class action

From Client to Staff, Queens Teen Pivots From Prison Path

Fatu Kamara, right, with her boss at Queens Defenders, Anthony Martone, Jan. 16, 2020.
Fatu Kamara, right, with her boss at Queens Defenders, Anthony Martone, Jan. 16, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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At a legal office on Queens Boulevard this past Thursday, 19-year-old Fatu Kamara stood flanked by coworkers, intently watching a presentation on a computer screen.

She grabbed her face.

“That’s me!” Kamara screamed, beaming, as her image flashed across a promo for the Queens Defenders. “I’m about to cry.”

Her coworkers, infected by her enthusiasm under the dim lights of the second-floor office, grinned.

It had been two weeks since Kamara — a former client — had become the newest paralegal at Queens Defenders, which provides free services to low-income people.

After working her way up from a two-day-a-week internship, Kamara is the first enrollee of the Queens Defenders Youth Mentorship Program hired for a full-time job.

The program gives past clients who’ve been through the juvenile justice system a chance at paid work in the firm’s offices. Between the Forest Hills and Jamaica branches, Queens Defenders staff now mentor more than 20 young people.

Coworkers described Kamara as a deft paralegal who races from the office to the courts and back under her new boss: her former lawyer, Anthony Martone.

She describes herself as a strong woman who loves laughing and working hard — a combination of traits that helped her overcome a difficult childhood in Forest Hills, not far from her new workplace.

“I could have changed my life,” said Kamara. “But I always said I think I wanted an adult to just be like ‘I’m-a support you,’ and just tell me they’re proud of me.”

A Rough Beginning

When Martone first met Kamara in 2017, she was in a jail cell.

“Our first conversation wasn’t that fruitful,” said Martone — meaning they argued, according to Kamara.

She says she thought he was a prosecutor. He was frustrated that she wouldn’t help him win her case. Eventually, Kamara relented.

She told THE CITY the turnaround came over one simple thing: Martone would actually pick up when she’d call his cellphone.

When he answered, “I’d hang up” in the beginning, Kamara said, laughing. Even the correction officers at Rikers Island were exasperated.

Fatu Kamara, 19.
Fatu Kamara, 19. Photo: Eileen Grench/THE CITY

“Why did you hang up?” they’d ask. She said she was just shocked he’d care enough to answer.

Kamara had done three stints at Rikers since age 16. All three were pre-trial: She was held because she didn’t have a secure home to return to. Martone got her into foster care, and she was released.

After that, she started calling him more frequently. She told him about the ways she was trying to turn her life around — finishing her GED, going on multiple job interviews.

But she wasn’t getting the jobs, Martone said, likely due to her record.

Set Down a Path

Young people who’ve been incarcerated have higher odds of ending up in prison as adults, statistics show. According to a 2015 study in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, children put in juvenile detention were about 40% more likely to be in an adult facility by age 25 than other kids in their community.

The same study found that incarcerated juveniles were far less likely to complete high school than their neighborhood peers.

Kamara said that when she was 12, her mother swept up her younger brother and returned to their native Liberia, abandoning her in Queens. She was left with an abusive family friend who hid her immigration documents and beat her, she said.

When a man in the family she was living with hit her for not washing the dishes, she fought back. But her 5-foot frame was no match for him.

She told her mother by phone what had happened. Her mother replied: “Why didn’t you just wash the dishes?,” Kamara recalled.

“So I just dropped the phone,” said Kamara. “I said, ‘Next time they hit me, I’m leaving. I’m not staying to keep getting abused.’”

Kamara said she ran away, bounced from house to house, joined an infamous local gang and regularly skipped school.

“When I’m stressed I just, I can’t concentrate,” said Kamara. “I love school. I can do the work. It’s not hard, that’s not my problem. I know I’m smart, but it was just too much — I couldn’t do it.”

Inspired by Rejection

Martone recalled Kamara calling him in tears one day, after yet another rejected work application.

“The disappointment of [her] not getting the job just really hurt me as well,” said Martone. “I think I wanted her to get the job more than she wanted to get the job. And it’s just that moment when she started crying that, you know, even though she’s doing everything, things aren’t turning right for her.

“And I think at that moment is what I just said we need to do more than just defending our cases.”

He went to Queens Defenders’ executive director, Lori Zeno, and asked to start a paid internship program for former clients in the juvenile justice system.

Zeno told THE CITY she called around to other defense organizations. When she asked why one lawyer why his group no longer gave paid positions to teens they’d previously defended, he told her, “Well, let me just say, youth will break your heart.”

Zeno said the exchange didn’t dissuade her: “I was like … I’m doing it anyway.”

She eventually secured funding from City Hall. Kamara was the first to get a spot.

Others soon followed. A dozen new interns recently began the program and the firm is planning to hire another young mentee, Zeno said.

Participants start by working two days a week, with required attendance at life-skill programming and school. Some also attend counseling.

Martone said part of his job is to make sure the mentees are “always treated with respect” by police, court officers and other members of the court.

“They help each other,” Zeno said of the program participants.

‘She Can Handle It’

And not just with office skills. Kamara says her approach to dealing with frustration has changed — she walks away when she gets angry— and now she helps others do the same.

On her way to and from work, Kamara still faces beatings from her former gang members — she once returned with a bloodied lip to the office.

Still, she has persisted in helping those she knew in her former life on the streets. An ex-rival recently texted her, asking for help with a warrant. She obliged.

Now, even workers in the courthouse where she was previously a defendant welcome her with an affectionate greeting.

“There goes the Tony Team!,” court officers say, referring to Martone and Kamara.

Because Kamara was able to get her GED and excel in her internship, Queens Youth Part Judge Leona Gerald has sealed her records. Kamara expects to go to Monroe College in the fall to begin her journey to becoming a lawyer.

“She’s going to work here during the day, she’s going to work there at night. It’s going to be a lot,” said Martone.

“She can handle it.”

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