A significant aspect of CRIME STORY’s mission is to draw attention to programs that have demonstrated success in helping stem the tide of over-incarceration. As part of that mission, we published The RightWay To Shut Off the Foster Care to Prison Pipeline by Sean Smith. That piece told the story of how the RightWay Foundation — based in Los Angeles — is working to address the core reasons why 25% of California’s recently emancipated foster youth are incarcerated within two years of emancipation. (This has become known as the Foster Care To Prison Pipeline.)
As a critical part of these efforts, the RightWay Foundation provides therapy for these youth to help them process their trauma and reclaim the narratives of their lives.
In Sean’s piece, CRIME STORY and the RightWay Foundation announced the launch of a unique creative collaboration. Building off of their therapy efforts, and working closely with CRIME STORY journalists, a self-selected group of RightWay youth will craft narratives about their experiences in and out of the foster care system. These accounts will be published on the CRIME STORY website periodically.
This is one of those accounts; this is Belle’s story.
“Belle” is not Belle’s given name. She chose to leave her legal first name behind because it made her feel like she was living in the past. Now she has reinvented herself and her eyes are set on a bright future. Now she’s not her baggage; she’s just Belle.
“Just let me see my face!” Belle kept yelling but the officers just laughed. Blood poured onto the pavement. Her blood. She could barely see it. One eye swollen shut, the other barely open. No one would give her a mirror.
It started at one am. Belle, twenty-one-years old and an aspiring model, was about to go to bed in her private room, part of a larger apartment with a shared living space and several other renters. She had just gotten back from spring break in Atlanta, a week that included a trip to the MLK museum, a visit to the Coca-Cola factory and plenty of clubbing. Now, with just two days before a runway show, Belle needed some serious rest and she was concerned about being too bloated from vacation to fit the garments that had been sized before her trip.
Then the arguing started in the common room.
Through her bedroom door, Belle heard the couple’s fight escalate. She recognized their voices but didn’t know them personally. They were new occupants in the apartment: a small woman with ratty hair and her tall stick-thin boyfriend. Belle didn’t like to judge, but they seemed like junkies. Now, in the middle of the night, their speech sounded erratic. This wasn’t the kind of fight you could arbitrate — it was one you avoided and prayed would dissipate by morning. Belle rolled over in bed.
A body slammed into Belle’s door. Another slam. She shot up and grabbed her cellphone, dialing 911. The unknown couple’s dispute had somehow subsided, being replaced by a common desire to force entry into Belle’s room. Screws flew off the door. Fractured wood splintered from the frame. “Stay on the line,” the 911 operator advised. It was an unnecessary suggestion: Belle was clinging to her phone like a life preserver. “Can you go out a window?” No. She was on the second floor with harsh concrete below. “Can you find someplace to hide?”
Before Belle could make a move, the door burst open, flying off its hinges. The couple stormed through the demolished doorframe. The woman held a knife and the man brandished his bare fists. Months later, Belle can barely remember what happened next. It was a blur of knocks to her head. Blunt, aggressive punches that made her face crack. She was dragged on the floor. Her phone was clawed out of her vice grip. By the time they threw her outside she couldn’t feel her mouth and she could hardly see. Warm blood spilled down her chin.
Belle used all the strength left in her battered body to knock on neighbors’ doors. Some doors remained locked — silence dismissing her cries for help. Others responded with outright aggression. Her frail bleeding body was mistaken for just another junkie. One man stood his ground and yelled, “Get the fuck off my porch or I’ll beat your ass myself.” Exhausted and dizzy from pain, Belle gave up and collapsed on the pavement.
When she woke up, there were three officers on the scene.
That’s when she saw the policemen laugh. That’s when she felt the pool of blood. That’s when she begged for a mirror. That’s when she realized no one cared about her story.
The officers took statements from neighbors and from Belle’s assailants. They all shrugged off the girl with the beaten face: she was probably on drugs. And because Belle was now “the girl on drugs” the officers didn’t take her statement. But Belle is street smart; she picked up on the narrative floating around the crime scene, the smirks on the officer’s faces, and the flippant attitude of the paramedics who arrived late. She asked the officers for all six of their names; they gave her two. Belle requested that they secure her valuables from inside the apartment so her attackers wouldn’t steal more of her property; the officers said it wasn’t their problem. She pleaded to go to the hospital to get a drug test to prove she was clean and to receive treatment for her head wound. They reluctantly agreed.
At the hospital, Belle was given a saline drip and little more than a passing glance from a doctor. Someone told her the officers would arrive shortly to get her statement for their report. No one ever came. She again asked for a mirror and was ignored. They discharged her after three hours. It was four in the morning and none of Belle’s contacts were answering their phones. With no one to pick her up and no money for a cab, the hospital staff gave her a map of the trains and sent her out the door.
