Girls in trouble with the law Offenses often signal severe problems: abuse, neglect, drugs -- and babies KIDS & CRIMES

January 10, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

She is 16. Early one summer morning, after an argument wit her boyfriend, she dropped her 4-month-old daughter into a steel trash can on Lemmon Street in Southwest Baltimore and replaced the lid. Her 2-year-old daughter stood by and watched. Neighbors quickly retrieved the baby and flagged down a policeman.

Now she comes into the gloomy basement of the city courthouse, the bleak dominion of Baltimore Juvenile Court. She is wearing a purple, short-sleeved sweater, a denim skirt, and handcuffs.

"I wouldn't never try to hurt her," says the girl, sadly and a little shyly. "I know it was wrong."

She seems bewildered by the charge of child endangerment facing her and stunned by the prospect of losing her children. "I'm doing better," she says, more desperation than conviction in her voice. "I've been going to hair school," studying to become a beautician, she adds.

Juvenile Court has become a crossroads of urban disaster, a window on the hell created by economic devastation, drug addiction, ubiquitous guns, shattered families. But of all the transgressions and tragedies that pass through this place, the girls' stories often seem the most tangled and wrenching.

Girls are still easily outpaced by boys in lawbreaking, accounting for only a small fraction of juvenile crime and a tiny percentage of the gun violence people fear most. In 1991, girls were 15 percent of juveniles arrested in Baltimore, 18 percent of those arrested statewide -- precisely the same percentages as a decade earlier, in 1981. Of 31 juveniles charged with murder in 1991, just one was a girl.

Girls do account for a growing proportion of assaults, even if most such cases remain fistfights with relatives or classmates. In 1991, girls were responsible for 1 in 5 arrests for a serious, life-threatening assault and 1 in 4 arrests for simple assault. That's a significant increase over 1981, when the proportions were 1 in 7 and 1 in 5.

But the numbers do not begin to convey the complications of the delinquent girls' predicaments: physical and sexual abuse, parental abandonment and neglect, conflict between teen-age girls and their overburdened single mothers, sexual involvement with much older men. Above everything else, the statistics cannot capture the impact of girls' entanglement with crime on even more vulnerable lives -- their own babies.

"Although the number of female clients are few compared to males, their needs tend to be severe and complicated," says a report on female delinquents completed in September by a state Department of Juvenile Services task force.

That sounds like an understatement on this particular day in court, as the circumstances of the young mother and her babies compete for the court's attention.

She can give her children a good home, the girl insists, and tries to explain why she hasn't so far: She was kicked out by her grandfather, and then she lived with her godfather, and then she met this woman and moved in with her, "but she was taking too much money out of my check. I'm young, and I don't want people to roll over me." So she has moved in with yet another woman.

There is a discussion of who has custody of this child-mother. Her own mother died when she was 5. She rarely sees her father. Her grandfather, sitting in the front row, confirms that while he has legal custody, he put her out of his house a couple of years ago.

"When you don't go by the rules, I don't need your mouth," declares the grandfather, a stocky, graying man.

There is a discussion of whether the trash had been picked up that day before the girl put her baby in the trash can, and of the light that fact might shed on the girl's motives.

There is a discussion of the two children, who were taken into care when their mother was arrested. It emerges that they are with their teen-age father, released from jail three days earlier on a cocaine charge and is living with a friend.

This is news to the 16-year-old mother, who suddenly becomes animated.

"That's a shooting gallery," she says. "The people that live there be drug addicts. My baby found a drug needle there. I'd rather they be with a stranger."

Court workers scramble to the phones to urge the Department of Social Services to check the house. Juvenile Master Joyce Mitchell orders the mother detained until the court and an alphabet soup of government agencies cope with the Solomon-like task of deciding the fate of this teen-ager and her children.

A guard snaps the handcuffs back on the girl's slender wrists and leads her out. Another case begins.

Within hours of the trash-can case, a 15-year-old girl is summoned to Master Mitchell's courtroom: Involved in a feud with another girl, she had brought a kitchen knife to Herring Run Middle School in her backpack.

As she enters, she pushes her mother ahead in a wheelchair. Her mother is dying of AIDS. As the girl's story emerges, the weapon charge recedes in significance, just one shard in the story of a shattered family.

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