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The death of Connie Landry at age forty closed the door on a childhood no kid should have to endure. If Powe often seems like a man amongst boys, it's not surprising. He was forced to be a man before he really had the chance to be a boy. When he was two years old, his dad, Leon Powe Sr., walked out, leaving his mother to support Leon and his newborn brother Tim on the pittance she earned peddling left-behind storage center items at East Bay flea markets.
During a recent Oakland Tech lunch hour, Powe takes some time out to reminisce about things he'd just as soon forget. As the hulking young man recalls it, his childhood was tough but tolerable. When he was little, his mom managed to hold down a variety of regular jobs: There was a stint with the parking lot at 17th and Franklin streets downtown, followed by a position with Regional Center of the East Bay. From the fall of 1991 through December 1992, Landry worked part-time as a temp secretary at Highland Hospital. These positions, supplemented by public assistance and a little help from Landry's mother, kept a roof over their heads.
Until Leon was seven, the family lived comfortably on the first floor of a brown, three-bedroom North Oakland duplex. He considered it his home. But the family's relative stability was shattered abruptly one day in 1991 when Leon was at school and Connie at work. Left briefly unsupervised while his grandmother babysat, five-year-old Tim came across some matches and accidentally set the home ablaze.
The fire destroyed the building, and drove Landry and her kids into a homeless shelter. Thus began a seven-year revolving-door odyssey in which the family rarely rested in one place for long. They stayed with Landry's mother for a short time, and later with her Aunt Jessie -- who then went into a nursing home, prompting yet another move. The family's many stops included various shelters in Richmond and Oakland, transitional housing, shabby apartments, and residential hotels. Leon and his brother estimate at least twenty moves in all -- it was hard to keep count. "We moved around from hotel to hotel and with family," adds Tim, who at sixteen is the spitting image of his older brother. "We had some apartments, but my mother wasn't able to keep up with the rent."
"We lived all over the place," Leon adds. "All over Oakland -- East, West, and North Oakland. We lived in Berkeley and even Vacaville."
The latter was home to the California Medical Facility, a state psychiatric prison that held Richard James Landry, Connie's husband.
In her desperation to stave off poverty, Landry got herself in a heap of legal trouble. In April 1994, according to Alameda County court records, she was arrested and later convicted for petty theft after leaving Emeryville's Pak 'N Save with $192.12 worth of groceries. Five months later, she pleaded no contest to a felony count of welfare fraud. For more than a year after the fire, Landry had received AFDC but neglected to tell welfare workers about her earnings from Diversified Personnel, the temp agency that placed her at Highland. She admitted to collecting $7,459 in cash and food stamps to which she wasn't entitled.
Leon's mom tried to explain her motives in a heart-wrenching welfare questionnaire filled out prior to her conviction. "I wasn't trying to do something criminal. I thought you had to make a whole lot of money [to be ineligible]," she wrote. "I was just trying to survive. My rent was high. I was evicted and lived in shelters. ... I was trying to keep my family together and the jobs helped me to pay rent. I would like to request to pay [the money] back and not have a criminal record -- that would further destroy family."
Landry was sentenced to ninety days in county jail and ordered to pay restitution. She was then accepted for a work furlough program and her sentence was suspended. But less than two years later, in June 1996, she was convicted of another count of welfare fraud, a misdemeanor this time.
Throughout it all, to make matters worse for the kids, Landry kept getting pregnant by various men. In December 1992 she gave birth to Leon's half-brother Richard -- the result, she told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter shortly before her death, of a conjugal visit with her husband. Unable to maintain a nine-to-five schedule with an infant, she left her job at Highland and returned to the flea market hustle. Baby Jessica was born next, followed closely by Michael. Tatiana and Christine would come along later. "I can remember talking to my mother one day, telling her not to have any more kids because she might have to quit her job and we wouldn't have any more money," Leon says.
All but one of the kids became wards of the county (two-year-old Christine lives with her father, Greg Brinkley, who was Landry's boyfriend at the time of her death). Social workers took Leon and Tim from their mother in 1998 and put them under the care of veteran foster-mom Imergene Wash at her North Oakland residence, where Tim still lives. "It wasn't hard for us when we were placed in foster care," Tim says. "My mother didn't have a steady job or a lot of money coming in. She wasn't able to get a place and take care of us, so we just accepted it."
Leon and Tim are stoic about their childhood. Yeah, they didn't have steak and eggs for breakfast, and yeah, it was hectic, but they survived. Still, Child Protective Services doesn't take a mother's children on account of mere poverty. "It's got to be serious," says the Alameda County caseworker who oversees the two brothers. "We don't remove kids because they don't have Nike sneakers or their parents don't let them watch MTV. It usually falls under neglect or abuse."
Citing privacy concerns, the caseworker would not say why Landry's children landed in foster care. Since Leon is over eighteen, she notes, he has the right to come down and view the files for himself. "He may not want to, though," she adds, referring not to Leon's file, but to CPS petitions in general. "These reports are very graphic. They have details that can be painful for the kids to take. And a lot of these kids are in denial about what happened to them."
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