Before she was old enough to be called a “troubled teenager,” Phyllis McNeal was an alcoholic. She knew something was wrong. This wasn’t the life she wanted.
“I have a Ph.D. in being abused—physically, sexually, and psychologically,” she said.
The middle daughter of a single mother, McNeal never had it easy. Her world was dark. It was full of dysfunction—angry people with lots of problems. Some were alcoholics, drug addicts, and hardened criminals. Her story could have been the same as thousands of other kids who grew up in the ghettos of Los Angeles.
Back Then …
When she was four years old, McNeal’s mother left her with a babysitter, a young woman who molested McNeal and her older sister for the next three years. By the time she was eight, some of the men her mother brought home had sexually and physically abused her.
“My mother had a lot of men in and out of her life. They were very abusive towards her. She had her own set of problems. Somebody broke her heart but she never got it repaired. I didn’t have any upbringing. I kind of raised myself,” McNeal said.
She tried to escape.
“I started running away. I started abusing alcohol early, around 12 years old,” McNeal said. “My mother called me crazy, a bad girl. I was becoming the names she called me. I was becoming really bad—terrible. She had her hands full when she had to deal with me.”
Signs of McNeal’s chaotic home life began to surface at school. While she didn’t always start fights with other girls, she made sure she finished them. “I would beat them to the ground,” she said. “I got kicked out of school. I was just a messed-up kid. I was so angry and violent.”
McNeal ran away from home so often that before long she was assigned a social worker and placed in foster care homes in East L.A. and Compton. She remembers a room in one of the homes had bars on the windows and the door was deadbolted from the outside.
“It was like a prison,” she said.
Sometimes she was fed beans and rice, while her foster parents served “regular food” to their own children, McNeal said.
So, she kept running.
“There were no good homes. I know there are good foster homes out there, but I was not placed in any … So, what I would do is run away and go back home,” she said.
When she was 14, she ran away for the last time.
McNeal had been on the streets for 28 days, sneaking in and out of a girlfriend’s bedroom window when her parents were asleep.
“I was entering high school, and I said, ‘Enough is enough.’” She knew if she kept running, she would continue to spiral downward and lose interest in education.
McNeal made up her mind she would never go back to live with her mother. She asked her social worker for another foster home placement and had decided she would stay there no matter what. But something had changed; this time was different.
“She refused to put me in another foster home,” McNeal said.
With no place to run, McNeal walked three miles to the Inglewood police station. The officers on duty called her social worker and mother down to the station. When the conference ended, her social worker advised McNeal to go home with her mother.
“I said ‘No!’ I knew where I was headed because everybody in my family had problems. I said, ‘No. I don’t want to be like that.’ I was determined not to become a product of my environment,” she said.
McNeal’s defiance meant she would have to appear in Juvenile Delinquency Court, but the police officers told her it could take weeks.
“I didn’t want to go back on the streets,” McNeal said. “I voluntarily placed myself in custody that night. I went to juvenile hall and stayed in there for 49 days. I was a ward of the court. They labeled me ‘incorrigible.’ My mother lost custody of me because I refused to go back home.”
She was booked into Eastlake Juvenile Hall in late October, 1973.
“I had a birthday in November and turned 15 in juvenile hall,” she said.
McNeal learned to trust her assigned therapist, Saundra Lang, who taught her how to make choices based on their potential outcomes. Lang was a no-nonsense professional who didn’t want to hear McNeal’s excuses. The therapy gave McNeal a way to control her own behavior. It was a start.
In court, Lang pleaded with the judge to put McNeal in a more nurturing environment, and she was placed on probation in the Jacqueline Girls Home in Los Angeles’s Venice district.
“I had a very arrogant attitude,” McNeal said. “Even when I was in the girls’ home, I was still cuttin’ up.”
When one girl broke curfew, McNeal and some of the others snuck upstairs and waited. “I wasn’t even supposed to be upstairs—and I slept upstairs. We were having a pajama party,” she said.
When the girl arrived back at the home the next morning, McNeal mockingly played the role of a mean mother. She beat her bloody with the buckle end of a belt.
“I wanted to be the class clown, a clown for everybody. I got a belt buckle and started beating her head for no reason. She had gashes—blood coming out of her face,” McNeal said. “That girl did nothing to deserve that. I could have killed her.”
Another time, McNeal was suspended from Los Angeles High School for throwing a pencil at a teacher when she turned to face the blackboard.
The woman who ran the home knew every trick in the book, McNeal said. Maxene McGinnis had seen and heard it all before. As street smart as McNeal was, McNeal couldn’t fool her. And rage—well, that didn’t work either.
“When I was doing something wrong, she was very straightforward, but in a very loving and nurturing way. She was very motivating and she gave me hope. She reached out to me and gave me all the love and attention I needed. It changed my life. I call her my Dream Mom.”
It took a while, but McNeal learned to love structure in her life. McGinnis set boundaries, enforced consequences, and never accepted hollow apologies. With her Dream Mom, she always knew where she stood.
