bad girl

A teenager struggles to stay human in the clutches of a system that despises her.


Nell Bernstein
October 22, 1997 1:06PM (UTC)

The phone rings late, after 10.

"Is it OK to call at this hour?" asks a young, female voice I've never heard before. It's a counselor from the group home where L. has
been for the past two weeks. She's calling to let me know that L. is
"AWOL," the term used by group home staff to describe a resident who
leaves without permission.

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I've known L. for two years, since she was 14, when she wandered
into the youth newspaper I edit and sat down at a computer. Abandoned by
her mother, L. had lived with her great-grandmother until she was 11, when
the state took charge of her
care. After more than 20 foster and group-home placements in three years,
L. had, by the time I met her, decided she was better off on her own, and
was staying with one friend after another -- part of the uncounted, indoor
homeless. When an argument with her stepfather -- back in town briefly
along with her mother -- turned violent, L. found herself swept back into the
system, sent to juvenile hall and then to this group home.

Though she'd promised to try to stick it out until Sunday, when I'd
be allowed a visit, I'm not surprised to hear she's gone already. That
afternoon I'd gotten a call from the supervisor, his voice strained. L.
has been threatening to leave, doesn't need him or anyone else, can make
it on her own. But when he puts L. on the phone she's quiet, almost
squeaky, resigned. Two of the other girls have been after her since the
day she arrived. They can't tell if she's black or white, think she acts
like she's "all that," don't like the gap between her teeth. They corner
her in the hallways and challenge her to fight, later, in the basement,
with no staff around to get in the way.

She has no interest in fighting them, no interest in any of the
petty power struggles that determine dominion in this tiny,
self-referential universe. That disengagement is as central to her
unpopularity as her caramel-colored skin or her fancy vocabulary: There's
nothing more infuriating than a new kid who refuses to play by the rules.
So the other girls keep poking at her, which is hard to take, she reminds
me, because she "has a lot of anger" -- the loose, swirling kind that barely
remembers its source, that simply hovers, until it finds a trigger or a
target.

Tonight's fight had started at the dining table. L. used a
polysyllabic word, showing up her less erudite adversaries, and they either
slammed down a dictionary (by their account) or threw it at her (by hers),
suggesting she look up those big words of hers before tossing them around.
She lunged, they fought, and she wound up ripping out a big chunk of one
girl's hair, leaving a gaping bald spot, the quintessential mark of
humiliation. (Even 10 years ago, when I worked in a group home, "I'll
snatch you baldheaded" was the threat of choice when things went sour
between the girls.)

"It was gross," winces the counselor, with a nervous laugh that
includes some concern -- enough to have made her call me -- but also a
voyeuristic curiosity that demands collusion.

"I don't know where she is right now," the counselor continues. "I
hope she's not hoing." The word sounds silly in her prim, suburban voice,
and the implication -- they're all the same -- infuriates me.

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When I get to work the next morning, L. is already there, asleep on
the couch. She wakes up and bounces around the office, alighting on desks,
soaking up all the attention in the room, thirsty for more. "I looove
Nell," she announces to nobody in particular when I walk by. "She came to
see me every week when I was in juvenile hall." The declaration is clearly
preemptive: She has screwed up and is afraid that means I won't love her
anymore. (In the rigid emotional economy of group-home life, that's
generally how it goes.)

We take a walk and she tells me what happened. For two weeks, at
school and at home, these two girls pushed, pulled at her, found her weak
spots and went for them with the unfailing instinct of the trapped. The
staff finally got wind of the conflict and yesterday called a meeting in
which L. and her primary tormentor were each instructed to leave the other
alone. By calling each to task in front of the other, L. explains, the
counselors had inflamed both girls' pride, practically guaranteeing the
blowup that followed.

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L. regrets her AWOL, though she left not impetuously but because
she felt herself backed into a corner -- the police were on their way and she
wasn't prepared to go back to jail. She does want to go back to the group
home, though, and says she's willing to take whatever medicine is
prescribed her in order to be allowed to do so. She felt it was a good
placement, relatively speaking, and that had been my impression too -- to
the degree that any place that takes six to eight young women, each
carrying her own load of pain and rage, and throws them together in an
enclosed space can ever be called a home. L. wants my help in negotiating
her return.

When I call the group home supervisor, he is sympathetic but
hesitant. It was, apparently, quite a large chunk of hair, and the girl to
whom it belonged wants to press charges. But he knows that L. was
provoked and also that she really was trying, and doesn't seem averse to
taking her back. He says he'll talk to the social worker and the therapist
and get back to me. In the meantime, he suggests I call her probation
officer.

