Before coronavirus took his life last week, Jermaine Miller was known affectionately by young people he cared for and mentored, colleagues in the juvenile justice field, and fellow basketball buffs in his lifelong Queens neighborhood as “Magnificent Miller,” “Miller Maine,” and “Uncle Mill.”
He dressed in sporty sweats when he moved through the New York group homes and detention facilities where he worked. But he smarted up for the office in suit and tie. In those meetings, he was classy enough to be nicknamed “Jodeci” after the smooth-sounding, sharp-dressing R&B quartet.
Miller, who died at age 44 on March 19 in a Long Island hospital, was “Junior” and “Young Blood” to his former colleague Kym Hardy Watson. She hired Miller 21 years ago to work for what is now Sheltering Arms Children and Family Services, an agency serving 15,000 children, youth and families in the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan.
Miller was much younger than most of the leadership staff at the now-massive agency with 1,200 employees. He came to the job with a bachelor’s degree and a knack for kindness, but no formal experience working with youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.
“He was so energetic and full of ideas, we would frequently say, ‘Hold up, calibrate yourself,’” Hardy Watson said. “It was all in love.”
Miller, who died two days before his 45th birthday, is survived by his wife, Erika Cave-Miller, and two children; his son Jaylin, 20, and his daughter Jayana, 5. All three have tested positive for coronavirus but they are quarantined at home and working to stay well.
“I had to get it together because I had to call his mom. I had to call his dad,” Cave-Miller told ABC News. “Do you know how it felt to call someone’s parents and tell them that their child is gone? That was the worst feeling of my life. The worst.”
Every coronavirus death has tragic resonance, but Miller’s death is particularly agonizing for those around him. With isolation and lockdown-mode the only way to stay safe from the pandemic ravaging New York City and the world, they say Miller’s talents and messaging are needed now more than ever: Believe in yourself, stay calm and envision a life outside these walls once you are free. Coaching, mentoring, parenting and schooling fellow staff and young people confined in close quarters with nowhere else to go was what Miller did best, his colleagues said.
“He respected them and he was straight with them,” said Sheltering Arms’ Executive Director Elizabeth McCarthy. “He didn’t try to be overbearing with discipline, he knew when to be a disciplinarian when he had to be, but he let them talk about what was bothering them, and tried to see it from their perspective.”
Miller’s family is now grieving in the same community where he and a brother were raised by their mother, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service. Miller went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from St. Thomas Aquinas College, entering the juvenile justice field by chance with little experience other than coaching basketball.
In 1998, he had a young cousin living in a group home who he visited regularly, helping with his “behavior modification” plan, checking in on him, and taking him for outings.
The manager of the group home became so impressed with the questions Miller asked about the teen’s care; his consistency, and his gentle rapport with the other young people in the facility, that she asked him to apply for a job as a child care worker.
A flood of emailed remembrances from Sheltering Arms’ 1,200 employees have been shared this past week on an internal tribute page and on social media platforms.
In a Facebook post last week, founder and head coach of the New York City Vipers Basketball, Inc. Larry Paschal paid tribute to Miller, hailing him as “one of the good ones gone too soon.” The posted photo shows Miller holding up a winning number one forefinger, huddled with a team of teenage players in black jerseys, including his son. Miller stares sheepishly at the camera as if to say: Look at these young champions, not me.
Miller could often be found shooting hoops, playing video games, or printing T-shirts with the youth his agency served. After leaving work, he’d go back to Queens and coach basketball on the evenings and weekends. But when the inevitable crises arose – young people in custody fighting or raging or breaking down – he would show up at any hour of the night to calm things down, or to chase them down the street when they fled toward greater danger on the outside.
