to the students’ confidence.
As for Jimi, he could function close to grade-level, and when he turned 17 he found a way to get into a special program at Tacoma Community College (TCC), which put him in a completely new orbit at Wilson, as no other resident could remotely aspire to attending advanced academe.
Further, Jimi did this all on his own volition. Ever the skeptical therapist, I told Jimi that I needed to meet his teachers and see his classroom, that I simply could not take his word for his participation in this program.
He was upset by my request, but he complied. A few days later, I drove him to TCC in the Gateways Taurus and he led me to his class. There was no teacher to meet, just a very young monitor at the head of a roomful of desks and computer screens. Nor did he know any of the students, as far as I could tell. Jimi was enrolled in a virtual classroom designed to get him ready for a GED. No instruction, no teachers, no dependable outside help – just a computer screen and pre-programmed math problems for him to solve and social studies questions to answer. Jimi was on his own to find his way to a GED and freedom from the confines of high school.
I didn’t know what to do, but since Jimi seemed satisfied I let the matter slide.
A short time later, the DSHS made an inquiry regarding my credentials, wondering if I was qualified to be a psychotherapist with troubled lads. Apparently, my master’s degree in recreation, despite the therapeutic and counseling track that I pursued, plus my 15 years experience in in-patient psychiatry, was insufficient for me to continue in my job. Gateways made a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to appeal the state ruling, and on April 6, 2002 I was fired.
That night, a fellow therapist at Gateways bought a bunch of pizzas for the Wilson Center residents and me to eat, celebrating our six months together.
Jimi came to the party about fifteen minutes late, the only time I ever knew him to be tardy, and as he walked pass me he placed a “thank you” card on the table in front of me.
“Thanks, Jimi,” I said, and he smiled wanly. Then he sat down and munched away.
I’ve never seen him since.
But, I’ll be at his sentencing August 3rd. He’s looking at 50-62 years for firing a couple of wild shots from a speeding car as he drove away from a fracas, with one round fatally striking Ms. Melancon in the skull.
This is the Jimi I knew – trying to help a friend help his girl friend, and doing it in a wild, wacky way. The use of a gun is new, though, as is being murderously stupid with it. But then he is 26 years-old, now.
Nevertheless, there are some things about the foster care system I would like you to know.
First, when I was at Gateways, a couple of probation officers told me that 90% of the men incarcerated in Pierce County had also been in foster care.
Also, when Jimi was in foster care, all benefits from the state terminated when he reached eighteen years of age, as was the case with all the residents of the Wilson Center. This caused huge problems for these lads, and is directly responsible for the majority of them landing in prison shortly after discharge.
As one Wilson guy told me after his arrest for armed robbery, three weeks after being cut-off by the state, “What else was I going to do? I had to pay the rent.”
The average foster care placement costs the state about $900 per month, per kid. Foster placements in a home with extra services, such as for kids like Jimi, cost about $2,000 per month.
Placements with wrap-around services, such as the Wilson Center, cost the state about $6,000 per month, per kid. One of the reasons my guys would stick at Wilson when they blew out of family placements was that we locked the doors at night and they couldn’t run away too easily.
Jail costs $40,000 per inmate per year, and Jimi is about to cost the taxpayers at least $2 million.
The state of Washington has about 15,000 kids in foster care, and the last I heard they need an additional 1,000 families to open their homes to these kids.
Further, the last time I talked about these issues with DSHS, and the United Way, which is trying to help with troubled youth, there are an estimated 100 kids in Pierce County who are “feral children.” That means they have no adult supervision whatsoever. No moms or dads, no aunties, no foster care.
Also, DSHS estimates that about 30-40 foster kids are living in placements in the Graham area.
The Bethel School District has announced that about 300 students in the district are “homeless” under the federal McKinney-Vento guidelines. This means that when the kid shows up at school to register on the first day of class, he or she has no permanent address to give to the BSD.
In addition, about one-third of all students in the BSD receive free or reduced cost lunches at school. Some also get breakfast. What these kids eat in the summer is problematic, and the Boys and Girls Club, in conjunction with the USDA, has a free lunch program at Thompson and Evergreen Elementary schools.
Also, the Graham-Kapowsin Community Council has launched a free lunch program this summer at the Roy Elementary and Frontier Junior High in Graham. However, the staff is stretched thin and the amount of food is modest; as a result, the program is only open one day per week.
Lastly, Bethel in conjunction with Youth Resources, Inc., operates two homeless shelters for BSD students. One is for guys and is located near Graham-Kapowsin High School, and the girls’ facility is sited near Bethel High. These are the only two shelters for homeless youth that exist in south Pierce County.
© 2011 The Mountain News-WA