On June 5, 2007, Brian Hancock graduated from Seton Hall Law School in Newark, New Jersey. Though he was one of nearly 500 graduates, his story behind the story is significant to those of us in the business of reclaiming troubled teens. Ten years earlier at age fourteen, Brian was locked up with the very real prospect of spending the rest of his life in adult prison. This article recounts his story as told to Scott Larson.
Hungry, frightened, and clothed only in my underwear, here I was, 14 years old, curled up in the corner of a police station cell trying to keep warm. Fear gripped my heart, as thoughts of suicide plagued my mind. A million questions were swirling around in my head that night. How had all this happened? Is it just a bad dream? Will I ever see the light of day again?
Facing the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison, sleep didn’t come to me that first night in a jail cell. Instead my mind was on rewind, trying to understand just how I had gotten to this point.
As far as a father was concerned, I never really had one. Oh sure, there was a man involved, someone fathered me. But that is altogether different than having a father. And while the man would probably read about this incident in tomorrow's newspaper, he would have no idea that it was his son who was involved.
But what was going to happen to my mother? I kept seeing her anguished face over and over in my mind. I couldn’t get the sounds of her loud wailing at the police station out of my mind. I knew she would only blame herself. And so once again, I was trying to be the strong one saying, “It's okay, mom. It's okay. Everything's going to be all right.”
I knew that her whole life had been plagued with problems. As I began to review her difficult past, I kept thinking, One more thing like this might just send her over the edge.
No mom deserves this
Raised in an alcoholic home, mom, as a young teen, had been abused by both her father and grandfather. Distrust and abandonment had marked her life from the very beginning, and so it was no surprise that by age 14, she was drinking heavily, and by 18 she had moved out of the house – never to return.
After that, Mom had a string of relationships with men, most, unfortunately, resembled her own abusive father. Meanwhile, when I was 5 years old, I was scrounging up bottles and cans, exchanging them for Lipton soup pouches and cup cakes at the corner store, as my mom's drinking was escalating. I would search the house for food stamps so I could buy milk and bread. I would make sandwiches for Mom, begging her to eat, but she existed largely on a diet of coffee, cigarettes, and booze.
School was a bright spot
I always knew my mom loved me. That’s why she felt so guilty for neglecting me every time she would sober up. Trying to make up for that, she would often say, You don’t have to go to school today, Bry. Let's just the two of its go shopping.
But I liked school. I had gotten used to getting myself ready and going on my own since I was in first grade. But even school didn’t come easy for me. In first grade, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and a moderate speech impediment. I was put on Ritalin and given special education services. But I was determined to succeed. By eighth grade, I had received all kinds of academic awards and graduated from middle school with honors.
I remember my middle school principal. He knew my mom and my situation, but he never condemned me. Instead, he would just keep tabs on me, and any time I would skip school, he “d call me into his office and talk with me ... just like a dad.
But looking back on it now, I realize I was developing a warped sense of identity. Seeing myself as the man of the house, I felt the responsibility of being both a provider for and a protector of my mom. I felt like I had to protect her, not only from herself, but also from the teachers and social workers who would ask me questions and send things home for her to sign. I’d sign her name and make up excuses for why she could never attend the parent meetings. I knew that if people saw how things really were, they'd probably take me away and put me in a foster home.
By the time I was nine, I was doing pretty much whatever I wanted. The kids I hung out with at school were pretty positive, but in the projects it was different. Because most of the kids my age had curfews, I started staying out late with older kids. At first I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Just watching. And learning. I remember how good it felt just to be included by the older kids.
But, bad company corrupts good character. When I was ten, I started breaking windows in the neighborhood. By age eleven, I was stealing car stereos and selling them for $50-$75, figuring it was a good way to get the money my mom and I needed to survive. At twelve, I became a “lookout” for a couple of drug dealers in the projects. Here I could earn an easy $100 just for keeping watch for a couple hours.
A move – but not for the better
At age twelve I was finally arrested, charged with shoplifting. Then a couple of weeks later I was arrested again, this time for damaging property. Mom was becoming very concerned. She called her sister to see if we could move in with her for a little while. “He just needs to get out of the projects and get some new positive friends,” she said.
