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Trouble in Paradise

One single mother’s account of fighting for her kids on the mean streets of Calabasas
Karen Hunt

A few months ago I walked out of my house to find a razor sharp javelin stuck in the middle of my front door. It was at eye level, right where my forehead would have been if I’d opened the small window in the door and looked out when I heard the screams and squeals of tires around 1:30 am. I guess if I’d looked, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d probably be dead.

Fifteen years ago, my husband and I had moved to Calabasas, thinking there couldn’t be a safer Los Angeles suburb in which to raise our children. Seven years later I was divorced, expelled from paradise and living just across the border in Woodland Hills. I was happy in my modest home, believing it to be a peaceful neighborhood and close enough to Calabasas so that my kids could stay in the schools there and benefit from the enriched environment.

I now find myself, a single mother of two teenage sons, one sixteen and one fourteen, fighting for their safety and my own. My twenty-six year old daughter made it through the terrifying teens and has grown into an exceptionally fine young woman, having just finished her second year at UCLA Law School, so I know there’s hope. I have every confidence that my sons will find their passions in life just as she did, making a conscious choice to turn their backs on the drugs and violence of the streets, along with the dishonorable thug mentality that they see romanticized day and night in the media.

I believe in my children, I am proud of them and I love them fiercely. They are exceptional human beings. More than anything else in this illusory era, where the concept of standing by your word is virtually unknown, they need to hear me say “I believe in you,” “I am proud of you,” “I love you,” and know that I mean it, so that they can grow into believing it about themselves.

I have experienced first-hand the mind-numbing terror of violence, but that’s another story and it’s in the past. Since those hard times, I’ve become a fighter, figuratively and literally, and my sons and their friends joke that I can beat them all up. As a second degree black belt, a boxer and a kickboxer and a long-time practitioner of Eskrima, I take full advantage of my warrior persona, knowing that there aren’t many mothers who can say “meet me in the ring,” and be taken seriously by their teenage sons. Of course, I’ve never actually done it, but the fact that I can has put a weight behind my words that wouldn’t have otherwise been felt. When I speak, my children listen. Like all kids, they don’t always follow what I say, and like all parents, I make my share of mistakes, but they know that I stand by what I say and they respect me for it.

Unfortunately, like so many single mothers, I’ve had to play the role of father as well as mother. My boys’ father didn’t put in the effort, nor did he seem to understand the concept of setting an example of what it means to be a man: strong, honorable, defender of the weak, respected and respectful of others, a seeker of truth. The responsibility has rested on my shoulders and I try to fill those shoes, along with the other single mothers that I know, battling for my voice to be heard by young men who are finding their way into manhood without fathers to guide them.

While many parents tell me they fear for their children and are at a loss how to protect them, others stick their heads in the sand, preferring ignorance to the reality of the tight-wire lives their children lead. Not having the hard evidence of javelins in their front doors, it’s easier to pretend that everything’s fine when their children, pockets flush with cash, roam the Calabasas streets and hang out at the Commons, the pristine Caruso-designed mall where even smoking in public is now illegal. Is it possible that the adults strolling along the charming winding pathways and breathing in the clean, smoke-free air, don’t know what goes on behind the Commons’, where children make drug deals (often selling their parents’ prescription drugs or their own psychiatrist prescribed and government sanctioned uppers and downers—which is a whole other topic worth exploring—along with hard-core crystal meth), girls lie passed out drunk and fights erupt over small disagreements growing bigger over time until the boys have formed gangs that do violence to one another over stolen drugs and girlfriends?

I didn’t know at first, didn’t want to know. But ignorance is not bliss, it is foolishness.

When I heard the screams and screeching tires, and then a few seconds later, two ominous bangs, I didn’t dare go outside to investigate, just checked the interior of the house, our dogs barking frantically, my younger son following after me like a frightened puppy and then making a bed on the floor next to mine for the remainder of the night. My older son was staying at a friend’s house and I was glad he wasn’t home. It’s a sorry day when a mother thinks her child is safer in someone else’s house.

The bangs were especially portentous since the night before I’d also heard a loud bang and discovered in the morning that my mailbox had been smashed in. I hadn’t called the police, knowing they wouldn’t waste their time on something as unimportant as a smashed mailbox.

Javelins, however, are another matter. After discovering the one in the front door, I found a second embedded in my garage. I called 911 and the police arrived about an hour later.

A nasty, creative piece of work, they said. Could’ve killed somebody. Prison style, homemade, with a six inch nail attached to a steel rod. Shot from some kind of weapon, imbedded at least an inch into the hard wood of the little window in the door.

