Debra West would be the first to tell you her son was no saint.
“I don’t hide it. I may be ashamed of it,” she told me, “but I don’t hide it.”
Her son, Kendall Brown, 26, was one of 12 people killed two weeks ago during Chicago’s bloodiest weekend this year.
He was gunned down as he walked in the 4800 block of South Paulina by a shot fired from a passing Jeep, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Despite his youth, Brown had a string of arrests, and, in 2014, was sentenced to four years in prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, according to court records.
When someone with Brown’s criminal background is killed, it is easy to think “he had it coming” and “blame the parents.”
But Brown’s life and death shows the complexity of these things.
Mothers like West, who struggle to raise their children because of life’s disappointments, need help and don’t know how or where to get it.
West worked a full-time job while parenting three children alone.
She said Brown’s behavioral problems started in grammar school, when he was diagnosed with ADHD and a learning disability.
“At that time, I refused to put him on medicine because I didn’t want him on Ritalin,” West said.
After taking her son to a child psychiatrist, West acquiesced.
But Brown’s behavior worsened once his father left home, according to West.
“They were basically latchkey kids,” she said of her children. “Neighbors would watch them for me. But Kendall went wild. I did what I could do as a mother, but he kept getting into trouble.”
By high school, her son was refusing to take his medication.
“He said he didn’t like the way it made him feel, and the psychiatrist said I couldn’t make him take it,” West said.
His education suffered.
“I would take him to Hirsch High School, and he would go in one door and out the other,” she said. “He kept saying the gangs were bothering him. I put him in two alternative schools, and he never finished them.”
Brown was first arrested, as a juvenile, with other alleged gang members for threatening someone with a brick to hand over a cell phone, his mother said.
“I did what I could for my kids,” she said. “They weren’t deprived of stuff.”
At that time, West, 59, was working for the Cook County clerk of the circuit court’s office, from which she retired in 2013 after 33 years and seven months.
“It was so embarrassing that my son was locked up at Juvenile, and I had to go stand up before Judge [Terrence] Sharkey,” she said.
Brown spent summers with his father in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He got into trouble there, too, once for selling fake crack to addicts.
West got so frustrated that she stopped picking her son up from the police station.
“I told them to do what you have to do. I needed intervention, and I didn’t know how to get it,” she said.
“Police would steadily arrest him, and Kendall would be right back out there hanging out in the street.”
The family lived around 51st and Hoyne for nearly 30 years before moving to 88th and Cottage Grove while Brown was serving time.
By then, West had all but given up.
“He was good around the family, but when he got in the street with the guys, he was totally out of pocket,” West said.
But during the last two years, Brown showed signs he was turning his life around, the mother said.
“He had a 6-year-old son who is just like him with ADHD, so Kendall would go up to the school and sit in the back of classroom,” West said.
“He was trying to have something out of life. He had been working steadily. He had just gotten a real good job.
“But once you don’t gang-bang anymore, people remember what you used to do. He was in an area where he shouldn’t have been.
“I grieve for my son. I loved Kendall dearly.”
She thinks about what more she might have done.
“My mother made me go to church. That is probably why I am the person I am today — because I went. We had religion, and our kids need it. We just don‘t do it.”