We met Sara last month at a community education event at Community College of Allegheny County. We were there to talk about current state legislative efforts concerning hunger and poverty policy, including HB 222. This state bill, which will likely come up for a vote in the PA House in the next week, would ban people with drug felony convictions from receiving basic public benefits.
Sara is a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipient enrolled in the Keystone Education Yields Success (KEYS) program, which helps those receiving government assistance gain self-sufficiency by obtaining an education. (A current bill would expand that support period to two years so that KEYS enrollees can complete an Associate’s degree.)
She courageously agreed to share the story of one of the people who would be hurt by HB 222: her story, which Sara tells below in her own words:
I was 21 years old when I got into trouble. That was 14 years ago! I have changed so much since then and I can’t believe that people still judge me based on that instance.
Right now I live in Pittsburgh’s East End but I grew up in the Uniontown area, in Fayette County. I have a daughter who just turned 17, who I had on my graduation day from high school. (I was induced the day before the ceremony, so I was in the hospital while everybody was at graduation. I did graduate, though.)
I had a little bit of abuse in my childhood. I don’t want to get too personal, but I was raped by a guy and when I was really young there was a woman I was molested by.
I think that really made me feel indifferent for most of my life, not good enough. I felt like my mom should have handled it differently.
That led me to drug use—basically trying to self-medicate—at a young age. I think I was maybe 14 when I started smoking marijuana. It pretty much stayed at just that through high school. I still got good grades but on the weekends I smoked weed.
When I graduated and had my daughter I cleaned my act up—while I was pregnant and after she was born. When her father and I split a couple years later, he had her during the weekends and a day during the week. He fought and fought for that extra day so he wouldn’t be required to pay child support.
My dad paid a lot of my bills and my rent while I lived on my own as a single mom. I also sold weed to have a little bit of money and I was also on welfare.
I started partying on weekends again. That is how I got into raves. A friend of mine took me to one in Pittsburgh and I fell in love with everything about it. The music, the people.
I was experimenting some more with drugs. I started doing Ecstasy. A good friend of mine had gotten in trouble. I think he had counterfeit money that he got caught spending at the mall. I knew this, but a couple months had passed and I didn’t think anything of it when he asked me if I could get him some Ecstasy pills.
So I did—I got them from a friend in Pittsburgh and brought them up to my house in Uniontown. He came to my house with a friend of his and I sold him 8 of the pills. Two weeks later, his friend comes back knocking at my door. It turns out he was an undercover cop. I guess my friend set me up to get himself out of trouble.
They told me I was facing two years in jail. I was really scared. I didn’t know how to tell my parents. They had no clue that I’d ever even tried drugs.
And I had my daughter to worry about. She was not with me when this happened, thank goodness. That would have been horrible.
I told the cops that I would work with them, and set someone else up. It was really to buy myself some time so I could talk to my family and get a lawyer. To make a long story short, I never set anyone else up. I couldn’t do that.
I was 19- or 20-years-old at the time. I didn’t want to do jail time. I had a 2-year-old that I had to be there for. I was willing to do whatever I had to do to avoid that.
I agreed to a plea bargain that if I pled guilty I would not have to go to jail. I ended up getting convicted of intent to distribute, distribution, and possession.
When I got off the 90-days house arrest I moved in with my dad in Pittsburgh. I stayed clean and kept going to my Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I was still on probation for 23 months, getting urine-tested every month. Everything went smoothly after that, in terms of staying out of trouble.
But it has been a huge issue for me that I pled guilty; it means you cannot have your record expunged. Everyone does background checks now[i], so it is difficult to find work. Plus my license was suspended. I thought it was supposed to be six months per charge, but it turned out it was six months per pill that I sold to the undercover cop. So for 7 years I didn’t have my license.
During this time I didn’t do much. I was depressed. I did outpatient therapy. I worked at a jewelry store in Station Square for a short time. I had two friends die during that time, both drug-related. After that, I was extremely depressed and felt that I need to get away from Pittsburgh. So I moved back in with my daughter’s father. We bought a house together.
I went to Penn State Fayette for 2 years, though I ended up having to drop out after I left him again. I got full-time administrative work at a drug treatment facility for $10/hour.
But then I relapsed.
I moved back to Pittsburgh to a recovery house. I started going back to Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
I have been clean since 2007.