The police took a report. No, I had no idea what it could be about. There’d been a young man, recently graduated from Calabasas High, who’d stayed with us for a few nights but I hadn’t seen him in the past couple of weeks. From what I understood, his father had passed away when he was young and he and his stepmother didn’t get along. He’d needed a place to stay and I’d let him use the garage.

When the young man found out about the javelin, he volunteered to talk to the police, taking responsibility on himself for what had happened. He could have easily denied the javelin incident had anything to do with him but underneath the scars that had accumulated from growing up in paradise he was a decent young man.

He explained to the police that he was in fear for his life, on the run from a gang of skinheads.

A gang of skinheads—in my neighborhood?

Oh yes, said the two police officers, heads nodding in unison. It seemed the gang was well-known to them with older men and serious murderers in their ranks. When the police pressed the young man about why the gang was after him he finally admitted that besides being Jewish—cause enough for a conflict—he’d bought weed off someone from the gang and they claimed he owed them money. Interestingly, the police said they could care less about whether or not he smoked weed. They were only concerned about harder drugs and said they could tell he didn’t use those. They admonished him to make better choices in the future and the young man agreed, explaining that he had to try and stay alive for the next three weeks, at which point he could join the army. Then, he’d be safe.

Safe? I thought.

But to this young man, fighting in Iraq was safer than living in or near Calabasas.

Once the police were gone, I was left with the problem of what to do with the young man. I couldn’t just let him loose on the streets so I called another single mother who lived in an exclusive gated Calabasas community and often took in troubled kids. No problem, she said, she’d make sure he stayed safe until he could join the army.

The night after the javelin incident I sent my sons to stay at a friend’s house. I informed my neighbors about what was occurring and they all said they’d keep a look-out. Then, determined to defend my home, I locked myself in my house, surrounded by my dogs and an array of martial arts weapons such as a sword, Eskrima sticks, a couple of knives, as well as a heavy flashlight, and waited. Needless to say, I wasn’t sleepy, but come one o’clock in the morning, my eyes began to close. Just as I drifted off, I heard running feet, yells and then bang, bang! The dogs barked ferociously, the ridgeback on my Australian shepherd standing straight up. I peeked out the kitchen window and on my front porch lay two mailboxes, one metal and one wood.

Mailboxes? Where they sending some kind of a message? Did mailboxes on your porch mean something in high-end gang culture? Was there something in the mailboxes perhaps?

Again, I called 911. The police never came. About three hours later they called and took a statement from me over the phone. Aren’t you coming, I asked. No, we don’t show up for inconsequential occurrences like that. I reminded them about the javelins and that I feared for my safety and that of my children. The officer cut me off, saying it wouldn’t accomplish anything for the police to come now, since the perpetrators were long gone.

Well, yes, I couldn’t argue with that—which was why they should have shown up three hours earlier.

A few months before the javelin incident, my older son, who was fifteen at the time, had been attacked by a seventeen year old on the Calabasas High School wrestling team. My son had gotten into a verbal argument with the wrestler’s younger brother, who was my son’s age. That, added to the fact that we no longer lived in Calabasas but in Woodland Hills, “the wrong side of the railroad tracks,” was enough justification for the wrestler to want to do serious damage to my son and make it clear that he should stay out of the wrestler’s “hood.” Within a few seconds the wrestler, supported by back-up of about thirty of his “homies,” had my son in a head lock and threw him to the ground. The wrestler bashed my son’s head twice into the concrete and then yelled that he was going to “curb stomp” him, just like he must have seen in “American X,” and started to drag him towards the curb. Someone else yelled “shank him.”

All of this was filmed on a cell phone and immediately put up on Youtube by the perpetrators.

As the wrestler was dragging my son to the curb, someone cried that the police were coming and the gang dispersed in their BMW’s and SUV’s. My son and his four friends, who were all too young to drive, were left to make their way home on foot. I got a call from another single mother—we have a network of parents, mostly single mothers, who keep in touch—telling me that my son was being beaten up at Gelsons. I jumped in my car, drove the couple of miles to the store and found my son and his friends walking away from Gelsons towards my house. My son’s forehead was the size of a grapefruit and I could see that his eyes were going to turn black and blue. It looked like his nose was broken. Long, angry scrapes ran down his chin, shoulder and arm. He was addled and I feared he might have a concussion or worse. I took him to the emergency room and thankfully, after a six hour wait, was told he was going to be okay.

