Failed by the system -- taken by the streets

Gunshot ended teen's life of falling through the cracks

Confronting Crime

The Battle For Baltimore's Future

October 14, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

Eliza Jennings saw the future slipping away for the teenage great-nephew she'd been raising. He was depressed and angry, cutting school, running away from her home in Rosedale.

When he turned 16, the arrests began, mostly for dealing drugs in the city. Jennings appealed to the juvenile system for help, writing a letter in April to Baltimore's top prosecutor.

"I have already had to identify Davon by [police] photograph," she wrote. "I pray that I do not have to identify him by way of the City Morgue."

Jennings wrote another letter this month. It begins: "On September 4, 2007, my nephew Davon Leroy Qualls age 17 became the 211th homicide victim for Baltimore Maryland."

Jennings lost her great-nephew to violence, and, she believes, to an uncaring juvenile system.

After Davon was arrested twice this spring, once with marijuana and once with cocaine, Jennings said, she asked juvenile judges and case workers to place him in a locked treatment facility.

Instead he was released, first to a woman who didn't know the teen's real name, then to a 26-year-old man he called his "home boy," Jennings said. Both times, Davon was assigned to live in the 1500 block of Carswell St., just west of Clifton Park. It's a five-minute walk from where he was fatally shot in the head.

Davon is one of 20 Baltimore youths age 17 and under to be killed so far this year. Twenty-eight were killed last year, all but a handful in street shootings.

Hundreds more teenagers are caught up in the city's adult and juvenile courts, accused of crimes such as murder and burglary - the last charge against Davon before he was killed.

"I know they've got thousands of young people in the system," Jennings said in an interview. "All I was asking them to do was just save one."

Now Jennings wants to know why Davon was placed on probation and sent into a dangerous city neighborhood instead of being given the kind of intense mental-health treatment she said he needed. Under the care of 26-year-old Dominic Pierson, Davon was arrested at least three more times.

The judge in charge of Baltimore juvenile court and a state Juvenile Services spokeswoman said the system strives to place teenage offenders who aren't a danger to public safety in the least restrictive setting possible.

"That's what we always look at, and that's what we looked at in this case," said Judge Edward R.K. Hargadon, who signed the orders releasing Davon after Master Julius Silvestri heard the case and made the recommendation. Hargadon said he was speaking on behalf of the court and Silvestri.

Tammy M. Brown, spokeswoman for the state Department of Juvenile Services, said Davon's caseworker, the juvenile equivalent of a probation agent, regularly met with and spoke to the teen, who she said was complying with probation terms.

Juvenile Services reviews every case in which one of its youths dies to see whether mistakes were made. Brown said she was unsure of the status of Davon's review.

Jennings wanted a much different fate for Davon, a child who had endured so much in his short life.

His father, Wilbur Qualls, died of a seizure disorder when Davon was 8. Months later, his mother, Tanya Qualls, died of a massive heart attack. He was an only child.

His maternal grandmother raised him until her health began failing in 2003. She died in 2005, and her lifelong companion - whom Davon considered a grandfather - died the next year.

Davon didn't like to hug people or say he loved them, Jennings said, adding, "He told me that every time he became close to someone, God took them away."

Jennings, Davon's great-aunt, started caring for him in 2003, along with her grandchildren, ages 24, 16 and 11. She enrolled him in Baltimore County's Overlea Senior High School and sought counseling for him but never filed paperwork to be his legal guardian.

Since birth, Davon was a member of Grace Memorial Baptist Church on Eden Street in Baltimore.

"In some ways he was really the ideal kid," said his pastor, the Rev. Irvin Pope, who used to take Davon to the Inner Harbor to talk. "He was quiet, thoughtful."

At the same time, Jennings said, "Davon was an angry young man" who hated authority. He resisted the junior ROTC program she had enrolled him in, she said, and was increasingly disruptive at school.

A retired BGE employee, Jennings, 64, said she was taken aback when the teenager started referring to himself as "a man."

More and more, he was disappearing for stretches of days or weeks or even, once, for three months.

Police reports and court papers show that Davon was drawn to Coldstream, a triangle of tough streets bound by The Alameda, Loch Raven Boulevard and 25th Street.

Perhaps it was nostalgia for the neighborhood of his childhood.

For 40 years, his grandmother, Henrietta McCullough, owned Retta's Bar on Gorsuch Avenue, near Memorial Stadium. His parents worked there, and the whole family lived on the second floor, Jennings said.

Much has changed since then.

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