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Scared straight: a once-troubled teen tells how tough love turned her away from life on the streets—and possibly death. Plus a wake-up call for parents

JUDGE HATCHETT: `KANDICE NEEDED SOMEONE TO GET IN HER FACE' There isn't much I haven't witnessed in my courtroom--heroin addicts, sex offenders, runaways--but the moment I looked into the eyes of Kandice, a 13-year-old who had flirted with prostitution, I knew I was peering into the soul of a girl completely disconnected from any joy in her life. What I didn't know was whether or not our meeting that day two years ago could restore her sense of hope. In nearly a decade as a chief judge in Atlanta's juvenile system and in my three seasons on the show, I've seldom seen a child more devoid of spirit.

Kandice's mom, LeShon Franklin, had brought Kandice to my television courtroom, as one of the final stops on a journey that had included loved ones' pleas and professional counseling. When I prodded Kandice about her outrageous behavior, she showed little emotion.

"Why did you disappear onto the streets of Los Angeles for weeks until the police brought you home to your mom?"


"Is it true that you tried to take your own life?"

Blank stare.

"Do you understand how you put your life in danger by accepting money for sexual favors?"

"No big deal."

Just two weeks earlier, LeShon, desperate to save her daughter, had checked her into a mental hospital.

Kandice's quiet descent into bitterness began when she was sent to spend a summer with relatives. That three-month vacation turned into three years, and those three years had hardened Kandice.

You can't get the attention of a girl like Kandice with a long lecture and a list of don't's--she needed someone to get in her face. Shake her up. Give her a reality check about where her choices might lead. So I took the one tough-love approach I believed could save her: I sent Kandice to spend some time with two former prostitutes who had lived and nearly died on the streets of New York City.

If my time on the bench has taught me anything, it is that our girls are desperate for what we all crave: Validation. Acceptance. Connection. Love. That this family escaped from a labyrinth of pain testifies to the healing that happens when every one of us--mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, friends--link arms and raise our voices in the battle for our children's hearts.


I know exactly when I stopped believing my mother loved me: winter 1996. The summer before, when I was 9 years old, Mom asked me if l wanted to spend vacation with my grandparents in Alaska. I did. The idea of a big trip away from our home in Palmville, California, was exciting. Then summer came and went, and as much as I had told Mom that I loved Alaska, I was anxious to get back to California. But she wanted me to stay.

"I'm in no position for you to come home right now," she told me. "If things are going so well there, why don't you just stay?" Even when I pleaded to come home to live with her and my two younger brothers, that was the only response she ever gave me.

By December that year, I was sure I'd never see my mother again. Weeks or even a month could go by with no call or letter, and she only visited once during my entire time there. I felt so depressed and abandoned that one night I secretly tried to hang myself with a rope tied to a tree in my grandparents' backyard. But after I slipped the rope around me, I was too scared to follow through. With every day that passed, I thought of how much easier it would be to die than to live without my family.

Three years later, in 1999, my mom finally flew me home. But by then I'd decided that she didn't really want me there. She might've loved me--she said that she did--but I got the impression she didn't like me. We argued about everything, and I was still angry that she'd left me in Alaska for three years. I believed that in her eyes I was a problem she didn't really want to deal with.

Soon after I came home, we moved from Palmville to South Central Los Angeles. Right away I knew that having lived in Alaska made me different from the other girls. For one thing, I'd never been around gangs. Because I wanted to be like everyone else, to get the other kids to accept me, I started doing whatever I could to fit in--drinking, partying, ditching class, having sex. I once even told my mother I was sick so I could miss school, then asked a few friends to meet at my place for a party. That evening when my mom came home, she discovered my friends' used condoms in her bedroom.

The more I went my way, the more Mom and I fought. And when she tried to talk with me, I shut her out. Why did she seem so concerned if she hadn't cared enough to visit me for three years? To escape the tension, I ran away. Four different times. The first few times I left, I stayed at friends' homes for weeks until the police brought me home. But once when a school friend and I ran away, we found ourselves on the streets with no money. I didn't want to go as far as my friend had and fully prostitute myself, but I also didn't want to ever go home again. So when a stranger offered me $250 for me to fondle my breasts as he masturbated, I accepted the cash. My friend and I used the money to get a hotel room and order pizza.

I had managed to break free from my mom, but I couldn't escape the shame I felt after using my body for money. I kept thinking, How did I let myself end up like this? As much as I hated the idea of going home, a life on the streets isn't what I wanted either. Again I decided to take my life, this time with a handgun I found in the glove compartment of a friend's car. When my friend got out to buy us some liquor, I pressed the gun into my scalp and clicked back the trigger. Silence. I'd be dead right now if there had been even one bullet in that revolver.

When the police brought me home a week later, I told Mom that I had tried to kill myself. That's when she checked me into a mental hospital. Two weeks later Mom put me on a plane to New York to appear with her on The Judge Hatchett Show.

I was sure Judge Hatchett would send me to jail. But no matter how afraid I felt, I had decided that I'd act tough.

"What if that man had raped you?" the judge asked about the stranger who'd paid me to expose myself. I just stared. "I don't think you understand just how you're putting your life on the line," she finally, said. "I'm sending you to spend some time with two former prostitutes."

I'm alive today because of what happened next. The woman Judge Hatchett sent, Pommie Howie, showed up at my door and took me to the places where she had turned tricks for 20 years. "When I first started prostituting at around age 17, I felt worthless," Pommie explained as we walked the area around 183rd Street and Jerome Avenue in The Bronx. "I also felt my mom didn't care about me."

Our last stop was the one that truly broke me: Pommie took me to a bridge overlooking the river where she had nearly lost her life. "Once after I turned a trick," she said, "the man wanted his money back. So he pulled my pants off, picked me up and threw me into this river. Many girls' bodies have been found in this river."

After we left the bridge, Pommie said, "I've been HIV-positive for five years. Matter of fact, I was sick this morning, but I'm here because you matter to me."

Moments later, Pommie introduced me to Brenda Harris, a friend who had also once been a prostitute and had lost her daughter to that way of life. "My girl was brutally murdered," Brenda told me. "A man got her up in a Bronx apartment, cut off her breasts, slashed her throat and burned her body to a crisp. She was 13." All at once, the well of tears I'd been holding back came rushing out. I buried my face in my hands and began to cry. In that moment I realized I had to stop running. I could see my own life in the lives of Pommie and Brenda, and it really scared me. Where would I end up? Maybe strung out. Maybe homeless. Maybe even dead. I knew I wanted something better for myself.

When I returned the next day to tell Judge Hatchett what I'd experienced, I was so shocked and overwhelmed that my words seemed stuck in my throat. "I've always wanted to be a child-advocate attorney," I managed to tell the judge. "Get up here and hug me, girl," Judge Hatchett finally said, motioning me toward the bench and smiling. "All this foolishness has got to stop."

It did--as soon as I got home. I started studying, stopped ditching and became an honor student. I got involved in church and asked to be baptized. When some old friends would invite me to hang out with them and do the things we had done before, I'd say, "No, thanks. I'm not into that anymore. I have to move on with my life." At first my buddies were a little shocked at my response and called me a traitor, but over time I just found new friends.

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