My son and his friends were angry and I worried that this would escalate. My son hadn’t made the best choice by arguing with the younger brother and continuing the argument with the older one, to the point where a confrontation had occurred. Still, such experiences were part of growing up and learning the right way to behave. I knew it was natural for boys to get into tussles. I don’t know a single man who doesn’t have childhood stories of fist fights. But curb stomping and videos on Youtube were taking the common fistfight to a whole new level. The desensitization and disassociation from reality that those kids must have felt in order to premeditate filming the violence and then posting it online was chilling.

I talked to my son and his friends, explaining how violence isn’t the answer, trying not to sound like a cliché but knowing that I did. How do you convince a young man who sees injustice that he should just “let it go?” What he needed in those angry moments when he felt obligated to seek revenge in order to prove his manhood and a hasty decision could affect a lifetime, wasn’t me, but a man to talk to. I called a mentor of my son, a retired boxer, and he came right over. He talked straight, about how he grew up without a father, becoming an angry young man without a chance for education and who thought he needed to prove himself through violence. As a result he’d been shot, knifed and spent time in prison. He said it was only by the grace of God that he was alive. He told my son that you never start a fight, never use your words, your fist or a weapon to instigate violence but that if you’re in a situation where someone is determined to hurt you, you do what you have to do to survive. He said, learn right now how to listen, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut, and always, if possible, walk away. He spoke with authority and compassion. He talked of honor and respect and doing the right thing. My son listened.

Twelve years ago, as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, I’d created a writing program in juvenile hall called InsideOUT Writers. I’m now in the process of creating WORDPOWER, a critical thinking and literacy skills curriculum to help young people learn how to think and reach independent conclusions. In juvenile hall I’d heard every story imaginable of how hurt, angry, abused kids had fallen into violence and couldn’t get out of it. Honestly, for all the gang-bangers I’d met in juvenile hall I’d never run across one who I’d felt was evil, just misguided. And now, here I was, struggling to communicate to my own son the dangers that he and his friends would face if they took justice into their own hands by choosing violence over reason. The humiliation of having to suck it up, knowing that every kid in Calabasas was watching the fight on Youtube, was almost too much for my son to bear and I suffered with him.

I’m proud to say that my son and his friends decided not to escalate the violence. Convincing them to go down to the police station to file a report was something they were not willing to do and I understood why. They did, however, agree to speak to the police if they came to our house.

Anyway, nothing will ever happen, my son and his friends said.

Why, I asked.

Because, the wrestler’s Marsha Clark’s son, they said.

It took a moment for the name to register. The Marcia Clark, the prosecutor in the O. J. Simpson trial? Yes, they said.

I was dumbfounded. My first instinct was to forget about the advice I’d just given the kids and make a visit to Marcia Clark myself. But then, I realized I had to set the right example and so I went to the Calabasas sheriff’s station to file a report. I told the police everything that had happened and explained that if they came to my house, my son and his friends would give statements. I had names and pictures of the two key boys, the wrestler who’d assaulted my son and the boy who had put the video up on Youtube. I had eye-witnesses who were willing to testify. I had print outs from Myspace of the wrestler and his friends talking about the video and congratulating each other for what they’d done to my son.

I gave all this information to the officer who interviewed me and he promised to follow up immediately. He never contacted me. I called the Sheriff’s Department and emailed the officer. I never heard back. No one came to interview my son. My younger son told me that he continued to see the wrestler at his middle school, A. C. Stelle, on a regular basis where the wrestler volunteered for one of the teachers. It frightened my younger son to see him there.

I reached out to Marsha Clark by writing her a letter, requesting that we meet in order to get to the bottom of what had happened and bring reconciliation. I did not hear back. I am not one to go for this all-American practice of suing for revenge and money. I wanted to believe that if, as parents, we could sit down and talk about our situations, a higher good would come out of it. And I would prefer to believe that Marsha Clark mistakenly threw my letter away with all the junk mail she must receive rather than choosing not to respond. I have found that when I am able to communicate with parents who seem on the surface to be uncaring and disconnected, in almost every instance they are people who love their kids but are overwhelmed by the commitment and responsibility that it takes to raise them.

But what, I wondered, would be the end result of this fiasco? Where was the justice, as far as the system was concerned? Was I just another single mother standing up alone for my kids, and as such not worthy of much notice or respect? How could a fifteen year old boy be beaten up, threatened with curb-stomping, a potential death threat, the evidence being posted on Youtube, and nothing be done by the authorities? It gave license to the wrestler and others like him to solve their disagreements by force and still be respected in society, because they came from the world of privilege and power.