But actually, the opposite happened. Not knowing anybody in our new neighborhood or school, I started hanging out with my cousin's 14-year-old boyfriend. He was just two years older, but he became like a big brother to me. He was also a member of a local teenage gang.
Anxious to prove myself, I started stealing cars and dealing drugs, turning all the money over to the gang. My loyalty was quickly gaining me an acceptance from the leaders, who had at first been wary of me because I was the only white guy in an Asian gang.
Our gang had four main leaders. One of them became like a father to me, even though he was only eighteen. He was both highly respected and feared in the neighborhood. Often, I would go to him for advice. He was the one who got me my first gun.
During the fall of 1990, things were quickly coming to a head between our gang and our main rival gang. The issue had always been one of turf. But now that one of our members had been jumped and beaten, we were after revenge.
On the afternoon of March 12, I remember being surprised to see one of our gang leaders waiting for me after school. He never came, or even hung around school, so I knew something was up. He had come to ask me to go with him to follow the kid who had jumped our friend. I felt honored that he had asked me, but also a little nervous about what might happen. I agreed to go.
In an empty parking lot, he confronted the kid. Then it turned into a fistfight. A few minutes later, another kid who was with us jumped in, kicked the kid from behind, and knocked him to the ground. He then surprised everybody by pulling a small pistol from his pocket and firing a shot into the kid's side.
Stunned by both the shot and the screaming, the rest of us started running across the parking lot. Four to five seconds later, we heard a second shot. Looking back, I saw the body of the kid lying motionless on the pavement. I just kept running.
Once our leaders figured out what had happened, they started calling associated gang members in other cities to find a place for us to go while the heat was on. I was supposed to fly out the next morning.
I went home and just sat in my bedroom. l felt numb. I had never seen anyone die before. I had never even really hurt anyone before. At age fourteen, what had my life come to? What was going happen to me now?
Later that night, I heard a knock at the door. I looked out the window and I saw three older white guys standing there. I knew they were detectives. When my mom went out and opened the door, they asked if I was there. They came in and took me and my mom to the police station.
I really knew that I was done for at that point. I was real scared. I was also worried about what my mom would say. After questioning me for several hours, the detective took all my clothes to examine as evidence and put me into a cold cell with a metal bed frame and nothing but my underwear. Cold, hungry, and afraid, l think it was probably the worst night of my life.
The next morning they took me to court. My mom brought clothes to the police station for me to wear to court. I remember coming up the stairs to my arraignment. As soon as I got to the top of the stairs, I saw my mom with a social worker. She was crying real loud. My heart was just crushed. With all her other problems, this was the last thing she needed. I didn’t know if she would be able to survive this.
Later that morning, me and my three friends were all charged with murder.
They took me to a juvenile detention center that night. I remember coming in there and feeling scared. I had no idea what to expect. I had never been locked up before, and I had no idea how many years I might spend locked up.
I saw a couple people I knew, and a few people from opposite gangs, but all of a sudden that didn’t matter anymore. Those first few nights were especially tough. I remember one time I woke up in the middle of the night and I thought I was free. I thought I was in my house and I tried to get up and open the door but it was locked. Suddenly I snapped out of the dream – it had become a nightmare.
That's when I really started thinking about where my life was going. Here I was, only 14 years old, sitting in a jail cell. This wasn’t how life was supposed to be. So I started talking to staff, trying to find out how they did so well, or how they succeeded in life.
Some gave me advice on how to control my temper. Others talked about the need to be focused on school and getting my education and stuff like that. But none of it changed me. It didn’t make me be a different person. I still had the same problems.
My heart was still hard. I still had all the same issues in my life and even if I wanted to change, I couldn’t do it. All my habits were still the same, and so were my desires. Most of all, I was still empty.
