Catch-16

Slipping through the safety net for juveniles.

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.

 
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.
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.

"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.

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.

"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 illness...at 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.

"She stole a diamond necklace from a neighbor," DeEtte says. "I went through her room like a banshee and forced her to return it. She stole a bike; again, I made her return it. I tried to punish her by grounding her. She would just look at me, shrug, and head out the door. If you sent her to her room, she'd climb out the window. If you banned her from her computer, she'd find another one."

Kaeleigh denies the thefts, denies being violent or intimidating. "We were a very loud family," she says simply. The only physical confrontation she recalls is an argument with her mother: "She grabbed me and shook me. I had a couple of friends come over, and she'd broken the skin and there was blood and stuff. And they got freaked out and thought my parents were abusing me. They called the cops."

DeEtte remembers the incident differently. "I don't abuse my kids," she says. "Frankly, I was a little afraid of Kaeleigh. I'm small, and my balance isn't very good. She was screaming at me, and I grabbed her arms and pushed her down in a chair and told her to calm down. That was it.

"She called the law on me three times and claimed I was beating her. The police showed up every time. They took one look at me and said, 'Well, we have to file a report, but we're not going to charge you with anything.'"

One day in the fall of 2002, Kaeleigh took a lighter to Horizon Middle School. She went into a bathroom, started tossing toilet paper into a sink and set it on fire. As the flames grew, she became alarmed and put out the fire. Kaeleigh says she turned herself in; her mother says a police officer scared her into a confession. By the time the case went to court, it had been reduced to a misdemeanor charge of "reckless handling of kindling," with a small fine, but it touched off more visits to the mental-health experts.

"We took her to seven different counselors," DeEtte says. "Every one of them had the same verdict: 'We can't do anything until this child is willing to work with us.' The psychiatrist was the only sensible one. He looked at Kaleigh and said, 'There is no pill that will make you stop lying. There is no pill that will make you stop stealing. You need to be mature and take responsibility for your actions.'"

An Aurora police officer urged the Altvaters to crack down on their daughter before it was too late. Take everything out of her room, he suggested, except for her bed, four changes of clothes, a dresser and two pairs of shoes. "We stripped her room to the walls," says DeEtte.

But a bathroom connected Kaeleigh's room to her sister's. "She just went in and stole from me," says Dee.


Frustrated as they were with Kaeleigh, her parents were even more baffled by the Cherry Creek School District's response to her chronic truancy. Although standardized tests indicated she was highly intelligent, with above-average skills, by eighth grade she was flunking out of most of her classes -- primarily because of excessive absences. Yet school officials at Horizon and then Eaglecrest High School continued to pass her on to the next grade.

"She should have been held back," says DeEtte. "She wasn't performing academically, and this was setting up the kid to fail. We asked them to hold her back, and they refused."

Teachers say it's exceedingly rare for any student to repeat a grade these days, whether in Cherry Creek or other metro school districts. Even if the parents request it. Even if the kid almost never shows up for class. Students are passed on because educators think it's "demotivating" to hold them back, or because other remedies, such as alternative schools or individual tutoring, are considered more effective. But DeEtte thinks that Cherry Creek's policy amounts to cheating its most troubled students out of a real education.

"It's social promotion," she says. "And it's dreadful."

"It's a huge debate in education right now," says Ed Steinberg, director of special education and mental-health services for the district. "One of the Planet Bizarro things school districts have done in the past is to suspend a chronically truant kid -- 'You're not coming to school, so we won't allow you to come to school.' That makes no sense. We do everything we can to re-engage the student and try to figure out what is going on."

Although Steinberg can't comment on the specifics of Kaeleigh's situation, he says he's not surprised that officials at her schools would look for other ways to deal with her truancy. "I would assume that people at Eaglecrest don't have a hard and fast policy, but look at each kid individually," he says. "They might have made a decision that keeping her back in ninth grade would put her at higher risk of dropping out -- the social stigma, another nail in the coffin, so to speak."

Schools can refer truants to the court system, which can impose a range of sanctions, from special monitoring programs to attending classes while in detention. But the programs have been hit hard by a shortage of juvenile-detention beds and state budget cuts in recent years, and Cherry Creek never attempted such a move with Kaeleigh. Now she's ineligible for such referrals; once juveniles turn sixteen, they can make their own decision to attend school or not, a throwback to the days when a semi-educated sixteen-year-old had a chance of obtaining meaningful employment. The district has its own Student Assessment Review Board, which is supposed to leap into action when a student has more than four unexcused absences in a month -- but it, too, is limited to considering the cases of teens under the age of sixteen.

