The war at home
When you ask Chicago mom Janet Nieves about her oldest son, Radames, the first thing she’ll mention is his intelligence.
"When I was pregnant with him I read an article that said that if you read to your child when you’re pregnant, the child would be very intelligent. I read all the Dr. Seuss books to him when I was pregnant and then he read Seuss books to his younger brother," she says.
Even smart teenagers rebel, though, and Radames started down a path of crime and gang activity in high school that led to his death by a rival gang member June 3, 2004.
Janet put her son in a high school where he could be with kids at his academic level and she says that’s where the rebelling began.
"He got in trouble with other kids at the school. I remember once he told me, ‘You’re raising me as a dork, Mom.’ I tried to cover him from things on the street—I never wanted him involved in any of that."
The first hint of trouble came with an arrest for breaking into cars with other kids and stealing cell phones. Janet was determined to keep her child out of trouble and in school—and despite continual problems, Radames graduated from high school. Yet gang problems continued after graduation, landing him six months in prison. Around that time Janet went into the hospital with a heart condition, a wake up call for Radames.
"That’s when I saw a change in him, so he tried to pull out. He kept saying, ‘I don’t want you to get sick. I’m going to get out of all this.’ He wanted to go to barber school, so I found one, and I relocated him to his cousin’s house so he would be safe. I had the papers on my desk for him to sign for the loan to go to school when a call came from his cell phone."
On the other end of that call was Radames’s cousin: Radames had been shot.
Janet now speaks to other kids and parents, trying to keep them from the same fate.
"If I can save one life I can die a happy woman," she says.
Her son’s death has not made Janet a bitter or angry woman—instead she tells parents to persevere and not lose hope.
"My message to the mothers—no matter how many times you have to go to court, get them out of jail, go to school—do not give up on your children, because I didn’t. I was going to get him out, but he slipped through."