Pastor Belton Platt is a hugger. At an evening service last year, he hugged one visitor after another at west Charlotte’s Redeemer in Mission for Christ Church. Then he hugged his son, Lamont Platt, who had come to hear his father preach.
Lamont, then 26, had baggy jeans, tattoos and a criminal record he was ready to put behind him. He carried his Bible in a worn leather case.
“Boy, you looking good,” Platt said, rubbing the top of his son’s head. “I’m proud of you.”
“I’m trying to make a change,” his son replied.
Belton Platt’s family is not what anyone would call traditional. He fathered 11 children with seven women. And then, when they were still small, he went to prison.
Today, Platt acknowledges his failures as a father. He knows nearly 21 years in prison punished his children as surely as it punished him. Now, as he works to build his ministry, he strives to do right by his grown children. But some feel their minister father needs to spend more time ministering to them.
As a young drug dealer, Platt thought he was a good dad because he loved his children and bought them lots of things. He was a good provider. Though he often didn’t come home nights and was usually cheating on his wife, he considered himself better than his own father, who had been abusive and mostly absent.
For his children, he was an important presence. His two oldest remember the day in 1990 that Judge Robert Potter sentenced their dad to prison for conspiring to sell cocaine.
Lamont Davis, then 8, was in the courtroom. He cried.
Kim Williams, who was 9, saw the news on television. “I feel like the judge didn’t only give him a sentence,” she says. “When I was little, that’s what I used to remember. The judge gave me a sentence when he gave my dad a sentence.”
The absent father
Platt’s children came to know each other as they grew up. And most became close. No one ever referred to half-brothers or half-sisters. They were sisters and brothers, period. They were connected by half their DNA, and by the father who was not there.
In prison, as Platt studied the Bible, he says he finally discovered what a father was supposed to be – a caretaker and nurturer, “a living example of the love of Christ.”
“What really taught me about fatherhood is when I realized God was my father,” he says. “I began to learn from Scriptures what type of father he was – loving, merciful. Even when he corrects, he does it in love.”
When one of the children’s mothers would take some of them to see Platt in prison, he usually began visits with a Bible reading. He counseled his children, he says, to avoid his mistakes. Sometimes, the prison provided a photographer, and children went home with photos of themselves with their dad.
As his children reached their teenage years, however, Platt’s attempts at long-distance parenting weren’t enough. His three daughters turned out to be resilient. Today, Kim Williams, 32, works as a bank research analyst and attends college part time. She has a teenage son. LaToya Robinson, 28, is a benefits verification specialist at a pharmaceutical company. Genesis Platt, 25, is raising her 4-year-old daughter.
Platt’s eight sons were a different story. By their late teens, all had been charged with crimes. All but one had a misdemeanor conviction.
This comes as no surprise to Donald Braman, author of “Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America.”
“The best predictor we have of whether a child will be involved in the criminal justice system,” he says, “is whether one of the parents is incarcerated.”
‘My father was my idol’
It was 2001 when Platt’s family experienced its first tragedy. Lamont Davis, Platt’s oldest son, shot and killed a disabled Charlotte man while trying to rob him. He was 21 when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
Davis, speaking recently by telephone from Scotland Correctional Institution in Laurinburg, said he has some happy memories of his father from his early years. Like the day his dad stopped an ice cream truck so he could treat the neighborhood children. Or the time his dad tricked him on his birthday, telling him he was in trouble and was going to get a whooping. Instead, he got a new bike.
Davis grew up wanting to be like his father. “My father was my idol, really,” says Davis, 31. “I wanted to have the money he had. I wanted to have all the respect he had.”
Belton Platt says his heart broke when Davis was charged with murder. Over the next decade, his heart would break three more times.
His son Demario Pruitt, 18, was killed in 2002 in the parking lot of a convenience store near New Bern. Police say he and three other men were attempting a robbery when the intended victim shot him.
Less than a year later, Stephen Platt, 16, committed suicide, shooting himself in his bedroom. He had been close to Demario and was devastated by his death. His grandmother, Carrie Graves, later found a note he’d written saying he wished he was with Demario.
In 2009, son Derrick Dixon, 24, was driving on North Sharon Amity Road when someone in a Toyota Camry shot him in the head. No one has been charged.
“These were things that really broke me as a man,” Platt says. He knows, he says, that some of his sons, growing up hearing stories about Money Rock and the respect he had on the street, sought to emulate him. “They tried to live their lives based on that ignorance.”
