A struggle to survive

Abandoned, in trouble in school and with the law, Barbara Griffin faced obstacles from birth

Confronting Crime / The Battle For Baltimore's Future

August 19, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

The minister stood in the vestibule of his East Baltimore church and told mourners to go home. The funeral was canceled because there wasn't enough money to bury Barbara Griffin.

The Rev. Milton E. Williams needed the final $500 to properly lower her body into the ground. He passed out purple fliers announcing that the burial would occur the next day, but the money still didn't come together, so that was canceled too.

It was a final indignity for a young woman who had endured little but sadness and tragedy in her short life. She had lived on society's margins, sick, angry, forgotten - and eventually was recorded as Baltimore's 135th homicide of the year. Her body was found on June 11, the day before her 19th birthday.

Williams, who was Barbara's minister for a decade, provided an outline of her life: Abandoned as an infant. Lived with a foster parent. Sexually abused as a toddler. Poisoned by lead paint. Had trouble learning. Fought at school. Arrested with a gun. Joined a Bloods gang. Evicted from her family's longtime home. Lived on the streets.

He talked so others would understand Barbara the way he did, and in doing so, provided a rare window into how some young people live in the city.

"She was rough," Williams said. "She was real. In some ways, she was more righteous than not. She let the world know `This is who I am, all of my faults, all of my pain, this is who I am.'"

As Baltimore's homicide tally grows, these are the lost lives that nobody talks about. These victims led imperfect lives and left behind few, if any, achievements. Barbara made so many mistakes she took on the nickname "Can't Get Right" - or CGR for short. She tattooed the initials on her arm, along with the phrase "Love is pain."

"She had so many strikes against her," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner. "Sometimes kids just very clearly have the worst circumstances from the beginning. How can anyone have a normal life under some of the circumstances they grow up?"

Anonymous

Barbara's death did draw some attention because of where her body was found: within eyeshot of classrooms full of youngsters at West Baltimore's Bentalou Elementary School.

But she was relatively anonymous in death. At first, police described her only as a teenager. When her name was finally released two days later, it became clear that she had not contributed much in her short life, and general interest in her story evaporated.

The case remains open, according to police.

Reconstructing Barbara's life is difficult.

Photos and documents that might provide a sketch were destroyed when the family's house was firebombed in February, her mother says. Her circle of friends included gang members who refused to talk to a reporter. Other acquaintances, known only by nicknames like Dump and L. Jeezy, could not be found.

And the house where Barbara most recently lived, a condemned, city-owned rowhouse at the corner of Ashland Avenue and North Castle Street, yields few clues.

The front room contained a smashed television, the remains of a window air conditioning unit and children's toys. The smell of smoke hung in the air, as if there'd been a fire. There was a hole in the ceiling, and it was possible to see the rafters. Gang graffiti "O77 TOP" - a bloods gang - and "L up" were scrawled on the sidewalk and on nearby houses.

"She did have it hard," said foster mother Beverly Miller.

She spoke about Barbara's life on several occasions - first while in a pew at the New Life Evangelical Baptist Church on North Avenue, a city church with a methadone clinic in the basement.

Unsettled life

Barbara's early life was full of disruptions.

Her biological mother, Gwendolyn Griffin, lived in Las Vegas. Barbara was conceived during an affair with a traveling salesman from Baltimore.

The baby was born in June 1988. Griffin had three other children and a husband in jail - a man who was uninterested in bringing up a child that was not his, according to Miller and an early evaluation of Barbara's life by the East Baltimore Mental Health Partnership.

Barbara was soon entrusted to her biological father, Frederick Jefferson. He took her to Baltimore and asked a childless acquaintance - Miller - to babysit. Then he disappeared. Barbara heard from her biological mother only once.

"She became my baby," Miller said. Miller was 35, and Barbara was 15 months old. It would take seven years for the relationship to be legalized by court order.

Miller said Barbara didn't behave normally. "You know how you play with little babies and they laugh? She didn't have that for two or three months. She didn't have no response." It's not clear why, though Miller blames lead poisoning, a condition for which Barbara tested positive at age seven.

There was other unusual behavior. The baby wasn't used to lying down at first, and Miller could only get her to sleep by propping her up with pillows. Each day she removed a pillow so the baby would learn to sleep lying flat.

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