“She said, ‘If I punish you for a month, it means a month. You’re not going to manipulate me. I’m going to hold you accountable, out of love.’ She held me accountable for my actions,” McNeal said. “I didn’t change overnight when I got into the girls’ home. I still was a problem child, but she didn’t give up on me. She saw I was making progress.”
When conflict erupted, McGinnis taught the girls not to judge, and to forgive.
“She said, ‘You girls all have different kinds of problems, and you need to love each other and get along with each other.’ I started treating those girls like they were my real sisters. She wanted us to be like real sisters—not orphans in a foster home. She treated us like we were part of her family and taught us to respect one another,” McNeal said. “Once I got it, she respected me.”
Through the sheer patience and iron will of her Dream Mom, McNeal learned to accept her circumstance and her new sisters. This was where she belonged—for now.
McGinnis encouraged McNeal to set life and career goals, and to never give up on her hopes of finishing high school.
“She told me I could be anything I wanted to be,” McNeal said. “She would check on me, making sure I was working toward my goals. At the time, I thought they were just goals, but they later became my purpose in life.”
McNeal expressed that purpose, that calling, in a note she wrote on a photograph she gave to McGinnis in 1976. It read:
From Phyllis Paulette McNeal.
My ambition is to become a probation officer or to be in the field of public service.
Los Angeles High School
Phyllis P. McNeal
McNeal knew she wanted to help others the way McGinnis had helped her.
“I wanted to pay it forward,” she said.
After 2 1/2 years at the girls’ home, McNeal graduated from high school with honors. She had learned from the mistakes of her youth, and how to cope with life’s challenges and disappointments. She had grown up.
In 1978, she started working as an intern for the California Youth Authority, a division of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDRC). She got hired as a probation officer in 1981.
McNeal went on to college, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology in 1982 at California State University of Long Beach, specializing in child development. She became a parole agent in 1989, and moved up the ranks to Parole Agent II in 1999. In 2003, she completed her Master of Social Work degree from the California State University of San Bernardino, specializing in mental health.
“I worked all over Los Angeles County,” she said.
Though she mentored as many people as she could within the scope of her job, McNeal wanted to do more. In 1990, she launched a prevention and intervention program called Straight Talk. For 20 years, she worked a full-time job and ran the program.
In 2009, she retired as the supervisor of a parole unit and continues to run Straight Talk.
… and Now
At 61, McNeal stands proudly at the helm of her faith-based, nonprofit organization designed to change the lives of teenagers and adults who are at risk of ending up in prison.
Through counseling and mentoring, the Straight Talk Program helps them learn from their past and make better choices.
As part of the program, ex-prisoners share their personal stories of struggle with students ranging from junior high school to college. With “straight talk,” the former inmates explain how easy it is to make a wrong turn in life. By sharing their own experiences, they encourage young people to confront their problems before that happens, and warn them not to run astray of the law.
“If they do, they’re going to get caught,” McNeal said. “You don’t want to be 30, 40, or 50 before you get yourself together. It takes a fraction of a second to get in trouble and a lifetime to get out of it—and some never get out.
“Prisons are overcrowded, and you’re not even a person in there. You’re a scum ball. That’s how they treat you. Our prison system is just a warehouse. They need more programs.”
Over the years, more than 150 reformed criminals have shared their stories with tens of thousands of students through her program.
“The people who I deal with are no longer going through that revolving door—the prison door. The people who go through my program want to pay it forward. They use their life experiences to tell others they are no longer going to break the law.”
In 1999, McNeal was honored with a community star at the Staples Center’s Star Plaza for her work with the Straight Talk Program. But she insisted the names of her two “guardian angels”—Maxine L. McGinnis and Saundra C. Lang—be inscribed on the star instead. McGinnis later paid for “Phyllis P. McNeal” and the “Straight Talk Program” to be recognized there as well.
McGinnis helped raise more than 200 girls in her group homes before she died in 2007 at the age of 81.
“I do everything that I do to help people in the Straight Talk Program because somebody helped me,” McNeal said.
After spending much of her retirement savings to keep the Straight Talk Program running, McNeal said she is searching for more sources of funding.
“I’m just trying to keep the doors open,” she said. “I have to hold my hand out to the community.”
With the annual cost to imprison one inmate in California pegged at $81,000, McNeal estimates she’s saved state taxpayers millions of dollars over the years. If she keeps 50 people out of prison for just one year—which she said she does—that’s more than $4 million annually.
Those She’s Helped
Donna Reed, 63, of Rialto, developed a serious heroin and cocaine habit in the early 80s. Somewhere along the way, she picked up a couple of new skills: forgery and bank fraud.
Back then, she never thought twice about using her beauty and charm to get what she wanted, she said, even if it meant impersonating bank customers. “I’m biracial, so I have a different look,” Reed said. “I’m half-Mexican and half-black, and my appearance paid off for me.”
