Parents shackle girl, 15, to keep her off streets Social services failed to stem problems

September 20, 1991|By David Gonzalez | David Gonzalez,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Few residents of Elliott Place are eager to venture into the darkness that descends over their corner of the Bronx each evening and transforms it into a gantlet of drug dealers, where the night life is punctuated by gunfire and illuminated by the flashing lights of police cars.

But to 15-year-old Linda Marrero, the swirling action down the street from her apartment building was an irresistible siren call.

For the two years since she dropped out of the sixth grade, her parents said, she would skip off into the dark, only to return days or weeks later from crack binges emaciated, bruised and disheveled.

Finally, in July, after Linda was almost killed by two drug dealers she had crossed, her parents, Eliezer and Maria Marrero, frustrated by what they said was a social-service bureaucracy that had failed to help them, decided that they had had enough. They chained Linda to a radiator in their living room.

Police called it a crime and arrested the Marreros, charging them with unlawful imprisonment. Their neighbors and a chorus of citizens called it tough love.

Yesterday, Judge Efrain Alvarado of Bronx Criminal Court reduced the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. An investigation continues, but all charges will be dropped if Linda declines to file a complaint in 90 days.

Held in a group home over the weekend, Linda, the youngest of four children in the family, is back home and refuses to testify against her parents, who she said were acting in her best interests.

"I did nothing bad," her mother said calmly in an interview in the family's apartment, where friends and relatives bustled about. "And if Ihad to do it again, I would."

To many people, the Marreros have become minor folk heroes, admired and defended as a hard-working family who had acted out of love and desperation.

But the plaudits also appear to speak to a growing alienation from officialdom in New York's poor neighborhoods and a rising belief that taking extreme individual action may be a better way to resolve problems than going to counselors, psychiatrists or the courts.

Linda didn't always cause her parents worry. "She was the best," her father said smiling broadly. "She was good and went to school."

But her parents said they began to notice a change soon after Linda turned 12. Although she would leave the house each morning to go to school, they said, they began getting phone calls from counselors, saying her daughter seldom made it to her fifth-grade classes.

"They would call us almost every day," said Mrs. Marrero. "And when she did go to school, she would fight."

Her parents and relatives said Linda fell under the spell of an older girl. Together, they would steal jewelry and coats from the other children at school. School counselors visited the home. One tried to get Linda into a school for troubled youths, but Mrs. Marrero said her daughter wouldn't listen.

Mrs. Marrero first approached city social-service workers at the suggestion of the mother of a classmate with whom Linda had fought. She went to the Child Welfare Administration, seeking to place her daughter in "a school for rebellious girls," she said.

But officials at the agency told her that there was little they could do unless the child had broken the law, she said. They suggested she go to Family Court.

So Mrs. Marrero, accompanied by a counselor from Linda's school, went to court to file a petition declaring her child in need of supervision. But she said the court did little more than issue an order directing the child and her parents to the appropriate agencies to obtain help.

Mrs. Marrero said that Linda's nighttime trips to the street soon began to grow longer, sometimes lasting till dawn or even through the next day, and that she began to venture beyond the neighborhood into other boroughs.

When gunshots rang out at night, Mrs. Marrero would be startled from her sleep, bolt upright, and wonder if Linda had been shot. Sometimes strangers showed up at the Marrero apartment, demanding money for jewelry or clothing that they said Linda had borrowed or stolen.

When Linda was 13, Mrs. Marrero called the police saying she wanted to give the state custody of her child. She said the police told her she would have to go to Family Court to get an order, but took Linda and sent her to a group home in Brooklyn for the weekend.

Linda walked out of the group home the next day and returned home by taxi. Mrs. Marrero said she had felt that the Linda's problems were not going to be solved through government.

"I took the law into my own hands," Mrs. Marrero said.

She sent Linda three times to live with family friends and her paternal grandfather in Puerto Rico, but the girl was sent back each time for being incorrigible.

Her parents, trying to pacify her, showered her with presents, including a videocassette recorder and a large-screen television.

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