Broken homes, broken system and broken kids

October 01, 2004|By Michael Olesker

THE TWO of them, geniuses both, stood there in the rain on North Gay Street the other morning and noticed nothing beyond their own seething rage. The mother had a rolled-up umbrella that she brandished like a meat cleaver, and the teenage daughter, puffing on a cigarette, pretended not to hear a word shouted into her ears from a distance of maybe three feet.

The rain fell steadily, but the mother did not open her umbrella. Better to use it as an implied weapon, and damn the rain. For she stood there now, right in front of the newly infamous Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, and she shook the umbrella near her daughter's face and hollered loud enough to be heard by everyone in the endless procession of people moving in and out of the center and the dreary morning downpour.

I went there after talking to Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph Kaplan. He spent nearly five years hearing juvenile cases, and last summer handled the big lawsuit against the city schools, which are asked to embrace thousands of these kids coming out of the criminal justice system. The last six months of Kaplan's Juvenile Court stretch was in this new building, which was opened a year ago at a cost of $60 million and is now seen as a disaster.

There were problems almost from the start: far too many kids going straight from the building's courtrooms to its lockups, and far too few staffers to watch over them. How do you provide staff when the state keeps cutting money for them?

Two weeks ago, an independent inspection found conditions at the facility posing "threats to the life, health and safety" of youths housed there. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who crusaded for office promising a new "child-first culture" in the juvenile system, got the new report and pretended he was shocked. He never heard about any of this. Probably, he was too busy shooting one of his marvelous TV commercials somewhere, showing how no problem in Maryland is too small for him.

So there we were in the rain on North Gay Street, with the mother hollering at the daughter. The mother wore a sweat shirt, having dressed formally for court, and the daughter feigned a lack of interest. It's a funny thing about this. Mothers are out there, and all these children. Always, it's a long shot to see a man. Which is the first thing Kaplan was saying that morning.

"You rarely see a father come to court," he said, sitting on a couch in his Calvert Street judicial chambers. "The fathers may have five children with four different women, but they're never present when the child's in trouble. One time, I had a custody fight between a father and a stepfather. I thought, `Wonderful. Here's a kid who's got two fathers who want him.' In the thousands of cases I've handled, you're lucky if you see one father who's interested."

The mothers show up, but too many of them have problems of their own. "A lot of them," said Kaplan, "with drug problems. When I started on the bench 28 years ago, you knew where a case came from by the kind of drug involved. You told me the drug, I could tell you the neighborhood. Heroin, it was West Baltimore. PCP, South Baltimore.

"Typically, the violent crimes back then were adults who knew each other. They gathered in rowhouses. Somebody would say, `Go get a Smirnoff's and some beer down on the corner.' Arguments would ensue, usually over women, and somebody would pull a gun.

"Today, with crack and cocaine, everything's changed. Now it's drive-by shootings, it's kids fighting over drug turf. It's a whole city with children growing up without fathers, and a lot of them with drug-addicted mothers who can't handle their kids.

"One woman came before me who's had nine children. I took away her last three. Some other judges took away a few others. She would come to court and wave to me, `Hello, judge.' That's how often she was in court. She wasn't shocked that I would take the children away. She was very friendly. But she had no suitable housing for her children, and no food for them.

"We have so many children like this. They come to court with their mothers, or their grandmothers who are 32 or 33 years old. A great-grandmother is in her 50s.

"The kids go from one school to another because their parents float around town. And they're out there on their own, and they figure out very quickly how little opportunity they really have to make something of their lives."

These are precisely the children who fill the public schools. Kaplan can't talk about last summer's lawsuit, which he handled with U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis. It's on appeal. But the troubles in the schools, brought to light by last year's financial chaos on North Avenue and continuing academic troubles, involve far more than finances or too many administrators on automatic pilot.

It's about these kids from broken homes, and the fathers who disappear, and the overmatched mothers.

There they are, standing in the rain in front of the juvenile center on Gay Street. More arrive each morning. They will go to jail when they should go to school. They will get out and get themselves hurt when they deserve the embrace of loving families.

Instead, the mother shakes her umbrella at the daughter, who inhales her cigarette and turns her head away. Neither knows the first step to get out of the rain. And nobody in government, after so many promises, offers a hand.

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