She could barely see the map through her swollen eyes. The world was unsteady and Belle was still in shock, her face numb and feeling hollow. She couldn’t go home and risk seeing her attackers. The only safe space left was her school, Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.
Belle is still uncertain of how she made it to school that day. Somehow she navigated the trains despite being unfamiliar with the area. At one point she knows she got lost and a stranger walked her towards the school. It was a Hispanic man – at least that’s what she thinks. She couldn’t see him.
When she arrived at her school it was six am. The building was empty except for the janitors lining garbage cans and straightening chairs — final preparations before the faculty would settle in to welcome students to a new day of learning. Belle staggered to her counselor’s office and laid herself on the cold ground in front of the locked door. When her counselor found Belle there an hour and a half later, she dropped to her knees and cradled Belle like her own child. Belle saw the terror in her counselor’s eyes when she looked at her beaten face. She still hadn’t seen herself but those eyes told her everything: it was bad. Really bad. For the first time in hours, Belle let herself be vulnerable. She cried.
The counselor cleaned her up and comforted her. She got her a mirror. The woman squinting back at Belle was bludgeoned: two black eyes, one swollen shut completely, the bruising seeped her dark skin in a violent magenta. Belle’s left front tooth was broken in half, the nerve exposed and raw. Another tooth on the left side of her mouth was loose. Dried blood clung to her skin.
Months later, Belle reflected on how the trauma impacted her mentality. “I started to feel Black. I don’t know if I ever felt Black before.”
Belle had been in the foster system since she was a child. Her father was in jail for most of her childhood and her relationship with her biological mother had always been tenuous at best. She had her run-ins with the law and had served some time in prison. But this was the moment that made her feel most like a statistic — like someone the police deemed unworthy of justice. She explained, “When you watch the news or you see stuff about black people that say black women are independent but we’re aggressive or we always have attitude or that black men are criminals or gang bangers or that they don’t have compassion. I feel like I was starting to see how I fit that stereotype. Because before that I just felt like a person.”
After the incident, Belle was sent to a psychiatric ward because she was honest with her counselor about having suicidal thoughts. The hospital refused to release her without someone to pick her up, so Belle had to reach out to her biological mother, who reluctantly took her in. Doctors at the psych ward warned Belle that her brain was still healing from trauma and that she needed to stay away from loud noises, keep her body warm, and get plenty of rest. Her mother dismissed these medical recommendations. She blared the TV, blasted the AC and woke Belle up at all hours. After a month, Belle decided to leave the house. She couldn’t go back to the apartment so she went to a women’s shelter where she stayed for two months until the staff kicked her out for not having a TB test. Left without a refuge in Los Angeles, Belle decided to move to Atlanta, Georgia, the last place that she remembered being happy.
Before she moved, Belle tried one last time to get justice for what had been done to her. She contacted a social worker online and told him about her situation. Empathetic to her trauma, the white, redheaded man picked Belle up in his car and drove her to the office of the detective that supposedly had been assigned her case. They waited on a bench for an hour as an assistant looked for Belle’s file. With each minute that passed the truth became clearer: the file wasn’t there.
Maybe the file never even existed.
When the social worker stood up to check on the assistant’s progress, Belle started sliding. Her vision went dark and she fell off the bench, hitting her head on the pointed corner where two walls intersected. Upon impact, Belle had a seizure, her body and brain spasming as a result of the past and present physical trauma. The social worker took her to the hospital. Her body was stabilized but her emotions were explosive. Angry about the injustice of the system, she yelled at everyone around her. She knew her fury wasn’t directed at the right people but the right people weren’t there to reprimand: the police, the assailants, and her neighbors were miles away all living their lives without the life changing burden of trauma that Belle now carried in her bones.
It’s a year later and Belle is back in Los Angeles, splitting time between her sister’s house and her friends’ couches. Belle still has a split front tooth, but her smile and her attitude are beautiful. She wears her hair natural — a style she’s intentionally adopted to show her pride in being a black woman. It’s a rare person who has the courage to emotionally confront their trauma and grow through the pain — but that’s Belle. She wants to write a book and become a life coach, using her own experiences to teach young women that they are powerful and worthy of respect.
Sometimes Belle thinks about returning to her case — following up on that file and tracking down the detective that was supposed to investigate the incident – but not right now. Now is the time for her to strive for her full potential, to focus on the future and not the past. When asked about what she’s going to do next Belle says “I’m not going to fall victim. I’m going to have victory.”