Growing up, events and environment pointed strongly in one direction for Chris McCray: A life of escalating crime leading to imprisonment.
In third grade, his father was murdered close to the family’s home in southwest Detroit. Chris believes the murder was gang and drug-related. “You don’t get shot that many times unless they’re sending a message,” he says.
What this message meant was devastating to Chris and his two older brothers, all three separated by less than four years. But it also, in an eerie sense, seemed to portend their own future.
As they grew older, they joined neighborhood gangs, used and sold drugs, disdained school, adopted aggression and violence as the means to get what they wanted, and became well known to law enforcement and juvenile court.
The oldest brother, Juan, is 24. He was convicted of criminal sexual conduct in 2007. Juan is now in a maximum security facility after destroying his former prison cell.
“Lord willing, he will not get out for a long time,” says Tina McCray, the mother of the three brothers. Juan was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, she says, and his severe mental illness went untreated. He went into juvenile lockup at 12 years old and saw himself as a predator. Now, she fears, Juan dwells in a depraved place where even a mother’s love cannot tread.
Jerome, the middle brother, is in prison for arson after setting fire to a house in Hamtramck. He was alone in the house at the time.
“I think it was a cry for help,” Chris says. Jerome was addicted to cocaine and pills, Chris explains, and may have been self-medicating because of mental illness issues. There is a history of mental illness in the family, adds Tina, who is herself bipolar.
“Chris looked up to Jerome as a boy and learned his behavior from him,” says Vanessa Isom-Jackson, who is a family advocate at the Association for Children’s Mental Health (ACMH) in Detroit. ACMH is a close partner agency with Southwest Counseling Solutions, providing additional support services to families in Southwest’s Wraparound program.
Vanessa started working with the McCray family eight years ago. “She has been with us through so much trauma,” Tina says. “I firmly believe that her persistence and compassion helped to save one life – Chris.”
As adolescents, Jerome and Chris’s behavior become so belligerent that Tina had to move out of her own home. Chris started skipping most days of school when he entered Southwestern High School. And yet, he did well on his tests and was even considered a superior math student.
As the number of absent days mounted, Chris was summoned to Juvenile Court for chronic truancy. Vanessa went along and, with Tina’s permission, presented evidence of Chris’s involvement with drugs. Both thought that it was the only way to get Chris the serious help he needed.
Tina cried as Vanessa spoke to the judge. Chris became furious and then flipped over a table in the courtroom when it became apparent that he was going to be sent away to a residential treatment facility.
“I really thought that Chris would end up like his father if we didn’t get him well away from the neighborhood,” Vanessa says. “It was a painful choice for Tina, but necessary to save her son’s life.”
Chris was sent to Wolverine Human Services in Vassar, Michigan. He spent nine months there, then entered the community-based juvenile justice program at Southwest Counseling Solutions. However, Chris violated his probation and was sent back to the residential facility in Vassar.
“When I returned to Vassar, they told me: This is your last chance, the next stop is the big house,” Chris says. “I realized they were right.”
Chris steadily became receptive to the counseling and opportunities provided to him. He says that this was the crucial difference between himself and Jerome, who was offered similar services.
“If you’re not willing to take responsibility and help yourself, no program, no matter how good, will work for you,” Chris says.
Tina and Vanessa came to see Chris frequently at Vassar, and their support encouraged Chris to continue improving his life.
“Tina is a mother who wanted the best for her kids and wanted to get help for them and herself,” Vanessa says. “She learned to be a better parent and got treatment for her mental illness to bring it under control.”
Chris received his high school diploma at the residential program. He maintained a high GPA and wanted to go to college. He felt, however, that his dreams would be derailed if he returned to his old neighborhood in Detroit and the same detrimental influences and environment.
To avoid this situation and continue his progress, Chris is now receiving housing and services support through the “Blue Babies” initiative from the Park West Foundation. The initiative helps young people who have aged out of systems of care (like foster care or juvenile justice facilities). As part of the program, Chris has been speaking to students in Detroit middle schools, trying to deter them from making the mistakes that he did.
Chris is enrolled in Wayne County Community College to take the core courses he needs before he pursues a degree in nursing at Wayne State University. He is confident that he will realize his goals for success.
“I have survived a lot and I will overcome whatever problems life throws at me,” Chris says.