Cleaning up her act
A USF senior custodian leaves troubled past behind
Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 00:03
She vacuums. She mops. She takes out the trash. She re-aligns chairs after a day of classes.
Year round, Erickah Slaughter arrives on campus at 6 p.m. but doesn’t leave until 2:30 a.m. It’s takes about an hour just to pick up trash bags in the 67 offices on the second floor of Cooper Hall and dump them into her cart.
As the senior custodian, Slaughter, 31, has to make sure the facility is clean and that the other custodial workers are on track to finish their duties on the other three floors.
Every now and then, she peeks at her smartphone to check if her teenage son has contacted her, but continues her multitasking.
During her break, from 9:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Slaughter heads back to her home 10 minutes away from USF to see her mom, girlfriend and son. Then she heads back to work.
She made a promise to them that she swore to keep.
A Troubling Detour
As a child, Slaughter was close to her father. He was funny, comforting and a listener, she said.
“I (could) go to him about anything,” she said. “Even if you were having a bad day, he would just say something and make you laugh. He kept us together.”
She began writing poetry at the age of 13 — a passion she said filtered her emotions. When she was 14, her father suffered a heart attack and stroke at age 53. As a truck driver, he was moved to a desk job.
Soon after, Slaughter found out she was pregnant.
She was terrified to tell her mother, and wore her younger brother’s “extra-baggy” clothing and tried to stay at a friend’s house as often as she could.
“I actually hid my pregnancy for six months, and the reason why was because I heard my cousin got pregnant and her mom made her get an abortion,” she said. “My mom didn’t make me get an abortion. She was upset, but for the most part she accepted that we work together (so) that I finish school.”
She chose to keep her now 15-year-old son, Devon Slaughter, whom she calls “beautiful.”
But Devon’s father, she said, disappeared after she gave birth. He was supposed to visit Devon once after he was born, but never showed up. She said she never heard from him again.
“The only thing I would say to him is that, ‘You’re missing out,’” Erickah said.
When she was 16, Erickah’s father suffered a second heart attack and second stroke, which permanently paralyzed the left side of his body. He was let go from his job.
Erickah’s mother, who worked as a USF custodian in the dorms at the time, paid the bills she could but couldn’t keep up with the mortgage.
As a result, the family of five was evicted from their home.
Erickah and her family, with six-week-old Devon in tow, had to stay at a homeless shelter. All they had was the clothing on their backs — a new outfit meant swapping with a family member. Her brother took the lead in caring for their father, clipping his toenails and shaving his beard, but her father didn’t want to burden them and moved into a nursing home by the end of 1998.
“He thought that he was burdening us, but really he wasn’t,” Erickah said.
For two years, Erickah visited him regularly. But one night, after a tiring day of work at Popeyes, she decided to cancel her visit and see her father the next day.
In the morning, she got a phone call. Her father had his third stroke and passed away.
Erickah was devastated, but also angry with herself.
“I think it hurt so much because I was supposed to go see him that night,” she said.
According to Hillsborough County Sheriff Office arrest reports, Erickah’s first arrest was in 2002 for battery in domestic violence, obstruction and battery against a law enforcement officer. She had a fight with her girlfriend at the time, who called the police, though Erickah said it was only a minor argument and she didn’t serve any jail time. She was 22.
Later that year, she had a dream.
She opened up a bag. Inside was a brand new pair of Air Jordans and a cell phone.
“It rang and I picked it up and I heard his laugh,” she said. “He said, ‘You did good kid, you did good.’”
It was her father’s voice.
A year later she dreamt of her father again, where he was paralyzed — lying down in a pair of new alligator shoes.
“It finally dawned on me that the path that I was taking in life was not right,” she said. “I was getting in trouble. I was missing out on my son’s life. I need a new direction. I need new shoes … He opened my eyes and he let me know that he is still proud of me. I didn’t hurt him.”
Though the dream helped her forgive herself for not seeing her father the day he died, Erickah was still getting into trouble. In 2003, Erickah gave her mother temporary custody of Devon to ensure that he wasn’t taken away by the state.
Over the next four years, Erickah was arrested four more times for multiple battery charges, criminal mischief and escape from police custody.