Catch-16

Slipping through the safety net for juveniles.

DeEtte insisted that the school develop an individualized education program (IEP) for Kaeleigh, a process that involves assessment and input by the school social worker, special ed teacher, school psychologist and others. The professionals concluded that "attendance is a major issue" and that Kaeleigh would benefit from a more structured setting. She was placed in Tracks, a highly monitored program for at-risk Eaglecrest sophomores and freshmen that offers smaller classes, strict rules and a carrot-and-stick approach to privileges that other high schools students take for granted, such as the ability to visit a bathroom alone or have lunch off campus.

Kaeleigh responded well to Tracks. She liked the individualized attention and the ability to proceed at her own pace, she says. Her attendance and her grades shot up, and her parents noticed dramatic improvements at home.

"It was like I had my kid back," DeEtte remembers. "She was coming home. She was helping out around the house. Then she graduated from Tracks."

 
Anthony Camera
 
Boomerang: DeEtte and Chris Altvater say their 
daughter Kaeleigh drained their bank account -- and 
that they'll end up paying for it in court.
Anthony Camera
Boomerang: DeEtte and Chris Altvater say their daughter Kaeleigh drained their bank account -- and that they'll end up paying for it in court.

Students who start out in Tracks generally move on to the Outback, an alternative school for Eaglecrest juniors and seniors located half a mile from the main campus. Cherry Creek has been developing alternative programs for students who don't fit into large, mainstream high schools since the late 1970s; the Outback, for example, has only a few dozen students, compared to the 3,000 enrolled at Eaglecrest. In recent years, more than two-thirds of eligible seniors have actually graduated from the program -- a strong number, Steinberg suggests, given the high-risk nature of the Outback's enrollment.

"This is the life preserver that is thrown to a lot of kids who might otherwise drop out of school," Steinberg explains. "They may be suicidal or significantly depressed, and they may have been acting out in various ways, both in the community and at school. The challenge is to provide a program that has academic rigor, but provide it in a flexible way. If the staff pick up any glimmer that they can work with a kid, they'll work like hell to get the kid bonded to the program."

But DeEtte says the Outback didn't offer the discipline or structure Kaeleigh had found in Tracks, and her attendance again began to decline. At the same time, life at home was becoming more unbearable for everyone. DeEtte and Chris were working or taking classes much of the time, and Dee had moved out -- in part, she says, because of the constant turmoil over Kaeleigh. "I was tired of playing second fiddle to a girl who couldn't clean her own room," she says. "I love her, but I don't like who she's become."

DeEtte found her prescription drugs disappearing twice as fast as they should have. She started storing them in a safe, along with her cash. Without Dee around, she was feeling increasingly vulnerable around Kaeleigh. Not long after suffering a stroke last spring, she collapsed in her kitchen.

"I came down the stairs, got very dizzy and fell by the table," she recalls. "I couldn't pull myself up. Kaeleigh was the only one home, and I asked her to help me. She stepped over me and walked out the door."

Over the summer, Kaeleigh picked up two more tickets from the Aurora police. One was for a curfew violation, since dismissed. The other, the auto-theft case, occurred when she was housesitting for a friend and a third party "borrowed" the friend's car keys and his car. Kaeleigh was seen less and less around the Altvater home; in September, she stopped coming home at all. DeEtte called the police to report her as a runaway. An officer took down the information but told her he didn't need a photograph. It's up to the parents to look for a runaway sixteen-year-old, he explained, not the police.

DeEtte says she worries all the time about Kaeleigh. "This isn't Kaeleigh we're dealing with," she says. "I don't know if it's drugs, alcohol, or if it's a mental disorder. I worry every day: Is this the day I will be going to the morgue? To the hospital? I try hard not to think about it. I would rather have her here, as afraid of her as I am, just to know that she's okay."


Kaeleigh wishes her parents would worry about her a lot less. After all, she's not a kid anymore. She's practically an adult. She makes this point several times one afternoon during a conversation at a Starbucks inside a grocery store, where she has come to give her side of things.

She is petite and dark-eyed, like her mother. She sports a semi-fresh scar above one eye that she says came from falling off a bike somebody had sabotaged. She wears her boyfriend's Bob Marley T-shirt, which emphasizes her smallness. Judging from family photographs taken only a few months ago, she appears to have lost weight. Whether she is growing into a young woman or shrinking into a second childhood is, perhaps, an open question.

But not to Kaeleigh. "Because of the things I'd gone through, I matured a lot faster than those society calls my peers," she says. "Look at the average sixteen-year-old girl. She's concerned about guys, makeup, her social status. She's not worried about looking for work and preparing for her GED."

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