"We don't have a magic formula to force a kid to come to school," Steinberg says. "We work with the Arapahoe County courts, but students who are older than fifteen can't be referred to the court for that kind of intervention. It's a bit of a handcuff for us."

"The level of funding to create an appropriate infrastructure to handle truancy doesn't exist," says Andy Lutz, executive director of the 18th Judicial District's Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC). "Look at the federal funding cuts for education, youth corrections, human services, the Medicaid changes that are coming down the pike. If you don't have the ability to access those resources, it really does put the family and kid in a situation of failure."

The JAC (www.jac18.org) works with Cherry Creek -- and 23 other school districts in four counties, as well as courts and community agencies -- to connect at-risk juveniles and their families with appropriate services. Although the juvenile population in the district is going up, Lutz has seen a notable decrease in the number of truancy petitions filed with the court in recent years, and an even greater drop in detentions, from several hundred a year to around eighty. That may be because of the lack of detention facilities -- in 2003 the state legislature put a hard cap on the number of juvenile-detention beds statewide -- or because of a growing recognition that the petition process takes too long to be of much use to students who are already approaching their sixteenth birthday. In any event, Lutz doesn't think detention is the answer in most cases; studies suggest that truant kids who go into detention often emerge as juvenile delinquents.

"They meet friends in there and start to model some of their behaviors," Lutz explains. "Arapahoe County has historically incarcerated a lot of truants. But does that address the issue? We want to figure out what risk factors exist and what system is going to best serve the kid."

Many of the programs for juveniles available through the courts are designed to target specific bad behavior, such as involvement in drugs or gangs. Kids whose contact with the law consists of petty offenses often slip away under the radar, with minimal attention from municipal or county courts, unless something happens to bring their case to the attention of the JAC or a district court judge.

"You run into what I call 'silos of funding and silos of responsibility,'" Lutz says. "Some resources are only accessible to youth and families that fit certain criteria. And insurance doesn't provide adequate coverage for kids who might need mental-health services or substance-abuse treatment. It's pathetic. What you're seeing is indicative of the dysfunction of youth services as a whole."

DeEtte says a social worker told her that if Kaeleigh committed a felony, the system could do more for her. The family also visited the JAC, but thought the recommended program would only introduce their daughter to more serious offenders. "I thought it was a great program for gangbangers," DeEtte adds.

Lutz acknowledges that teens like Kaeleigh are too often ignored by the system. When they're young, there's a tendency to "give the kid a break" and let violations slide, until the offenses become too serious to dismiss. "Sometimes the most difficult kids are bumping up against the system on minimal stuff," he says. "We've had some scary kids at the JAC who came here on some low-end cases -- curfew, shoplifting, things like that. The tendency is to look at the offense without looking at the kid. There has to be a way for them to access resources without having to commit a felony or get involved in D&N [dependency and neglect] court."

Lutz's center lost a third of its funding in budget cuts two years ago but still manages to see 3,000 juveniles annually. (There are about 10,000 arrested in the judicial district each year.) The center takes what Lutz calls a "strength-based approach," looking not just at what's going wrong but what might be working well within a family -- for example, whether the juvenile has a connection to a particular class, sport or positive role model that could be further developed into a plan of action.

"Families have to learn how to deal with a crisis without overdosing on consequences, and they have to tie the kid into that discussion from the start," he says. "We run into situations where a family will strip the kid's room, for example -- but then you limit your ability to provide any meaningful level of consequence after that."

By fall of last year, the Altvaters had all but run out of options. Kaeleigh, now a sophomore at Eaglecrest, was barely bothering to show up at school. Not surprisingly, she was flunking almost all of her classes. The notable exception was band; DeEtte says her daughter has perfect pitch, taught herself to play the piano and has a natural talent for music and art. Although Kaeleigh was frequently at odds with the rest of the family, emancipation was out of the question without employment, and she couldn't even seek a GED without a special waiver until she turned seventeen.

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."

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."

She's hunting for jobs she can do, Kaeleigh explains. She's living with her boyfriend at his parents' house, and she has her own support network, friends from school and elsewhere. As if to underscore the point, friends wander by the table and sit down for a few minutes until summoned away by other friends or ringing cell phones.

She started skipping school, she says, because it was too easy. She was bored and preferred to read on her own. "By the time I was in sixth grade, I was reading at a senior level," she says. "But the schools I attended were very straightforward: 'You have to do this, even if you've already done it.' Everything was taught so slow and repeated over and over again. Even if everyone in the class got it, it was repeated over and over."

