[Good News] Starcia Ague: Juvenile Offender Turned Advocate
If you had told me when I was six years old and living in homeless shelter after homeless shelter…
or when I was 12 years old and living in a meth lab…
or when I was 15 and standing before a judge facing felony charges of robbery and kidnapping…
or when I was 20 and still fighting the system to get the education I knew was my only hope for a decent life…
If you’d told me then that I would one day describe my life as a success story… well, I guess saying that’s just plain crazy doesn’t quite go far enough. Impossible? That’s closer. But… here I am. And I am proud to say that I am a success… even though I know I have a whole lot more I need to accomplish.
When I was growing up outside of Olympia in Western Washington with my mom, we’d live in different homeless shelters until my mother got mad and broke the rules and they’d kick us out. Then we’d stay in our car or try to find friends to crash with.
I’m the oldest of four kids. All of us have different fathers, which isn’t surprising when you know that my mother would sell her body to make money or to get drugs. She’d always choose the most abusive men she could find… and she never cared if they hit her or hit her kids. Moving around so much, I went to lots of different elementary schools. I’d wind up with head lice so often that I’d miss months of school.
My mother’s anger was pretty constant. I’d call Child Protective Services all the time… or get my principal or a teacher to call. It didn’t seem like anyone really cared though. They’d come to do a report and my mother would fool them. She was so system savvy: she knew just what to say, how to cheat on drug tests, and exactly how to scare her kids into staying quiet. We were taught not to trust authority. If I did tell, my mother would beat me for it.
She kicked me out when I was eleven years old. She said I was a burden and caused way too many problems. I didn’t know where to go or what to do.
My father wasn’t really in my life… except when he came over to give my mother drugs in exchange for sex. My mother made sure I knew that he didn’t care about me. But when you’re eleven years old… even a dad who doesn’t care is a better option than living on the street. I managed to find out where he was living– a meth lab near Olympia. I found him and threatened to tell the cops he was cooking meth if he didn’t let me stay there.
I hate to say it… but living with a big time drug dealer gave me a much better life than I had with my mom. There was always food in the refrigerator. I had money for school clothes and school supplies. I slept on the couch in the living room and there were always people coming in and out to buy drugs. I thought that if they wanted to see my dad badly enough they’d pay for it. So I started charging them at the door. It was my first attempt to begin a college fund.
You see, I’d finally realized that my life wasn’t exactly “normal”… and I knew even then that education was a way out for me. When I went over to my friends’ houses, they’d all sit down and say grace and have dinner together. I’d eat by myself while my dad made drugs in the shack next to the house. For the first time, I saw something what I wanted to have… and I knew that I had to stay in school to get it.
Our house would get raided a lot. When the police busted in, they’d treat me just like everyone else and throw me to the ground and handcuff me. I don’t blame them. When my dad did finally go to jail for a few days, CPS just gave me to his brother – my uncle – who was also a drug dealer. My dad bailed out of jail with $20,000 cash… he gave me a Toyota Four-Runner, a half-ounce of dope and $200 and said he’d come back. But he skipped bail and never did. I was thirteen years old.
I couldn’t stay in my father’s house because it had been seized by the authorities as hazardous property. So I lived with friends, or in the occasional foster home, which I always ran away from, and even back with my mom off and on. By then, I was smoking marijuana, popping pills and drinking a lot. It was an escape. It was what I knew.
When I was 15, my mother stole $5,000 worth of dope from some people. They got their revenge by breaking into the house where she was living and tearing the place up. The woman who owned the house told my mother she had to pay for it. When I visited my mom in rehab, she ordered me to “take care of business”… to get drugs and money and whatever it would take to fix up the house. I knew what she’d do to me if I didn’t try. So I did.
It was the biggest mistake of my life.
I was getting high with three guy friends and we decided to rob the home of some of my dad’s drug customers. I’d delivered dope there for him and I knew they had guns and money and even silver bars in the house. While I waited outside on the dirt road near the house, my friends went up to the front door, knocked… and asked to borrow a cup of sugar. I never thought anyone would get hurt. But then they slammed open the door and I heard a woman scream. When I went into the house… I found that the guys had tied people up inside. They were screaming and threatening and terrorizing them. It got way out of hand. I was in shock. But it was too late.
A couple weeks later, one of the guys was picked up on another charge and he told the whole story. He said that I had planned it all, that I was the mastermind. Fair enough – I guess I was. And at the age of 15, I was charged with six Class A felonies and took a plea for three. The judge saw a small glimmer of potential in me and I was not tried as an adult. I still got the equivalent of what they call “juvie life” – incarceration in the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration prison system for youth until my 21st birthday.
When I finally arrived at JRA’s Naselle Youth Camp in a remote forested area of southwestern Washington, I had a third grade reading level and a fourth grade math level. My long commitment to getting an education was still there, somewhere… but it was buried deep under tons of resentment, rebellion and anger. I lashed out at everyone, refused to communicate, and thought everyone at JRA was against me. I burned a lot of bridges.
Meeting a woman at Bible study one day showed me that there were people who had overcome way more than I had… yet they still had faith and hope. I began to get in touch with my own spirituality and values for the very first time.
