Runaways Gone Wild: Semaj


"My 9-year-old son, Semaj, has run away from home nine times in the past five weeks," says single mother Sakinah.

Television news programs across the country documented Samaj's antics. "He allegedly stole a car, led police on a high-speed chase," said one.

"A 9-year-old boy is in big trouble after he snuck on two airplanes," said another.

"I took the bus to the airport," Semaj recounts. "When I got to security, there was an announcement for a passenger to get his boarding pass. I went up and said that I was that guy. I flew to Phoenix, then I flew to San Antonio."

"The boy supposedly ran away to be with his grandfather in Texas," said a news report, but Semaj had a different explanation.

"I missed my home," he says. 


Semaj first ran away on foot. His mother woke up in the middle of the night and realized he was gone, but a man later brought him home. Before long, the boy resorted to stealing cars. The first began as a refuge from the cold. He sat inside to warm up, but then decided he wanted to drive.

"I learned to drive by playing arcade games," Semaj explains.

At least he thought he'd learned. The police brought him home after he crashed. Game over.

He stole his second car upon finding out about a friend who had been shot in Seattle. It was a vehicle that he'd found running at the mall. The police only found him because he ran out of gas.


Sakinah says, "My greatest fear was that Semaj was never going to come home again."

"I ran away because I didn't like where I was living," Semaj explains.

"There were kids who shot him with paintball guns, and those things really hurt," Sakinah adds, "so Semaj just exploded. He was like a ticking time bomb."

He stole his third car from some neighbors. This one, too, was left running. The joyride soon evolved into a high-speed chase at speeds of 80 to 90 miles per hour.

"It was scary when the police were chasing me," says Semaj. "I thought I was going to go to jail."

Eventually, the 9-year-old crashed the car and went on to face some very adult legal proceedings.

"I felt bad about everything," he says.

"This has drained me completely," Sakinah laments. "I've almost had two nervous breakdowns. My fear's with him going into juvenile detention is not getting anything good out of it. I feel as if it's going to make it worse. He watches Dr. Phil so he's like, 'That guy's cool, Ma.' I feel like Dr. Phil can just help our whole family."

Dr. Phil begins by acknowledging that Sakinah needs some help because her son is a handful. Sakinah agrees.

"He's obviously really intelligent," says Dr. Phil. "I mean he's 9. He's stolen three cars and made it halfway across the country. So he's resourceful, so you've got to have mixed emotions about that. You've got to be impressed at his resourcefulness but yet shocked and scared to death by what he's done."

"Yes," Sakinah agrees.

Dr. Phil points out that Semaj was 5 years old when his little brother was born.

Sakinah says, "He saw his other brother and was like, ‘The attention's not on me anymore, Mom. I have to share this with my little brother,' and it just started going bad from there. He's not listening, fighting with his siblings."

"Where is his father in this mix?" Dr. Phil asks Sakinah, who cares for four children.

"We don't know," she replies.

"And this one," Dr. Phil says of Semaj, "he's getting your attention now."

Semaj's acting out goes beyond running away. Sakinah explains that her son will dial 911 and hang up. When the operators call back, he picks up the phone and immediately hangs up, and keeps hanging up each time they call back.

"So they called you at work," explains Dr. Phil, "and you wound up getting fired because you had to come home three, four times because he just kept doing this over and over."

Sakinah says, "Yes."

"What did he say about that?" asks Dr. Phil.

"Semaj doesn't say anything," she tells him. "He just says he was upset, he was mad, and he apologized."

Dr. Phil asks Sakinah if she's concerned that her son will continue down the same path.

"I don't think he will do it any more, the running away," she says, "because of how serious it was and how it hurt the whole family, and ... we're on Dr. Phil."

"Yeah," says Dr. Phil with a chuckle. "What could be worse than that? I'm starting to understand this child now."


"No, I love you, Dr. Phil," says Sakinah. She explains that her family needs counseling, that at first Semaj showed no sign of being sorry for his actions.