Some teachers did try to reach out to her, but not many. "To be completely honest," she adds, "I was a little conceited. I thought I knew everything in the world and I didn't need any of this."

Kaeleigh uses the phrase to be completely honest a lot -- enough to make a listener wonder about the times she doesn't use it, and which statements are more reliable. Certainly, it's hard to argue with her explanation of what she was thinking about when she set fire to the school bathroom three years ago: "To be completely honest, I was upset with the school because I wasn't learning anything. I was feeling left out, so I would do things to get attention. It was like, 'Hmm, what will happen if I light the bathroom on fire?' After I lit it, I thought about the consequences, so I quickly put it out."

She has felt left out most of her life. It got to the point where she "didn't feel at home" at her parents' house, she says. "They would yell, so I wouldn't do something, so they would just yell more. So I stopped doing everything."

And school? No comfort there, not even when she was trying to be a good student. "The schools nowadays aren't for the students," she says. "And they are biased. If you're pretty and blond and popular and that whole scene, you're more accepted by the teachers and the staff, no matter what you do. If you sort of stand out, like me..."

Her voice trails off. She shrugs.

"Tracks was actually a pretty good program," she says. "I was teaching myself Algebra Two and trigonometry. It was a small classroom, and you could do your own thing. It was more focused on the student, and not just saying, 'Do this, and you pass, and we don't care if you actually learn anything.' The teachers were very involved."

But the Outback "was sort of like the regular school to me," she continues. "It was, 'You have to do this.' And if you had a problem with one person, you felt excluded from the community. Everybody was friends with everyone else. If you got into a fight with one person, it was with all their friends -- and all of their friends."

Cherry Creek doesn't expel students for truancy; that would be a "Planet Bizarro" thing to do, Steinberg says. But last month, her parents learned that Kaeleigh had been "withdrawn" from school after DeEtte called to report her as a runaway. DeEtte and Chris say they didn't request the withdrawal and received no notice of it. Kaeleigh, in any event, had rarely gone to school this fall.

Still, Kaeleigh insists that she is not a bad person. She doesn't do drugs and isn't a chronic thief; she never tried to jimmy the safe at home, as her parents claim. "I will admit I took some money from my mother once," she says. "But I had no access to their safe, and what would I do with my mother's prescription drugs? I tried drugs once and never did them again. I'm not the kind of person who would sell them. But to them, that's the logical explanation. I'm a teenage girl, so I have to be doing drugs and stealing money."

So why did she run away?

"There was just too much stress and too much drama in my family," she says. "My mom would say, 'We'll go see counselors,' but we'd been through family counseling before and it hadn't done squat. My parents withdrew from me, as I did from them. I wasn't doing anything. I was constantly getting into trouble -- and basically sitting on my butt all day.

"I just felt I needed some time off. And as I got that, I did start doing things. At my boyfriend's, I haven't felt obligated to do things. I've just wanted to do them. I've been doing the cleaning sometimes. I've been cooking. I'm a fairly decent cook."

Kaeleigh has seen little of her parents in the past two months. She hasn't wanted to see them, she explains, and taking her mother's ATM card was supposed to make them feel the same way: "One of the things I was trying to do for years was to make them stop fussing so much over me. In a way, I didn't want them to care so much, to cling as much.... Looking back on it, I guess I'm the one who really pushed people and things away. I've always been sort of a solitary person, and I just could not stand the clinginess or being surrounded by people who didn't like me."

She knows it's going to take time to build her new life. To finish her education, to find a decent job and a place of her own. She thinks she might go to culinary school. She doesn't think she and her parents will reconcile in the near future. "We hurt each other a lot," she says, "and that isn't going to mend easily."


Chris and DeEtte haven't given up on Kaeleigh. They invited her to Thanksgiving dinner two weeks ago, and she came. And DeEtte decided to file a police report on the theft of her bank card, even though it might end up costing her more money than she can afford. It's important, she says, to send the right message to her runaway daughter: that her mother cares enough to hold her responsible for her actions, even if the system won't.

There is a school of thought -- or of sentiment, anyway -- that if you care enough about a wild creature, you set it free. But there are also strays wandering the streets because nobody gives a damn about them, and her parents don't want that to happen to Kaeleigh.

"I'm not going to stop," DeEtte says. "I want her back. If she wants to emancipate, I will help her. But she must get a GED. She must get a job. I will not turn a sixteen-year-old girl loose on the world without any skills."

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