When I told the principal at the school at the institution that I wanted to take college classes, he just laughed at me. Most kids who go into the juvenile justice system were like me – way, way behind in their academic studies. The system focuses on getting them caught up or on helping them earn their GEDs or high school diplomas. College? Well, it just wasn’t going to happen… at least not for me.
But I refused to give up. I found another kid at JRA who was very intelligent and not nearly in as much trouble as I’d been, and he wanted to take college classes, too. I knew that if he could get started, I’d have a chance. Once he got the OK, I turned to some people who supported me and they wrote letters of recommendation: a counselor at the Institution, my middle school math teacher, a Tumwater police officer, my guardian ad litem from my numerous dependency hearings. Many of these people were and still are my mentors. They certainly had nothing to gain from it. In fact, there were times that I probably made them sorry they’d decided to stand by my side. But they made all the difference for someone like me. They were my role models… my champions… my advocates. And I’d never had anything like that in my whole life before.
Finally, the institution said they’d give me a chance to take Sociology 101, but I had to make an A if I wanted to go beyond that one course. Well, I not only made an A, I got a letter from the instructor saying I had written the best term paper he’d ever read in the past 30 years.
My last year in custody was spent in what they call transitional care… and I went to live in a group home, kind of like foster care, in Spokane. It’s supposed to prepare you to be released… because when you turn 21, they just boot you out with no probation, no parole, no counseling, no money, nothing. Let’s just say that my transitional home wasn’t the best of places either. But all I cared about was going to community college. I could now have a part-time job and I worked at Lowe’s. I could apply for financial aid and grants and scholarships and loans and take three or four classes at a time.
To make my last year a little easier, I started going to Bible study again with a group of older women. It was there that I met the woman I now consider my godmother, Kristi Hensley. Honestly, she’s the mother I’d always dreamed I could have.
By then, I was just one course away from having enough credits for my Associate’s Degree. When Kristi and her husband, Ernie, learned that my dream was to get a four-year degree, they encouraged me to submit my application to Washington State University… and I was accepted. That summer marked three major milestones – I turned 21, was released from JRA, and I became a full-time student. Two years later – this past winter – I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in criminal justice.
After I graduated, I applied for 35 jobs. I got just two calls back and went in for one interview with a telemarketing company. I got the job… and I was so excited! But then they said, “Just one more thing. On the question about felony convictions on the job application, you put down ‘will discuss upon interview’. So… discuss.” I told them my story… and they told me good-bye. Miracle of miracles, and again through the help of people who believed in me, I did finally get a job in Seattle as a research assistant with Dr. Trupin at the University of Washington. But I was turned down for housing by three different landlords. I have great credit, but I couldn’t pass a background check. Fortunately, I found another WSU Alumnus with a rental house who gave me a break.
A couple years ago, I wrote a letter to the judge who sentenced me. I reminded him of the letter I had written the day I was sentenced… setting goals and making promises. To date, I have done everything I said I would do, plus lots of other good things, too. But I have more goals, more dreams. I want to work with youth to help them avoid the mistakes that I made. I want to help them learn to value education… to understand that knowledge, education, a degree, are things no one can ever take away from you. Those are all the things that you stress as mentors. I know I can do that, too… and I have a lot of bad examples and good examples from my own life to make those points.
But again, it is extremely difficult to work with kids in any capacity if you have a felony record as a juvenile. There must be reform so that juvenile mistakes won’t have lifelong consequences for young people who have truly been rehabilitated like the system intends and are committed to turning around their lives. The stated purpose of Washington’s juvenile justice system – and I imagine many others across the county – is rehabilitation. But even when youth learn from their mistakes, like me, many are forced to try to live as adults with the stigma of a juvenile record following them around.
I’m still fighting… not just for me but for others. Last year, I testified before the Legislature on a bill to allow Class A juvenile felony records like my robbery charges to be sealed….as long as youth have a clean record five years after their release, and at the discretion of the judge. The bill did pass. Unfortunately, during those five years while you’re waiting, it is really difficult to find a job or get a place to live with a felony record. And also unfortunately, the bill that passed did not give me the opportunity to seal my record.
I was encouraged to apply for a pardon from our Governor Christine Gregoire… and the State Pardons and Clemency Board gave me a unanimous Yes! I knew a pardon would be a long shot for me… even though I believed the Governor felt I had something to contribute. In 2009, she recognized me with the Governor’s “Spirit of Youth” Award, which is given to juvenile offenders who excel despite their past mistakes. And last fall, she appointed me to serve on the Washington Partnership Council on Juvenile Justice…our State Advisory Group – which like other SAGs, advocates for juvenile justice reforms and best practices to improve the system.
For months, I called the person in charge of pardons at the Governor’s office every single week. And then, just one year ago, I got the call and learned that I am now officially no longer a felon. I got my pardon!
I don’t know where I’d be today if people like the Hensley’s and others hadn’t cared enough to work with me. You have the opportunity to open doors for countless kids. There are thousands of kids out there waiting for people to care, thousands of success stories waiting to happen this very minute. I’m never going to stop caring about them and fighting for them. I hope you won’t ever stop either.
- Starcia Ague
DON’T MISS IT: Next week on the blog we’ll feature an interview with Starcia on religion, the mentors that changed her life, and her vision for a paradigm shift in how we think of system-involved youth.
Read more about Starcia and the work she is doing with youthful offenders: