By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Patricia Calhoun
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It was only late October, but a kind of holiday excitement coursed through the Altvater household in southeast Aurora. Kaeleigh had called. Kaeleigh was coming home.
Her mother, DeEtte, was thrilled. She and her younger daughter had been locked in conflict for years -- over school, chores, house rules, all the usual flashpoints of adolescent rebellion -- and the situation had escalated drastically since this past July, around the time of Kaeleigh's sixteenth birthday. Kaeleigh had disappeared for hours or even days at a time; she'd refused to join in family meals or activities, emerging from her room only when her parents were asleep. Finally, she'd taken off entirely, staying with friends for weeks. DeEtte knew this visit would be brief, but she hoped it would provide an opportunity to talk to her runaway child.
Kaeleigh arrived at six on a Friday evening, right on time. DeEtte asked her if she wanted to chat. "Not really," Kaeleigh replied.
"Well, I'll tell you what I'll do," DeEtte said. "I need help with the house. If you'll straighten up the main floor, there's a twenty-dollar bill in my purse, and you can have it."
It was a gesture of trust. DeEtte didn't make a habit of letting Kaeleigh anywhere near her purse, not since she and her husband had noticed things missing around the house. The couple had even bought a safe to protect their cash and valuables, as well as the prescription drugs DeEtte takes -- a battery of pills to combat the effects of cerebral palsy, arthritis, the carpal tunnel syndrome from years of cleaning houses that has put both her arms in braces, and the mild stroke she suffered a few months ago. But tonight was different, DeEtte told herself. She wanted to reach out to her daughter.
Kaeleigh did a great job of cleaning, DeEtte recalls. Then she helped herself to the twenty dollars. After she left, her mother discovered that she'd helped herself to DeEtte's ATM card, too. "She must have stood over my shoulder at some point and memorized the PIN number," DeEtte says. "She cleaned me out."
Kaeleigh drained her bank account of $120, "our food money for two weeks," DeEtte explains -- no small sum for a family getting by on $21,000 a year. But if she reported the theft, DeEtte stood to lose even more. Kaeleigh already had a modest juvenile record, including a recent misdemeanor car-theft charge that resulted in a $500 fine; an additional $500 penalty was suspended, provided that she stayed out of trouble. Although her parents have no legal means to compel Kaeleigh to go to school or get a job, or even to ban her from their house, they're still liable for any court costs she incurs because she's a minor. And blowing the whistle on their daughter for taking their money would stick the Altvaters with the suspended penalty from the previous case -- which they can't afford to pay.
"If she continues to commit crimes, we will be called into court repeatedly for the next two years," says DeEtte, who filed bankruptcy earlier this year. "I don't know how we're going to pay this fine, but we're going to pay it. But if she hits us with another one within a year, we're done."
Like other families of runaways, the Altvaters are discovering just how hard it is to maneuver through a system that's supposed to help them. For all the resources available to troubled teens, the safety net has huge holes when it comes to kids like Kaeleigh. Her parents have met with counselors, therapists and social workers. They've explored the possibility of emancipation or a court-appointed guardian. They've pleaded with school officials to help them rein in Kaeleigh's chronic truancy, to hold her back a grade rather than pass her with failing marks -- all, it seems, to little or no avail. They have been told that if their daughter were older or younger, involved in more serious offenses or none at all, the system might be able to do something to help her, or at least to hold her accountable for her actions. But not now.
"I really don't think there's any hope for Kaeleigh or us, some miracle program that's going to keep her from where she's headed," DeEtte says. "But I do feel the educational and legal system cheated Kaeleigh. There's a huge gap in the law, and there is no recourse for us."
"We're not an isolated case," adds Chris, her husband. "There are a lot of kids like Kaeleigh just wandering around the streets."
Kaeleigh herself says school and social-service agencies have done little for her over the years, and she thinks it's wrong that her parents are still being penalized for her conduct. "At my age, I can make the right decisions," she says. "If I make a wrong one, that's my choice. My parents shouldn't have to pay for my bad judgment. But I don't think the help is out there. At this point I'm basically struggling on my own, and I'm being met with resistance -- and hostility, sometimes."
Chris and DeEtte Altvater believe fiercely in the value of a good education. They know firsthand how the lack of one can limit your choices in life, how it can take years to pull yourself up from dead-end jobs and endless debt. After years of struggle, DeEtte now has a bachelor's degree and is pursuing a master's in special education while teaching at the Community College of Aurora; Chris, who once labored at low-wage construction jobs, is working on his undergraduate degree at Metropolitan State College of Denver.