There are days I still can't get the picture out of my mind, even more than 15 years later: Maurico, on his knees in the cold damp of a drainage ditch, on his knees with a gun to his head, on his knees as the trigger is pulled. And then Maurico, face down in the water, three bullets in his head, dying alone in the cold, lying in that ditch for three days. I can't see the picture without thinking how afraid he must have been, how desperately he must have wished to go back. I wonder what he thought of in those last seconds and then I can't think about it anymore, it's hurts too much to imagine his last moments, the terror he must have felt.
His brother identified him, hearing a news report of an unidentified body found in a ditch on Gilcrease. Demond recognized the ring Rico was wearing, knew it was his brother out there, thrown away as if he were trash.
The day after Rico's funeral, the juvenile court judge called me to say "that boy was never going to make it." Liar. Four months before, that same judge had come down off the bench to shake Rico's hand, to congratulate him on his success in a 90 day treatment program. When I took him home from that successful 90 days in confinement, the only lockup he'd ever experienced, his grandmother was gone and once more, Rico was alone, nowhere to go. Nothing I could say helped. His grandmother knew he was coming home and she left.
I can't write this in a way that makes sense. There's too much to the story, too much I still feel guilty about. Like the main thing: the system ~ what used to be my
system ~ failed this young man from his first year of life. Abandoned repeatedly by his mother after birth, left with this dope dealer and that addict boyfriend while she ran off to chase her own cocaine high, it was still 18 months before Rico was taken into custody. Child welfare took him and gave him back over and over ~ four times total ~ before they took him for real.
And then he went to live with his grandmother, who didn't want another child, who'd done a pretty poor job with her own daughter, Rico's mother. She didn't want her own kid, and she ended up trying to raise three grandsons. It was a mistake, but what are you going to do with a three sibling group of boys?
Some people say harsh is good and grandmother was harsh as hell. A lot of people tell me that kids today are messed up because they don't get spankings like kids of yesterday. I think it's bullshit. I think what kids today are lacking is parent time. Spankings were one indication parents were paying attention when I was a kid. But spankings weren't the only thing. We got parents who were awake and alert, working, and functional. We weren't brought up by adult-sized kids too narcissistic to recognize that we couldn't raise ourselves.
But I'm way off track, and this is Rico's story. I have to tell it through my experience, and I have got to get rid of it this time, this Memorial Day, my fourth try at getting Maurico out of my head.
I met him when he was 15. He was an angry, hostile young man, sitting in a Sapulpa shelter, waiting on his worker to appear. He'd been adjudicated on yet another misdemeanor-reduced-from-a-felony and was awaiting placement. Rico had a long trail of felony-level property crimes running behind him, dismissed over and over and over again.
He was my second assignment fresh out of college on my first real job as a social worker. I was convinced I could make a difference. I was convinced I could make a connection. Maybe I thought I could save him, or at least help him save himself. I was right on the first two, wrong on the last.
Over the next two years I tried everything to get him the help he needed. He had a hurt inside big as a house, and it spurred his fuckups and placement failures. He'd get things going his way and life would smooth out, get calm and quiet and something would come alive inside this child. He'd get irritable, then critical, then angry, and once he was angry, it was all over, a matter of days before he'd run.
So many tries at so many placements, and so many failures. I was desperate to get him what I still believe would have helped him: locked up in Rader long term
so he couldn't run and could start to excavate that hurt, dig it out, expose it to the light and to the air and let it heal.
This is where I get pissed off thinking about what he needed and couldn't have. He was a property
offender. My rapists and child molesters and armed robbers, hard core criminals all, were easy to get into lockup kid prison. Their crimes were so big there was no bargaining them down.
Rico, though, he stole cars, and he shoplifted. He did a couple of burglaries, and he wasn't scary, not at first. He had a slick public defender for whom it seemed a game to get Rico free. It was a back and forth between the public defenders and the assistant district attorney, who's going to prevail, who's going to lose. The kid too often seemed like an afterthought.
Most of the time the PD won. Rico "won" but in winning, he lost. He lost the felony adjudication that would have allowed me to get him where he needed to be, so he could have a shot at saving himself. I understand the theory behind community based treatment, I do. But our treatment efforts at the time were also supposed to be needs-based. Rico needed
to be safe, to be secure, to have the option to run removed. Instead, because of some numbers on a page, because of some game playing at the court, he couldn't have that.
Some kids will not stay in a place if they can run. No one wants to hurt, and no one really wants to work through their shit. We kept putting Rico in unlocked facilities, trying to force him to dig deep, down there where it really hurts, where the wound's been festering for a lifetime. What was he going to do? It was madness.
Twice I begged his PD to let the felony stand. He told me he couldn't, that he had to do what Rico wanted, act in his "best interests." The PD's at the Juvenile Bureau were old hands and they wiped the floor with the rotating fresh faces staffing the ADA's office most of the time. The PD would bargain to win, and Rico would lose.
So I'd place him in unlocked facilities and he'd run, again and again. I tried for Rader again and again. I wrote pages and pages of justification for why Rico needed lockup, how he couldn't make it in any facility with an open door. It never worked, and with every placement failure, Rico got worse. He got more involved in street life. He hooked up with a gang. He finally started using, just like his mama, like his grandpa, who'd died of alcoholism before Rico was born.