The P.O., who has not been easy to reach in the past, returns my
call immediately when I leave a message that L. is in our office. It's
been less than 10 minutes since the group home supervisor promised to look
into L.'s return, but this woman's voice is like a door slamming shut.

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"I've discharged L. from the program," she informs me. "She needs
to turn herself in."

"Needs to" is one of the more frightening euphemisms you hear from
institutional types, used to describe actions that they themselves are
determined to compel. L. may have no choice but to turn herself in, but on
her lists of needs, which range from love and attention to a jacket to a
high school education, going to jail is actually pretty low. But until she
meets this "need," I am told quite explicitly, she can forget about the
rest of them.

I tell the P.O. that L. knows she must turn herself in and is
willing to do so, but would like to have some sense of what her future
might hold once she hands herself over. Such an expectation, I am made to
understand, is ludicrous. We are talking about an offender, I am
reminded -- someone who "ripped a child's hair out." (The fight, in this
version, is erased, and "child" status is reserved only for the single
designated victim, the other girl.) There will be no deals here, no
bargaining, no "working together." I must deposit L. behind bars post
haste, and let them do with her what they will.

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At this point I make what I will come to see as a crucial mistake: I tell her that no, I will not stuff L. into the trunk of my car and return her to jail against her will. I will try to use the relationship I've built with her to help her make the choice to come in. I will not end that relationship if she proves herself unable to come to that decision within the next half hour.

That, at least, is what I try to convey. But I am so stunned by the chill I hear in the voice of this woman with so much power over people's lives that my delivery is, I suspect, whiny and desperate. Despite myself, I must be conveying what I really feel: I can't believe you would do this to her.

Two days later, at her request, I bring L. back to jail. We stop at
a bookstore and she picks out a stack of novels -- Toni Morrison, Gloria
Naylor, Jamaica Kincaid -- which I'll have to bring in to her one at a time:
You are not allowed to carry anything with you when you enter juvenile
hall. At a nearby mall, she chooses a lunch of milkshakes and candy, a
child's last meal.

"Slow down," she keeps saying as we drive the 20 miles to juvenile
hall; by the time we reach the exit, we are barely moving, and I have
become aware of how much it is costing her to submit voluntarily to a
system that has let her down so often. It is something she has never done
before, but I've promised to do everything I can to help her find a
placement. The dozen books are just a precaution, an indulgence: Neither
of us imagines she will be locked up long enough to read them.

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As it turns out, she is kept behind bars for nearly six months, the
legal limit for someone who has not been sentenced for a crime but is
merely awaiting a residential placement. As far as I can tell -- and I try
my best to find out -- little effort is made during most of that time to find
somewhere else for her to go. I try looking for a placement, but find
myself nearly paralyzed. I can't get any details from the probation
department, have to grovel and plead even for permission to visit, since my
role corresponds to none of the categories on the little blue visitor's
pass: parent, guardian, custodian.

Meanwhile, L.'s childhood, actual and legal, ticks away while she
exists in a sort of sleep in her darkened room, reading W magazine by the
light that comes through the crack under her door. Every so often -- when
another group home administrator explains why L. is not "appropriate for
the program," when the guard at the front desk arbitrarily changes the
rules, when another court hearing is canceled without warning or
explanation -- I get just a taste of the rage that is generated when
helplessness meets irresponsible power. Your mind looks for avenues, ways
out of or around the dreadful deal you're offered, and then, hitting only
brick walls, quite naturally lashes out. That's why there is such random
venting in juvenile institutions -- the throwing and breaking things, as well
as the viciousness toward each other. Legitimate anger is blocked off,
dammed, until, as inexorably as water, it finds another outlet.

"With freedom comes responsibility" -- that's one of those
things adults are fond of telling children. What we tend to forget is the
corollary: When you take someone's freedom, you assume responsibility for
her, particularly when you imprison her in the name not of her actions but
of her status. That's what I am desperate to make these people understand:
the tremendous weight of the responsibility they've assumed by locking up
this child. They have forfeited the right to fail to return a phone call,
to profess themselves "not sure" why a placement hasn't come through, to
act like petty bureaucrats under no obligation to tell you why your package
hasn't arrived, or worst of all to blame her for their failures. They
must not fail her, unless they are prepared to admit it, and set her free
to fend for herself.

Like surgeons, in whose hands lives are laid, they don't have the
luxury of indifference or incompetence. But they are not, of course,
compensated as surgeons, and I suspect they remind themselves of that when
faced with a "hard to place" child like L.

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Just weeks from the legal
deadline that would probably mean being dispatched to a crowded temporary
shelter, I find a group home that will take L., and the probation
department agrees to let her go. The minute she is released, L. springs to
life -- getting a job, enrolling in community college (she passed her high
school equivalency test in juvenile hall), buying new clothes and dreaming
of boys.

