Slipping through the safety net for juveniles.

Along the way, their older daughter, Dee, now eighteen, dropped out of school; she went on to obtain her GED and attends community college today. But Kaeleigh's education is at a full stop right now, her prospects uncertain. The irony isn't lost on either parent; while they've been pounding the books, Kaeleigh has been ditching class after class.

"It seemed like the more we got our lives together, the more disruptive she became," Chris says.

Chris and DeEtte met while attending Kent State University two decades ago. Neither one finished school; instead, they got married and Chris joined the Marines. DeEtte, who'd grown up in a military family, found herself back in the familiar routine of moving from base to base. Kaeleigh was born in 1989 in Oceanside, California, while her father was stationed at Camp Pendleton. But Chris soon left the military, and his children grew up on the other side of the country, in Durham, North Carolina -- on a street where kids grew up quickly.

Moving on: Dee Altvater left home because of the 
turmoil over her sister.
Anthony Camera
Moving on: Dee Altvater left home because of the turmoil over her sister.

"We were living in a crack neighborhood," DeEtte says. "It was all we could afford at that point. We didn't get food stamps; I always believed you don't use social services unless you need them. And we refused to buy all the stuff available on the street, the stolen clothes and the stolen television sets."

Out of the service, Chris scrambled for construction jobs. DeEtte cleaned houses. They tried to insulate Kaeleigh from the drug dealers outside their door, forbidding her to go bicycling or skating. It was Dee, their oldest, who had the roughest time in North Carolina, they say.

Dee doesn't remember that much about it. "I blocked out a lot of the not-so-nice things," she says. "I do remember that, at age eight, I chased a girl down the street with a pitchfork."

Kaeleigh recalls that she and Dee were "two of three white children in our elementary school" and that they were often harassed.

In 1998, Chris and DeEtte got divorced. A few months later, the family's next-door neighbor was found shot in the head, and DeEtte decided it was time to get out of Durham. She brought the children to Aurora, where she busied herself taking care of her mother, who was terminally ill. "They were going to have a chance to have an education," she says now, "to live in a world where there weren't hypodermic needles and knifings. I wanted them to have a future."

The move was a tough adjustment for all concerned. "When we first got here, we had difficulty sleeping because there were no sirens and no gunfire," DeEtte says. "To me, silence meant danger. My mother and I argued because I wanted to bring a handgun; I'd lived with one for years. And Kaeleigh got very attention-dependent."

Midway through fourth grade, Kaeleigh began disappearing once or twice a week from classes. She hadn't made a lot of friends at her new elementary school, and she preferred to go to a vacant field and read books or slip back home to fool around on the computer while her mother was working. DeEtte took the girls to counseling. Everybody was told they were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from their experiences in North Carolina. "The counselor told Kaeleigh that anything she did, she was not responsible for," DeEtte remembers.

"She took this as license to do whatever she wanted," Chris adds. "Until she came here and got with this counselor, I would say Kaeleigh was your average kid. Once she realized she could get away with things and the counselor would back her, she started taking advantage of it."

Kaeleigh remembers the counselor as an advocate of a type of "play therapy" that seemed better suited to much younger children. "We would play Cooties and other very infantile games," she says. "I hated it. It was crap. After a while, I just wouldn't participate. I've seen a lot of counselors and therapists. There are a few good ones; my sister had one. But I had some who did nothing. All they cared about was getting their money and getting out of there."

Kaeleigh knew she had issues, as the mental-health professionals put it. Bad as Durham might have been, she hated leaving her friends there. She was furious when, after the breakup, her dad followed them out to Colorado and moved back in "as if nothing had happened." (Her parents remarried in 2002.) She'd always depended on Dee -- "My sister basically raised me," she says -- but she was starting to feel abandoned by her, as Dee discovered boys and other interests. Living with her dying grandmother, trying to fit in at a new school, dealing with her mother's times, she says, it all got to be too much.

She became more defiant. Her parents and older sister say Kaeleigh started skipping school with increasing frequency, got into physical fights with Dee and ran afoul of various neighbors. A week after her grandmother died, thirteen-year-old Kaeleigh broke into a vacant house on the block and began to use it as a place to hang out when she was truant. Her parents paid the owner $600 for damages and persuaded him not to file a police report.

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