Dr. Phil asks what would happen if Semaj's issues blew over and his family just went back home. "You're still in the same apartment," he says.

"No," Sakinah replies. "We don't really have anywhere to live. We've been living in a motel for about a month and a half now."

"Are you working now?" asks Dr. Phil

"No," she says. "I can't work."

Semaj joins the conversation with his mother and Dr. Phil, who asks, "What do you say about all of this running away you've been doing?"

"I don't know," Semaj replies.

"Why did you run away?"

"Because I didn't like where I was living," says the boy.

Dr. Phil asks what he didn't like, and Semaj explains that people across the street shot at him with paintball guns.

"OK," says Dr. Phil, "did you tell your mom? Did y'all tell the police about it? Did you ask for help?"

"I went over there," says Sakinah.

"Yeah? And what happened?" asks Dr. Phil.

"They said, ‘We didn't do it. It wasn't us,' and then it happened again."

Dr. Phil pieces together the story. Because of the paintball strikes against him, Semaj was scared, so he set out to his grandfather's house.


"How did you learn to drive?" asks Dr. Phil.

"By the arcade games," Semaj says.

Dr. Phil asks about the boy's flight, and how he got on the plane. "Where'd you get a boarding pass?"

"From the Southwest Airlines counter," says Semaj.

"You just went up there and said, ‘I need a boarding pass'? How did you get it? They said somebody had lost theirs?" asks Dr. Phil.

"No," he says, "they left it on the counter."

"So, they paged that person, and you went up and said, 'I'm him.' Did anybody say, 'You're awfully short to be flying by yourself'?"

Semaj says no but admits that he lied about his age.

"How did you know to do that?" asks Dr. Phil. "There's no video game for that."

Semaj is, in truth, a good kid, Dr. Phil acknowledges. More than anything else, he enjoys playing football. He's fast, he's tricky, and he can bust a move when he needs to. Dr. Phil asks if Semaj wants to run away again, or if he'd rather be home.

"I want to be home," says the 9-year-old.

"What are you going to do if something happens that you get frustrated again?"

Semaj says, "I'll talk about it."

"If you had somebody to talk to, do you think that would help?" asks Dr. Phil. Semaj says yes.

Dr. Phil turns to the boy's brother, Demarius, sitting in the studio audience.

"Demarius, what do you think about this little brother of yours? Were you worried when he ran away?" he asks.

"Yes," says Demarius.

Though he admits that he and his brother argue and fight, Demarius acknowledges that he was glad when Semaj came home. Dr. Phil teases the boys by asking who's the tougher of the two. They each claim to be the tougher.

"Y'all are going to work this out after the show, aren't you?" he says. "I can see this already."

Next, Dr. Phil introduces Mark Hobbins, Senior Vice President of Aspen Education Group.

"We can provide a therapist who can come into your home and work with you and your family to help you, support you, give you the skills and tools that you need to better manage the situations that you find yourself in," Mark tells Sakinah. "
We can provide [Semaj] a therapeutic setting where he can spend some time learning that might give him some added insight, some capabilities to maybe reason better, to keep himself safe, and to structure this sort of ingenious resourcefulness into more healthy and productive ways."


"We do think that this whole family needs some help at this point," Dr. Phil says. "You said it just very clearly. You're a mother taking care of your little chicks here. You say, 'We don't even have a home.' You are just a hard-working single mother who needs some help."

"Exactly," Sakinah confirms.

Dr. Phil continues, "We want to start helping you get a place to live. We want to start help in getting you some therapeutic involvement for him and for the entire family. We want to get you some childcare options so you can get back to work in providing for your family. But you're one of those people who is out there up against the wall. You want to do all the right things. You've always done all the right things, but you just need some help. Well, reinforcements have arrived, OK, because we are going to help you, and we're going to help your family, OK?" He turns to Semaj. "And I want you to make a deal with me. No more running away. Deal?"

"Deal," says Semaj, accepting Dr. Phil's hand for a shake.