Still Standing: They Could See It, Couldn’t Stop It

“All we wanted to do was steer him toward the right path.” – Niki Smith (with Damien), the parents

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Niki Smith can point to the exact moment she noticed a shift in her son, Cullen. “It was when his father was sentenced to 25 years in prison,” recalls Smith, who married Damien Smith, Cullen’s stepfather, around that same time. “After that, six people in our family passed away within about nine months.” The quick succession of events took an emotional toll on teenage Cullen. As he began to act out, Smith felt there was only one, inevitable end. “I’m not a psychic, but I knew the future. I could see it. I knew he was going to end up in prison.” 

Ever since Cullen was young, Smith noticed her son’s mood could shift dramatically from one moment to the next. There was the jovial side of Cullen, a goofy guy with a knack for melodic beats and well-timed punchlines. But Cullen could also be short-fused and prone to bursts of anger. When Cullen was in kindergarten, for example, his teachers called Smith so often to report behavioral problems that Smith started volunteering at the school. “I didn’t want to have to stop what I was doing to go up there,” recalls Smith. “I was always waiting on that call.”

At 14, Cullen started fighting in school and failing his classes. “He got very frustrated and started self-medicating with marijuana,” says Smith, who now believes Cullen was struggling from both impulse control and an emotional behavioral disorder. In the following years, Cullen’s behavior got progressively worse. He turned to harder drugs and Smith believes he also participated in a handful of armed robberies. On several occasions – when Cullen spiraled into violent outbursts, for example – Smith even called the police. “I felt he was having a mental breakdown. I wanted to highlight that there was a problem. I wanted to have a record of his erratic behaviors.” 

Smith and her husband, Damien, tried other approaches, too. They connected Cullen to several different counselors. They built a music studio in order to encourage Cullen to pursue his craft. They even let the boy’s friend live in their house, hoping it would keep him off the streets. “We tried and tried and tried,” adds Damien Smith. “All we wanted to do was steer him toward the right path.” 

The day that both Niki and Damien Smith feared came not long after Cullen turned 18. He was arrested on a felony murder charge and sentenced to 23 years in prison for a robbery that turned into a fatal shooting. To her dismay, Smith says no one took Cullen’s mental health into account. He has now spent seven years inside Green Bay Correctional Institution, four of them in isolation. “His personality disorders have now presented really strongly,” says Smith. “He writes backwards. He thinks he’s from the future. And when I call, he doesn’t even recognize me anymore.”

When Smith thinks back on the last decade, she releases a heavy sigh. She never regrets trying to help her son. But with more than 10 years still left on Cullen’s sentence, it can be hard to cope. In some ways, she says, it’s like they’re both doing time.

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This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue.

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