What was this teaching our youth? What was it showing my children?

That justice is a sham? That bullies prosper? That while the words “equality,” “justice,” “honor” and “truth” are flimsy platitudes slung from podiums by hypocritical, marketing-branded leaders, the reality on America’s streets is an ever-widening gap between the rights and privileges of the wealthy and the lack thereof amongst the poor.

After my son was beaten up, I took both my sons out of the public school system and put them in a Charter school, where they are now home-schooled and meet with their teacher twice a week, one on one. Both of them are thriving in this program. They love their teacher and are proud of their achievements. These types of independent study programs are becoming ever more popular and many of my kids’ friends are joining them, consequently doing better academically and socially. Gone are the drama and distractions of a huge, impersonal high school campus where I’d been appalled to find teachers and staff just as dispirited and angry as the kids they were supposed to be teaching. How can teachers respect and honor their students when they are not respected and honored by those above them for the importance of their job? As a result, teachers have little patience for students who don’t fit the cookie cutter mold that all children are now required to squeeze into—or else be penalized for being “special,” which is a sure fire ticket to stifling a creative child’s brilliance.

When my oldest son, who is a talented artist and writer and has been tested as “gifted” and “highly gifted” in verbal skills, was only eleven years old he already had it all figured out. Mom, he told me one day as we were driving through idyllic Old Calabasas, you don’t understand, in Calabasas, kids have no conscience. They’ll lie, steal and cheat you. And the grown-ups aren’t any better. It’s just the way life is. You can’t trust anyone.

My son says that one day he’ll write about this Calabasas life, except he says, if he tells the truth, no one will believe him. I hope he does because the truth needs to be told if anything is ever to change, and I’ll be proud of him for having the courage to do it.

Not long ago he and his best friend were stopped by the police because it was past curfew. They weren’t far from home, it was just past ten o’clock and they were hurrying on skateboards to get back. They were searched and my son was able to call me on his cell phone. I arrived within a few minutes. The police told me that if I hadn’t arrived, my son would have been taken to juvenile hall.

Juvenile hall? For what?

As a result of being out past curfew, my son and his friend were given tickets and a date to appear in court in front of a judge. Perhaps there is still a place in the United States where justice isn’t so upside down and a kid out past ten o’clock will still be escorted home by a friendly police officer and the parents admonished to deal with the problem appropriately, but not in Calabasas or in Woodland Hills.

The result of this heinous “crime” was that my son and his friend had to miss a day of school and go to court so that the judge could pass a sentence. The judge commended my son for being a straight “A” student and he and his friend were each fined $495 and ordered to attend a class, similar to traffic school, and told to come back in a couple of months with a certificate of completion. If they did this, the fine of $495 would be reduced to $135. Both boys attended the class and the reduced fine was paid.

As we went through this court process, it became apparent to me that a single mother and her child can potentially suffer serious consequences far beyond the ticket itself. With fines like this the government is squeezing a single mother, or any struggling family, dry when they are already struggling to pay bills and care for their children. I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to make the payment. I wondered how single mothers in more dire circumstances than mine deal with these minor run-ins with the law, having an angry teen in the house, or maybe two or three. What child, rebellious or not, hasn’t stayed out late numerous times? When I was a child, there was no such thing as a curfew. On Friday and Saturday we ran around the neighborhood until all hours of the night and we weren’t considered criminals.

Of course, there are instances where children are in the streets doing things they shouldn’t. I’m not excusing that type of behavior, rather observing that for teenagers, running around past ten o’clock isn’t abnormal, while the resulting punishment on a family can be disastrous and can potentially cause worse behavior down the road from the child. What if the parent, already overwhelmed with working full time and raising multiple children, isn’t able to take the child to the classes? What if the parent isn’t able to pay the fine? What if the child has received a number of such fines that the parent is unable to pay? What if the court, because a parent isn’t able to pay, allows the child to do an insurmountable amount of hours of community service instead of paying the fine and the hard working single mother can’t drive the child to do the community service, assuming she even has a car? And then, if the child doesn’t fulfill the community service, what happens next? The child is further penalized, facing ever tougher punishments.

I have personally seen parents and kids in this situation, where the “crime” started with something insignificant but because the child failed to comply with the court order and the parent couldn’t pay, the problem escalated until the parent and child became so angry, frustrated and overwhelmed by worry that their already fragile relationship was ruined and the child ended up being sent away to camp or juvenile hall—where he then became the angry, violent young man that he had never been before the court intervened.

