Staying on track: How a St. Pete man turned his life around — and now hopes to help others with a device for finding lost kids

FAMILY MAN: Larkins with children (left to right) David, Za’niyah and Tiasia at Nine10 Studio in St Petersburg. - SHANNA GILLETTE
FAMILY MAN: Larkins with children (left to right) David, Za’niyah and Tiasia at Nine10 Studio in St Petersburg.

With any luck, 2016 will be a good year for Toron Larkins, a 38-year-old St. Petersburg man with a troubled past and a big dream.

Larkins is an aspiring inventor who turned his life around after serving 18 months in prison in 2011 for selling, according to Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office records, crack cocaine. He hopes a product he developed to prevent children from getting lost — wandering-prone autistic children, especially — will really take off.

In seeking redemption through invention, Larkins is trying to buck the forces that turn nonviolent crim inals into repeat offenders due to the lack of opportunities available to those with felonies on their record. He said he didn’t want to go that route, one that befalls so many young African-American males, and being locked away all that time made him want to do the opposite.

“That changed my life,” he said. “I’m going for a bachelor’s in business. I’m married… I’ve completely turned my life around.”

The married father of six — three biological, three step — got the idea for the product after a son of his twin brother got lost somewhere between home and school. It took hours to find him.

“Luckily, in short, he ended up just walking into the house… and everything was OK,” Larkins said. “But [my brother] just remembers, it was like there was nothing they could do. He just sat there crying.”

Larkins’s invention, which he’s dubbed Track-N-Find GPS Undergarments 4 Kids, consists of a GPS tracking device hidden in the zippered pocket of a child’s undershirt and a smartphone app that connects to the device so parents can stay abreast of the child’s whereabouts.

He’s currently waiting for a patent, and is optimistic it’ll come through.

A GPS tracking device aimed at keeping kids safe is nothing new; a Google search yields at least a dozen products that work to that end. Larkins thinks what makes his product distinctive is that it’s concealed in an article of clothing rather than worn around the wrist or carried around in a backpack.

“I haven’t seen anything online. I’ve researched. The patent agent’s researched,” he said. “And we couldn’t find anything that pertains to undergarments. And that’s the uniqueness of our product.”

The idea behind pocketing the device within an undershirt is that, in the event of a kidnapping, it would be harder to spot by a perpetrator than a device worn on the outside of a child’s clothing or on a backpack that could be easily detected and tossed away.

He’s hoping to attract an investor to help launch the product more widely, given that he’s put a substantial amount of money into the product already.

“Thousands, like six or seven thousand,” he said.

Larkins said he’s targeting parents of children with autism because it’s common for children with the condition to wander off if even briefly unattended — as nearly half of autistic children will do or have done, estimates the American Academy of Pediatrics. Roughly one autistic child goes missing per day, the academy says, and with the increase in the number of children born with the condition, that number is likely to rise.

Often, they’re attracted to hazardous settings like bodies of water, roadways and heavy machinery, making for a potentially tragic outcome — as with the case of 5-year-old Jayliel Batista, whose body was found in a canal after he wandered away from a New Year’s Eve party last weekend in Allentown, PA.

Larkins’s product is also a tribute to Fuzani Zuberi Curtis, the 6-year-old son of Tamara Wilcox-Curtis, who grew up with Larkins. Fuzani, who was autistic, died February 27 due to as-yet undetermined circumstances.

Wilcox-Curtis, who has become an advocate for autistic children since her son died, said it’s all too easy for children with the condition to walk off, unaware of the possible danger.

“There are a lot of people in the autism community that would love his invention because it helps them keep track of their [children],”  she said.

It’s not rare for ex-cons like Larkins to find their way to a successful post-restoration life. But according to Tania Galloni, managing attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the criminal justice system tends to encourage recidivism because of its emphasis on punishment  over rehabilitation.

“It represents a real loss of potential, so much potential that so many people we send to prison have so much that they could be contributing,” she said. “And we’re sort of shooting ourselves in the foot when that’s the approach that we take.”

Often when people get in trouble, especially when they’re convicted of a felony, their criminal record can limit work, housing and education opportunities, causing many convicts to throw their hands up and resort to the illegal activities
that landed them in prison in the first place.

“You think you pay your dues, you pay for your mistakes, but the way our system is set up is so punitive,” she said. “Not only do we give you this felony conviction, and put all these barriers in your way. Not only do we send you away from your community, but you lose your right to vote, and when you come back, a lot of people are on probation. They’re being supervised, they’re being monitored. They can’t vote. Everything is sort of built to discourage people from being able to accomplish anything when they come out of prison.”

Plus, it can be easier than one thinks to unwittingly rack up charges, as Larkins did in 2009 when he was caught and charged with three counts each of possession and sale of crack cocaine.

“It just so happens that when you’re dealing with drugs, you’re dealing with stacked charges,” he said. “You can do one crime and they can get you for six different charges.”

It didn’t take long for him to realize he didn’t want to be condemned to a life of crime. He married a woman who was a longtime friend, enrolled in a remote business degree program and got to work developing his product.

“I love my life now,” he said.