Over two decades, Miller rose up the ranks at Sheltering Arms from child care worker to residence manager and later director of juvenile justice facilities, his last post. He was fundamental to the organization’s participation in New York state’s “Close to Home” initiative, a sweeping 2012 reform to abandon remote lock-ups and treat young people more humanely and effectively in home-like settings near family and community. The eight juvenile justice residences with a 115-bed capacity that Miller oversaw included a mix of houses and facilities with varying degrees of security. Residents ages 12 to 18 in some cases have not been sentenced, in others they are serving time for court-ordered terms.
In the early days of the Close to Home reform, Miller and a colleague made a move that exemplified for director McCarthy just how much Miller trusted and believed in young people in the juvenile justice system; that they were capable of making mistakes, even serious ones, and growing up and learning to lead different lives. In 2012, he and a colleague decided that 15 youth should go home to their families on Christmas Day. So he got 15 staff members to give up part of their holiday to escort them home, one by one.
Moves like that had lifelong impacts on many youth Miller encountered, Sheltering Arms employees said. One of his former clients, a then-17-year-old foster youth, came to his program on multiple psychotropic medications, acting out violently. Even though the youngster towered well above 6 feet, “and was very intimidating,” Hardy Watson said, “Miller was never frazzled.” Under his guidance, the agency determined the teen was developmentally disabled, not mentally ill. He was taken off most of his meds, and stepped down to a lower level of care.
Another former residential client who was later freed, took Miller’s advice to get out of New York City, where he had fallen under some dangerous influences. That young man is now 28, living in Colorado and working for UPS.
On March 19, all that work was cut short by coronavirus.
According to colleagues who had been in close contact with Miller before he died, he had been on vacation, but came back on March 9. They said he worked for two days, but was mainly in office meetings and had limited interaction with young people in the residential facilities.
Miller became sick with a 101.5 degree fever, a sore throat and a cough. So on March 11, his wife said, he went to urgent care where he was treated for pneumonia and sent home with antibiotics. The next day, with Miller’s fever at 103 degrees, they came back for treatment, this time to the emergency room.
Josefina Perez, 39, was among the last non-family members to speak to Miller. As assistant vice president for the adolescent residential care program for Sheltering Arms, she and Miller talked daily.
Perez left work early March 13 with a terrible headache and a bad sore throat and dry cough. She later got chills and felt “extremely cold.” She went to a Westchester emergency room the next morning and spoke by phone to Miller, who by then had been admitted to another hospital.
While she was waiting to be examined, he told her: ‘Please sis, you have to have them test you, don’t ignore it,’” Perez recalled. “He said, ‘I was tested, and I’m waiting for the results.’ ”
Miller’s test results came back a day later, on March 16. Positive.
Like many major New York institutions, Sheltering Arms has had dozens of infected staff who have not died, but who have either tested positive for the coronavirus or have been sent home to ride out illnesses that appear to be coronavirus, the organization’s leaders said.
Perez said Miller must have been anxious during his agonizing last few days, but with his characteristic calm, didn’t confess to it. Instead, he told Perez: “I’m hoping to get these results and get out of here.”
Meanwhile, Perez was sent home from the hospital emergency room with advice to treat her symptoms like a common cold. Testing was not available in her case.
Once home, she learned in a text message while sitting at her computer that her closest colleague had died. At first, Perez was frozen, numb and angry at the way Miller passed.
“They had him isolated so that his family couldn’t be with him,” she said. “That is the worst part for me, that he was alone, the fact that he was alone with just a cell phone.”
But then she said, she channeled Magnificent Miller – and her own two children ages 9 and 4 – for guidance. The younger one shares his superhero capes with her. And when her older son saw her watching an online tribute to Miller, he said:
“Oh my God mom, it says R.I.P. It’s Mr. Miller. Did he pass? It was coronavirus.”
Then he gave Perez a hug. “Mommy don’t be sad, I’m here for you,” he said. “Let’s pray now, let’s pray for Mr. Miller and his family.”
Karen de Sá is the Safety Net Reporting Fellow for The Imprint, and a former investigative reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Jose Mercury News. She can be reached at [email protected].