If it is hard enough for me to navigate through all of this, how does a single mother with little education, perhaps a mother who doesn’t speak English, get herself and her children through when the system seems bent on tripping her up?

It angers me to think that while my son was punished for the “crime” of being out past curfew, the young man who viciously beat my son and was about to curb stomp him received no punishment at all, even after putting evidence of the violent actions up on the internet for all the world to see.

And then, adding insult to injury, my house was terrorized for three nights in a row and no one in the police force even bothered to follow-up on the evidence, although it seemed quite possible that they well knew who had done it.

The night after the mailboxes were thrown at my door, my kids and I stayed in a hotel, another expense that I could not easily afford. I was exhausted from three sleepless nights, and so were my kids. We returned home the next morning to find our house intact, peaceful. As far as we could tell, nothing had happened on our night away and, thankfully, nothing has happened since. The skinheads must have grown bored with us and moved on to other pursuits.

I’ve recently heard that the young man who brought the trouble to our house did manage to stay safe until he enlisted in the army. Like every teenage boy I’ve met, he’s a decent kid, with a world of possibilities ahead of him. It’s a mistake to label our children, negatively categorizing them at such a young age and turning them into statistics. I hope he survives this senseless war that we as a nation have taken to another country’s streets when we can’t even clean up the violence of our own. I imagine him coming back in a couple of years, his world having grown so much larger, having had experiences that taught him the meaning of loyalty, respect, hard work—how to be a man. At least, that is what I hope for him rather than escalating anger and disillusionment. I wish him well, because although I don’t support this war, I do support every individual who fights in it.

Again, I reiterate, I can’t help but think that if I, in my “peaceful” neighborhood face so many challenges, what must it be like for single mothers in the poorer, more violent neighborhoods of Los Angeles and other big cities? Thanks to the powerful industries that feed our children’s minds on a daily dose of violence (and don’t tell me that a daily dose of violence doesn’t influence young minds) children think that by forming “gangs,” wearing colors, fighting over a piece of concrete, they are expressing their independence, when they are only doing what they have been taught to do by the opportunistic media giants who crave to eat their souls and bleed them dry.

I’m not interested in hearing results from another government study costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to determine whether or not violence in the media affects our children. Nor does it take a great intellect to figure out that it’s unhealthy to manipulate children into believing that they must have “things” in order to be happy and fulfilled, triggering them to demand those “things” at any cost. I know what I see, every day in my neighborhood. I know what I am told every day by other single working mothers. These are our children and we love them. Teens think they have it all figured out because they have access to any information that they want with the click of a mouse. But they are still children and as such are not being taught how to properly analyze the information they are absorbing, nor the consequences for emulating behaviors that are idolized in pop culture. As adults, as a community, we are responsible to uphold to our children a standard of behavior that they can respect and feel proud to emulate. They are trying to grow up and learn how to be decent human beings. Who is teaching them? The voices of parents are all but drowned out by a society that doesn’t like and even fears teenagers, and yet caters to their impressionability, telling them how to think, feel, look, act cool—and exerting pressure on them and their parents to spend huge amounts of money in order to do so.

I’m not wealthy, nor do I have an influential job, family or friends. I’m just one of many single mothers. But I’m a writer and I believe that words, spoken with true conviction, have power. So, I am using my voice, not only for myself and my children, but for the many single mothers with whom I identify. I acknowledge and have the greatest respect for single fathers and for all parents doing their best to raise their children because I see their frustrations and worries on a daily basis. However, I can most effectively address the challenges that I personally have experienced as a single mother. Whatever it takes, I will be there for my boys, all the way through to manhood. They’ll be amazing, strong, good men because of what they’ve survived and because they are being taught how to make independent choices based on their own power to reason, not passively absorbing what they are being fed by market-savvy mega-corporations.

In the meantime, I’ve started MMA classes in my garage for these scrappy teenage boys with a tough MMA fighter who mentors them and teaches them the true spirit of a warrior, not the fake bravado of a street punk. And, I must admit, I join in the classes, too.

I defend my home the best way I can, setting a high standard for myself so that my kids will carry that example with them into adulthood. I stand on my own two feet, with my eyes wide open and my head out of the sand. Because in the neighborhood where I live, in every neighborhood, it’s better to be educated to the reality of the life our kids face on the streets, than to be ignorant and foolish.