“I’ll never forget the name of the last woman I impersonated,” Reed said.
With some hesitation and a more subdued tone in her voice, she said, “Her name was Helen Golden.” Reed paused again. “I was able to go into the bank and take the money out of her account. No one questioned me.”
“Today it scares me to death, but when I think back, it was so easy,” Reed said.
Before she got hooked on heroin, she was the student body vice-president and the senior class president at Morningside High School in Inglewood.
After graduation, she drank and smoked a little marijuana, she said, but swore she would never stick a needle in her arm. That was before she got involved with the wrong man.
“I said, ‘Let me try it,’” when he was shooting up. And once was all it took. She remembers how she felt the moment she realized she was hooked. “I thought I had the flu, but I was going through withdrawal.”
She remembers taking the bus alone at night to the most dangerous areas of LA to get her fix.
“There is a saying that God looks out for babies and fools,” she said.
Reed was imprisoned three times before she met McNeal, her parole agent, in 1990.
“I was there when she started the program. I was one of her first speakers,” Reed said. “I’ve been clean since I got out of prison. I was tired of being tired. McNeal helped me a lot. She really did. She went out of her way to help me. If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably be in jail or dead.”
Though at first it was hard for Reed to speak publicly about her past as part of the Straight Talk Program, McNeal helped her rebuild her self-esteem and confidence.
“I’m not ashamed. Pretty girls get in trouble, too,” she said. “If I could go back in time and take it back, I would. All I can do is share my story.”
She now finds speaking to students rewarding because it encourages them to stay off drugs, out of trouble, and out of prison.
“We’ve gotten so much response from the kids,” Reed said. “It was so comforting and rewarding to see that kids felt safe enough to come and talk to us after the program.”
Reed recently told her three granddaughters, now in their 20s, her story.
“They had no clue,” she said.
Debbie Williams, 62, of San Francisco used to have a crack cocaine problem. In the late 1990s, she got busted buying drugs from an undercover police officer in LA She was sentenced to 13 months in jail at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.
Not long after her release, Williams faced the possibility of serving more time over alleged parole violations for substance abuse. That’s when her parole agent told her about Straight Talk.
“It kept me from going back to jail. Here I am, 21 years later. I haven’t been back in the system,” said Williams, a poet and painter. “It’s a great program. It’s about faith in God and how people can get clean and stay out of jail. I was fortunate to be able to get out and not go back.”
Chris Palmer of Riverside met McNeal about four years ago when her 14-year-old teenage son was bullied at school.
“His best friend took her own life when she was 13. That’s when we started noticing a lot of problems. He was getting in trouble at school. He was taking off and running away from everything, and not finding an outlet. He started hanging out with some pretty bad kids who were getting in trouble with the law, and that’s when we got very nervous,” Palmer said. “We needed to find someone who could mentor him—someone who could get him on a good track and help him.”
Today, her son is doing well and she credits McNeal for playing an instrumental role in his recovery.
“She really helped him with his self-esteem,” Palmer said. “She is such a calm, rational person with so much experience. She is a friend of the family now.”
Not all of the teens McNeal has motivated come have to her with a troubled past. Many simply needed help focusing on sports and education goals.
Marissa Jones, 41, a married mother of three in Elk Grove, Calif., was 11 years old when her mom, Toni Stewart, asked McNeal to mentor her daughter in karate.
“It wasn’t like I was going down the wrong path or anything,” Jones said. “She’s a black belt, and so am I. We competed nationally in karate. I would train with her, sometimes five days a week.”
Stewart has come to know McNeal’s strength and perseverance and calls her the “Dragon Slayer.”
Over the years, Jones and her family have met many of the people whose lives McNeal has changed, and have volunteered to assist her with Straight Talk.
“She does it tirelessly and it has an impact on a lot of people,” Jones said.
When she was in her early forties, McNeal was looking through an old family photo album when she stumbled across a picture of the babysitter who had sexually abused her.
“I just didn’t talk about it,” McNeal said. “I suppressed it.”
The photograph opened old wounds. McNeal contacted her older sister and told her biological mother about what had happened so many years ago. Seeking closure, she thought about reporting the crime to police. She even tried to find the woman, but eventually gave up.
“I had to let it go,” she said.
McNeal, who now lives in Eastvale, Calif., often thinks about the frightened 14-year-old girl who defied her demons once disguised as fate.
“I couldn’t sleep as a kid growing up. My dreams were shattered. They were,” McNeal said, her voice suddenly breaking into a higher pitch as she began to sob. “They were completely shattered … I couldn’t sleep … I kept dreaming I wanted to be a success … I didn’t want to be like myself.”
She paused for a moment, trying to regain composure. “There’s a lot of kids out there who can’t sleep. I’ve just seen so many kids out there hurting—so many people,” she said, as she wept. “Their dreams are completely shattered. They give up, and they become killers and everything. Just so many of them end up in the system, and I could’ve been there.”
“I never went that route, and I’m so grateful.”