Things go well for a few weeks. Then there is an argument with an
administrator, L. throws something, the police are called. I am talking to
her on the pay phone when they knock on the door.

"Don't worry about the police," I tell her. "They can't arrest you
if there's been no crime, just because somebody wants them to."

"They can if you're on probation," she reminds me.

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This time, though, the police leave without her. The only
suggestion I can offer now is that she compromise, play the game, do what
is required of her to keep a roof over her head and stay out of jail. When
she thinks of these relationships as real, that's when she allows herself
to get angry, and her anger is too dangerous to her now.

She says she knows, has been trying to do just that, but when she's
successful at it she fears she's losing herself. That is what happens to a
lot of young people who grow up in the system. In order to survive, they
allow themselves to become "institutionalized" -- such skilled manipulators
that they don't know how to form a real relationship. The thought that
someone else might come to know them inspires only fear.

But L., astonishingly and at great cost, has managed to hold on to
who she is. She has not become institutionalized; has not learned to
structure her identity in terms of, or in opposition to, the rules and
definitions the system would impose upon her. She is smart, she is honest,
and she keeps on trying her hardest. They've only got her for another year
and a half, unless they manage to push her into some act that will allow
them to criminalize her further. I find myself hoping that it's not enough
time for them to ruin her.

In the movie "Face/Off," Nicholas Cage, confronting an intransigent
female witness, uses the worst threat of all: "I'll send you to jail, and
your child will go into foster care." Any audience would get the menace
behind these words; it's only the system itself that still clings to the
myth of its own benevolence.

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It's difficult for me to "counsel" young people who live under the
jurisdiction of the foster care system because the level of courage and
patience required of them is beyond what I possess. And it's difficult to
advocate for them because they are so completely without recognized rights
to which I might appeal.

"You met me once," L. screams at her P.O. over the phone. "You
don't know what I need."

Neither do I. But I do know that we owe her, owe all of them.
We've taken their freedom, their right to self-determination, and now our
obligation to them is tremendous. It is the same as a
parent's, because we are claiming the rights of a parent. For the
authority we claim, we owe care in equal measure. That's the tacit deal
between parent and child, but we make no such promise to those toward whom
we presume to act in loco parentis. "If you needed attention," a
counselor tells L. in juvenile hall, "you shouldn't have gotten yourself
locked up."

A few years ago, my neighbor took in a troubled teenage nephew.
The nephew returned home and is now serving a 10-year sentence for
robberies committed just weeks after his 18th birthday. My neighbor's
conclusion, after a recent visit: "There are two worlds. One is the
suburban backyard world where children do as they are told and all their
needs are met. It works. But people from that world are making decisions
about children whose needs are not being met, and that isn't working."

To say that the foster care and juvenile justice systems add insult
to injury is more than a metaphor. These systems have come to despise the
wounded children in their care. There's no other possible conclusion: The
hatred is systemic. While it has grown fashionable to pay lip service to
the importance of "self-esteem" for adolescents, there's no greater sin in
the parallel universe inhabited by wards of the state than pride: thinking
you might be worth something. To think well of oneself is to think oneself
entitled, better than, and then one must be taken down a peg. Youth and
adults grow equally willing, equally qualified, to execute this
taking-down.

It's not too hard to see where the hatred might come from. It
hurts to love these hurt children. They are angry, and they will vent that
anger on whomever is nearest. Something is wrong with them, and if you
don't want it to be your fault you'd better believe it's theirs.

Inside juvenile hall, I get a glimpse of the L. the system knows.
She still tells the truth, but she hisses it, wields it. I know the face
they see, the one that so repels them, but I only see it when she is
under their roof.

On the radio they're talking about rats, and I can feel my mind
shut down. A study has been made of the permanent -- not long-term, not
remediable, but permanent -- effects of the absence of maternal care. Rats
whose mothers fail to lick and groom them sufficiently wind up anxious,
easily startled, saturated with a chemical fear that never ebbs. I don't
believe it.

When L. cries on my shoulder on a park bench and says, "I want to go
home," I don't say, "Where do you mean?" because I know that's why she's
crying. Until she turns 18, L. will not even have the legal right to do
what she has been forced to her whole life: take care of herself. But
somehow, she keeps growing, drawing water from deep below the desert of her
exile. With every word and action, she lets you know that it is not "too
late" for her (whatever that phrase might mean when applied to any child).
Fiercely, quixotically, she keeps fighting for that other life she has not
yet forgotten awaits her.


Nell Bernstein

Nell Bernstein is the author of "A Rage to do Better: Listening to Young People from the Foster Care System."

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