The Little Thief

Harris says breaking through to kids such as Carrie Jones, with whom he worked throughout 1990, is all the more difficult because not only are they perpetrators, they are usually victims of abuse and neglect. "What they need is one person they can trust, who matters to them," he says. Too often what they encounter, Harris laments, is a shifting cast of counselors unable to communicate with one another, let alone formulate a coherent rehabilitation plan for the child.

That sense of chaos was not lost on Carrie Jones: "I didn't even know half the stuff that was going on," she says now. "All I know is I was getting shipped from program to program. It's like, this lady come up to me the other day in court and she said, `Do you remember me?' I said 'No!' cuz I don't." Though her prospects looked bright in early 1990, when she settled with a friend's family in the James E. Scott project and was named student of the month at Jan Mann Opportunity School, she soon began skipping classes and disobeying the rules set out by her new guardian.

Adding to the schism was Carrie's talent for manipulation, a skill honed by months of copping room and board. A beautiful girl with bittersweet-chocolate skin and a gorgeous, if rarely imparted, smile, she was able to wrap the most seasoned social workers around her little finger. "Everybody in the office loved Carrie Jones," recalls Georgia Ayers, executive director of Last Chance, a nonresidential program for delinquents that supervised Carrie for several months in 1990. "I guess she was the star of our show. She could worm her way right into your heart. But once she left us, she did as she pleased." Ayers attributes Carrie's rambunctious side to influences in the Scott project, a hotbed of delinquency neighbors call "the Canyon." The nickname refers both to the project's isolation from a main thoroughfare and to the uphill battle faced by residents seeking to escape its dilapidated environs.

"I remember when the projects were the most elite place for black people to be because they had running water and bathtubs," says Ayers ruefully. "Now you got social workers afraid to even go near them." Too often, she fears, social agencies -- hers included -- write off project kids without considering ways to improve their home life. "In Carrie's case I was negative toward the mere fact of her being [in the projects]. All I saw was a house full of sorry-behind boys not working, and women on welfare. But maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should have gone in there and tried to give a helping hand to those people Carrie was clinging to."

Or, more precisely, the one person. By the summer of 1990, Carrie had moved in with Delores Walker, a stout matriarch who has spent eighteen years caring for the lost children spawned by the Canyon's fractured families. "She came here one day with my daughter and later it come out that she ain't got no home," says Walker in a lazy-tongued lilt that marks her Georgia upbringing. "I told her as long as she have respect, she can stay. Lord, I done raised up so many kids, how am I gonna turn one away?"

Walker, hobbled by polio at age nine, can't work and depends on food stamps and money earned by her adopted children. Although high blood pressure and a recent stroke have forced her to stop taking in children, her small, three-bedroom house is overrun with them: two pig-tailed toddlers, left for the week by their mother, padding up and down the stairs, chanting a commercial jingle; assorted teen-agers drifting through the kitchen, where barbecued chicken bakes along with cornbread; a six-month-old girl sitting on Walker's voluminous lap. "I got papers on this one," says Walker, scooping up Aisha, a blue-eyed mulatto, in arms thicker than the child's torso. "Her mother's messed up on drugs. She signed her over to me."

Behind on her bills, Walker keeps the lights off in her cluttered living room, obscuring a six-foot crack in one wall that has been futilely taped together. While her grown-up sons breeze in and out of the room, she talks of her abandoned effort to move into a "HUD house," of broken hinges and light fixtures that "HUD promised to fix," uttering the acronym as if referring to some perpetually unreliable superintendent. Despite the disrepair of her house, Walker's own rectitude is unquestioned among her children and neighbors. And unlike previous guardians, she seems to have a measure of emotional leverage over Carrie Jones. "Two girls came here and I know they be high," Walker says with a frown. "I told Carrie, `You don't have to do nothing. If you want a beer or something, I'll go along with that. But that other stuff -- uh-uh,

uh-uh.' So I seen her drop them two. I didn't tell her to. She did it herself."

Part Three
As for Carrie, her stance has been plain since Walker took her in. "I told all them counselors: `If I can't be with Miss Walker, I don't want to be with anybody. If you keep placing me in foster homes, I'm gonna keep runnin'.' There ain't nobody who I call my friend out here. But Miss Walker, she my friend."

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