Trying to be a dad
When Platt got out in 2010, he settled with his wife, Susan, in Conway, S.C., near her job. The decision disappointed several of his eight children, most of whom are in Charlotte. They are now between ages 23 and 32. Most have listened to their father preach. They have talked on the phone and visited with him. Several have spent time at his home in Conway. But some want more from the father they’ve been missing most of their lives.
“I do have a little resentment,” says Robinson, who was 4 when her dad went to prison. When he got out, she envisioned new traditions – the first photo of the whole family, their first Christmas together. That hasn’t happened. She works. Her father works. And he lives more than three hours away.
Genesis Platt also wants more of her dad. As a child, she says, she had dreams about him coming home. She loves her father, but “it was just a long time coming for nothing, I feel like.”
Platt says he can’t make up for the years he missed. He treasures his children, he says, but they now have their own families and relationships. And there are a lot of them.
“All of them know their dad loves them very, very much,” he says. “If they call me, they need me, I’m there.”
He has visited Davis in prison at least 10 times. They talk about Davis’ teenage daughter and his plans for finding a job when he’s released, perhaps in 2015. On each visit, before leaving, Platt tells his son he loves him.
Davis says his dad remains his role model. “Anything he teaches me to do, I’ll try to follow in his footsteps.” When Davis gets out, he wants to become a truck driver. He also wants to be involved in his daughter’s life. “That’s a must,” he says. “That’s something I got to do.”
A year ago at Easter, Lamont Platt, the seventh of Platt’s eight sons, spent a week with his dad in Conway. Platt put his son to work, teaching him to use a pressure washer and drive a riding lawn mower, skills that could help him find a job.
When Belton Platt’s church members organized a cookout for children in a Conway public housing project, Lamont Platt played basketball with the kids and tied shoestrings that had come undone. When a child needed to find a bathroom, Lamont asked his dad for his car keys to drive the boy to a restroom.
Belton Platt reminded his son he didn’t have a driver’s license, and it would be stupid to take a chance that could get him into trouble. Lamont paused, smiled and agreed. They found someone else to drive.
The week was a good one. Lamont said in an interview then that he was trying to become more like his dad, to shed the quick temper and bad attitude that got him in trouble in the past.
“Whatever he needs me to do, I’m trying to do it,” Lamont Platt said. “I’m not perfect. I’m trying to get where he is now.”
‘Anybody can change, right?’
At Charlotte’s Redeemer in Mission for Christ Church last year, Lamont Platt listened as his dad’s voice filled the room, thundering then dropping to nearly a whisper as he assured the crowd that God hasn’t forgotten them, no matter what they’ve been through.
Starting a new life, Platt likes to preach, is more than asking for forgiveness. It’s also work. Shun drugs and alcohol, work hard in school, set goals.
“If you want your life better,” he often reminds his congregation, “it’s going to take making better choices.”
The service was stretching into its third hour when Platt called worshippers forward to dedicate their lives to Christ. As gospel music swelled, Lamont Platt rose from his pew, walked to the front and stood, hands in pockets, with more than 20 others.
Platt made his way down the line of worshippers, laying on hands, praying for each one. When he reached his son, he placed both hands on the top of Lamont’s head. His gold wedding band flashed as it caught the light.
They stood like that for a moment, the father’s hands gentle on the son’s head. Belton Platt with his eyes closed. Lamont Platt with his head bowed.
Becoming a new man isn’t easy. Sometimes, it takes years and multiple attempts. But as a cocaine dealer named Money Rock once told a federal judge, it’s possible to make mistakes, to not be perfect all your life. And then, eventually, something changes.
‘The right choices’
About two months after Platt prayed for his son at that service, police arrested Lamont in the Cherry neighborhood for possessing cocaine with intent to sell. They found .12 of a gram of cocaine in his pocket.
In November, he became one of nearly 38,000 inmates in North Carolina’s prison system. He’s in prison in Harnett County in Eastern North Carolina, the same prison where his dad served time for the Piedmont Courts shootout. He’s likely to be released in May.
Lamont Platt, 27, said in a recent telephone interview from prison that he hopes to find a job doing landscaping work when he’s released. He’s determined to make this incarceration his last.
“My daddy said anybody can change, right? In order to change, you got to make the choice to change. I’m going to make the right choices when I get out.”