So I decided to go to a Bible study that was offered there on Wednesday nights. Of all things, they happened to be talking about “hard hearts” that night. That really touched me and made me realize who I was and the position that I was in. I learned that God was the only one who could heal that, change my heart, and soften it. I realized that that's what I needed. It was what I had been looking for the whole time – something that could change my heart and make me a new person. I knew I needed to be changed all the way through – from my whole personality to my whole being. So when I prayed that night, I really began to feel a difference.
It's not like everything changed at once, like I was just holy at that point, but I started to read my Bible more and I started to pray. I began to think more about God and spiritual things. It actually wasn’t until after I had been found guilty, received a sentence, and was sent to a different facility to do my time that I started going to a Bible study every week, even though sometimes I was the only kid who attended. But going there every week, being taught by older people who really had a grasp on things and who could train me, was one of the most important things I did in the 15 months at that facility.
As my time started coming to an end, they were talking about where I was going to live after I got out. My dad had begun to visit me a few times while I was locked up, so they wondered about my going to live with him. But I really didn’t feel comfortable around him. I still had a lot of anger toward him, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to live with him.
At that point my caseworker recommended the home at Straight Ahead Ministries. I realized that Scott and Hanne were the ones who ran the Bible study where I was first locked up. I didn’t feel comfortable living with people who weren’t family, but my caseworker asked me to just have an interview with them so I could at least know what they had to offer. I agreed to meet with them and see what they said. After some thought, I decided that's where I wanted to go.
My dad came down a couple of times for visits, but then he just kind of faded out of the picture. Scott and Hanne were the strongest influence on me, and I felt like the house was where I really needed to be to continue to grow, even though I still had a lot of hard times. While I was there, I had a strong support network and a lot of people who really cared about me and continued to believe in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.
The temptations were a lot tougher than I had imagined they would be. I figured it would be the opposite, that once I was out, things would be so much easier than being locked up. But I was wrong. l had been used to calling my own shots ever since I could remember. I had been like the father of the house since I was six or seven, because my mother was drunk so much of the time. But now there were people telling me what to do all the time. At first I didn’t like it at all. “Who are they to tell me what to do?” But after messing up and ending back in the detention center after only a couple weeks, I started seeing that I needed people who would be on my back saying, “You may keep messing up, but we'e not going to give up on you.” That was so crucial. I started to see that real love means caring enough to confront someone. Within a few days, I was placed back in Scott and Hanne's home, but with a shorter leash this time.
Dreams for the future
Part of what we did at the house was to go on mission trips each summer. My life back in Lowell had been about ten blocks big, but now I was going to Tijuana, Mexico, Ireland, and the Ukraine. That had a big impact on me.
Scott and Hanne were asking me what I felt I wanted to do with my life. As I started thinking back on my life, I remembered my lawyer. All the lawyers I had before were public defenders who really didn’t care about me. Most of them wouldn’t even remember my name. But when this big case came down, this lawyer offered to take my case. Unlike all the others, he put a lot of effort into coming to see me. He'd even bring me books to help stretch my mind.
He acted like he actually believed in me. I think he was the first person I had met who ever believed in me. He consistently acted like I was worth putting time and effort into. That really affected me in a lot of ways. It really made me want to do something. It really made me want to achieve and to be successful because somebody thought I could.
As I was thinking about what I'd like to do with my life, I decided I wanted to be an attorney who cares about justice and about seeing that poor people receive the same defense as rich people. I wanted to do what my lawyer did for me, to help the kids who most people had given up on. When I started telling people, I could see nobody took it too seriously. And I don’t blame them. I wasn’t getting all A's and B's on my report card, and to get into law school, you have to have very good grades. I think they also thought that since I was only in eleventh grade, I would probably change my mind several times before I graduated – if I graduated.
Even though people didn’t really get too excited about my dream, they didn’t discourage it either. But for me, it became the driving force to get my grades up. For the first time, I had a dream that was consuming me. It was something I felt strong about. I felt that God wanted me to do it.
Me in college?
I started checking into colleges during my junior year of high school. I really wanted to go to a Christian college, because I knew if I didn't, it would be hard for me to keep growing strong in my faith. But I wanted to go to the best one there was – academically, anyway.