Shortly after that 90 day program he'd aced, when he'd returned home to find his grandmother gone, there were rumors of a new dope charge coming up in Osage County. He was on the run again, knowing there could be a warrant out for his arrest. Two Osage County cops came to my office to tell me he was in trouble, that they believed he was salvageable, to ask me if I couldn't do something, put him back in Rader for real this time. Two cops.
Could I do something? I thought maybe, and I tried. I put the word out with my other kids that if they saw him, I wanted him to call me. Just call. Two days later, he did. We met at Williams Center downtown. He was late, waiting by the door for 15 minutes to see if I'd brought the police with me.
When he sat down next to me, the first thing he said was "I can't do what you think I can do, I can't stay in those places." I knew that. It had been my fight with my agency for 18 months. We talked about what he was doing. He showed me where he'd broken his hand in a fight. We talked about people we both knew and about the possibility of a charge in Osage County.
I convinced Rico to come in, one more time. I think about that now and it seems impossible. But it's further proof of what I believed then: He wanted to get better, he wanted to have a good life, he just didn't know how to get past the emotional turmoil that would come up when he sat still. He wanted to get better and he trusted me. It breaks my heart to write that, but there it is: the unloved child who believed in nothing, trusted no one, trusted me.
We stayed in my office all that night, him sleeping on the sofa, me doing paperwork, because there was no place for him to go while awaiting sanctions. But he was there, knowing some serious shit was coming down, he was there.
I was convinced he still had a little bit of hope left. He looked like hell from being on the streets. Thin, with dirty clothes, hair a mess. He was tired, I think, worn down from trying to make it on his own, worn down from too many failures. I don't know, but seeing him curled up on that couch, I thought this might be his moment.
We did sanctions, and my plan was to do a parole revocation while he was away for seven days. It was an obscure process that no one ever used anymore. I could bypass the Juvenile Bureau and get what amounted to a felony adjudication because Rico had violated his discharge plan. I'd be able to get him back into Rader long-term if I could make it work. He had to go away for seven days to an unlocked facility ~ sanctions ~ but it was tightly controlled and I could get the revocation set up while he was safe there. He agreed to go and I took him there, dropping him off by the lake, my sense of hope for this kid growing as I worked on volumes of paperwork necessary to skirt both the Juvenile Bureau and my agency's placement unit.
But he didn't make it. Three days into sanctions, the director called to say he was uncooperative and staff were restraining him. Four hours later she called again, saying she didn't have the staff to continue that kind of one-on-one attention. What? She should have said "I don't want to pay anyone to stay because that cuts into my profits." We were supposed to be doing individualized treatment at that time, getting kids what they needed, no matter what. I know it was a joke on a lot of levels, but I never thought a shift's worth of overtime could cost a child his life.
It did. I needed two more days for the parole revocation process and yet my supervisor gave the okay for them to stop the restraint. Rico was gone in an instant, hitchhiking into town in his pink sweatsuit. I don't know what happened between the Thursday he ran and the Thursday his body was found. It was one week of Rico on the streets. I imagine he was scared. I imagine he didn't think he had any outs left. He'd promised me and let me down. Osage County was after him. He couldn't face himself long enough to stay anywhere.
And then he was dead. Shot three times in the head. Lying for days in a ditch before a school bus driver saw his body and called the police; another day before his little brother recognized the ring from a news report about an unidentified body.
The funeral was a dreadful. His mother came in shackles from prison, arriving as we were all leaving after the service. Late. Always late. Never there for her son, even in death. His grandmother was raging and refused to buy a headstone. We made and sold teddybears to buy a marker for his grave.
It's too much to tell. The details don't mean anything unless you were there. I know only this: I loved Maurico. I did. I loved his heart and his spirit and his smart little brain. I loved that he recognized how unjust his life had been and was pissed off about it. I loved that he kept trying, that he would cry and rage and disappear, but then he'd come back. I loved that he wanted to be different. He was a good kid, a good guy, so terribly wounded. And I couldn't help him. I let him down.
I still believe locking him up would have helped. He might have still ended up in prison or dead, too many young black men do. But it might also have kept him alive long enough until something clicked, until he could see that throwing his life away over the past was a waste.
I always hoped he'd get to where he could see that the best way to focus all that mad inside would be to do well. It's the ultimate fuck you to the abusers: you hurt me so bad and still you couldn't stop me. But without security, without the basic safety of something to hold him in, he just couldn't do it. As an infant, as a small child, he was hurt over and over and over again and he was powerless to do anything about it. When he got old enough to run instead of taking the pain, he did. I don't blame him. The way he grew up, running equaled survival.
A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a man named Eddie. I worked with Eddie at the same time I had Rico. They were in that 90 day program together and they were a lot alike, except that Eddie had a mom who wouldn't quit on him. I think that's 90% of what got him through. His note was sweet and it made me think maybe all that time in the trenches of juvenile justice wasn't a complete waste.
But unlike Eddie, everybody quit on Rico, even the agency charged with helping him. We let go of his hand the day we wouldn't cover another shift to keep him in sanctions. One more letting go, one more bit of proof that he wasn't worth the expense or the effort or the time.
It's Memorial Day, and a time for remembering our loved ones who've died. I remember Maurico and I loved him. I failed him. We all did.
Labels: child abuse, dead kids