Over the Christmas holidays, Scott and Hanne took five of us who were living in the house on a trip to the Midwest where we visited four different colleges. The one I liked best was Wheaton College in Chicago. It was also the most expensive and the hardest one to get into. But they had a full scholarship for guys coming out of prison. The only problem was, you had to get accepted first to be able to apply for the scholarship.
I had heard that only about one out of every eight people who apply actually gets accepted; and that lots of straight A students don’t get accepted at Wheaton because the competition to get in is so fierce. It seemed like a pretty long shot for someone like me.
When we were there, I met with some of the admissions counselors and with some of the scholarship people. They all said that they liked me, but not to get my hopes too high because of the competition. The scholarship people also said that they had never had a juvenile accepted for the scholarship program, and they weren’t sure if that would fly with the scholarship committee. I was a little discouraged when we left, thinking there was no way it could happen
I applied at a few other schools, sort of half-heartedly. Several months later, I got a letter from Wheaton saying I had been accepted! I was on my way.
When I got the news of my acceptance into Wheaton, it was the winter of my senior year. All of a sudden the pressure was off to get good grades, and so I started slipping in my schoolwork quite a bit. The last semester I actually got three failing slips. Scott and Hanne were really upset. In one of the classes, it looked like I wouldn’t be able to even make up the work, which meant I wouldn’t graduate. Scott told me he wasn’t sure what to do. Whether he should try to meet with the teacher or have me learn a hard lesson. Finally, he decided to meet with the teacher and see if I could make up the work over the summer. The teacher said he didn’t think he should make any exceptions for me because he had given me plenty of chances during the year, and I didn’t do what he had asked me to do. I had messed up the greatest opportunity that ever came my way, just like I had done my whole life.
In the end, the teachers did agree to let me make up the schoolwork over the summer, and I graduated from high school. As it turned out, I was the first in my family to ever graduate from high school. My mother and aunts came to the graduation ceremony and were really proud of me. That was a big switch from only causing them pain in the past.
Having a lot of struggles while I was at Straight Ahead Ministries helped me to really buckle down once I got to college. Being so close to going back to jail at so many different points made me ready to give up all the garbage and really focus my life on following God. Once I did that, things really started coming together for me.
While I was at Wheaton, I led two different juvenile detention center Bible studies. I also did tutoring with inner city kids my freshman year, and I played intramural sports at the college.
But most of all, I was meeting a lot of really strong Christians my own age and learning a lot about myself and about what I wanted to be. And I was succeeding on my own, which was incredible for me. It was the first time I saw myself being responsible without having people riding me or pushing me. I was able to be self-motivated and to do it on my own.
A dream come true
During my senior year of college, I began applying to different law schools. When I took the Law School Aptitude Test, I even scored in the top 95th percentile. I got accepted at a few good law schools, but I decided upon Seton Hall in Newark, New Jersey, because they offered me a full scholarship to go there.
My studies kept me busy from early morning until late at night, but I still carved out one night to go into a local juvenile jail to lead a Bible study with kids who were where I once was. I never want to forget where I've come from. God has really worked an amazing turn around in my life. There have been a lot of people who have supported me and helped me out along the way, but it was definitely God who changed my heart way back in 1991 in that detention center in Massachusetts.
I’m certainly not any different from any other kid coming off the street, but if God can help me make it to where I am, then He can do it for anyone. It's not about my being successful – it's about God's working a miracle through me, and that's a hope that any kid can have. It's not just my hope, it's every kid's hope and it's every kid's possibility.
Brian Hancock, a former resident of Straight Ahead Ministries aftercare home in Westboro, Massachusetts, has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and theology from Wheaton College and a doctor of law degree from Seton Hall Law School. He worked for Covenant House in Newark, NJ, doing legal advocacy for runaway youth and spent summers as an intern clerk with a juvenile court judge. He currently holds n position as a clerk with a juvenile court judge in New Jersey while preparing for the New Jersey bar exam and hopes to be a public defender in the New Jersey juvenile court.
This feature: Hancock, B. with Larson, S. (2001). On both sides of the law. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 10(3), pp.184-188