Superintendent tries moving a mountain eschewing politics, Clark instead depends on vision
June 22, 1998
Second of four articles
Prince George's County Superintendent Jerome Clark knew the call was coming before the phone rang. For months, there had been rumblings that the state would move to take over the county's lowest performing schools. Finally in January, State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick phoned midmorning: Nine schools were failing, and the state was dictating a strict timetable for improvement.
She summoned the Prince George's superintendent to a meeting in Baltimore. For Clark, the rest of the conversation remains a blur.
"She might have told me which schools," Clark recalls. "But I can't remember her saying anything else. I remember saying I would be there the next day. I just sat there," embarrassed that under his tenure the state would make that threat.
An ordained Baptist deacon, Clark falls back in moments of struggle and stress on a comfort his mother showed him long ago growing up in Indiana. He unlocks his desk and opens the left drawer. He finds the smooth, black, pocket-size leather Bible and unzips it. In the silence, he flips the gilded pages, lets the book fall open, looks down.
"If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove."
For three years, Clark, 55, has been trying to move a mountain, the troubled Prince George's County school system. Instead, the mountain has moved him, changed him in ways that are irreversible. Curled his thick shoulders under the weight. Stopped the ink in the love sonnets he used to write. Robbed him of hours with his family. And directed an avalanche of blame toward him.
Clark started in the system in 1971 and to this day says he is a teacher at heart -- an observation that may be revealing as he comes to terms with his stewardship. He's viewed by colleagues, teachers and parents as a scholarly visionary, but one who falters in getting programs running. He is known for his compassion, but some who have watched him think he may be too nice, as he has allowed poor principals and administrators to stay in the system. He despises politics, and as a consequence his big, booming voice has often been silent during debates in county and state politics.
Clark knows he is running out of time. His $125,000-a-year contract expires in July 1999.
By February, Clark and the board will make a decision, each about the other. Clark will decide whether to ask for another four-year contract. The board will decide whether he is the person to fix the schools in the five years before the deadline the state set for improvement. Whatever happens, Clark doesn't want anybody to say he coasted this last year.
"You can say I was ineffective, but don't ever say I was not trying.
"The question," he says, "is whether the mountain has become a hill or whether I've gone deeper into the valley. Because sometimes you think you've climbed the highest peak only to get to one point and realize you are halfway up the summit. I'm hoping the peak is in sight. ... The air is getting a little thin, though."
Three months after the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland named him 1998 Superintendent of the Year, a majority of the school board rated him a 2 on a scale of 0 to 4 in an initial evaluation. His lowest marks were in management and operation of the school system.
Angered by leaks of the evaluation, Clark fired back a response.
" I am the Superintendent of this school system," he wrote. "I am not threatened by an evaluation that identifies areas for improvement. Any leader who does not recognize the constant need for growth and change does not have a vision for the future."
Vision and Politics
Clark's announced vision when he took office was to improve the county schools by raising what he called "education outcomes," meaning student performance; restructuring the management teams that supervised schools; and drawing in the community to aid in the reforms.
He had made two unsuccessful attempts to become superintendent in 1984 and 1991. Finally, in 1995, the community and the board picked him over two outsiders. Clark described himself as a conciliator who could build bridges with parents, business people and elected leaders and spark changes in an already flagging system that ranked near the bottom statewide in academic performance. He asked for three years to scale the summit, and three years later, the reviews are rolling in.
Clark has had successes.
Scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test in 1996-97 rose six points, the first increase in eight years and the largest one-year gain in 15 years. Scores for minorities also rose, and more students took the college-entry test.
Clark also is credited with emphasizing intensive reading programs for students reading below grade level, structuring the overall budget to finance smaller class sizes and giving principals leeway to manage their schools' finances.
School board member Kenneth E, Johnson (Mitchellville), who was on the board that hired Clark, says he is impressed by Clark's achievements. "But we still have a ways to go."
Clark says he believes "I've done everything I told the board I would do. I haven't failed at anything."
Yet he acknowledges that several of his innovative concepts came up short because he did not execute them well.
Scores on the high-stakes test for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders known as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, fell slightly last year, putting the county further behind the statewide average.
Clark's breakdown of central management into smaller clusters failed to reach its potential because some team leaders "just sit back and don't do anything," says school board member Doyle Niemann (Mount Rainier). "If I was going to fault the superintendent, it would be that he has not acted aggressively enough to get rid of people not doing their jobs."
A special tutoring program Clark introduced foundered because volunteers were scant. Clark now says that to sustain that program, the positions should have been paid slots. Likewise, he says, after he personally reorganized the staffs of six schools, he got disruptions without improvements.
School board Vice Chairman Verna Teasdale (Bowie) continues to credit Clark as "genuinely a visionary. But sometimes a visionary can see the things that they want to accomplish so clearly, they don't recognize others don't see it as clearly and there needs to be a lot of planning that goes into creating the vision."
"I think he is a nice guy," says County Council member Isaac Gourdine (D-Fort Washington), who chairs the council's education committee. "But niceness doesn't get things done."
For Clark, who openly disdains politics, consensus building has become even more complicated as Prince George's continues to change socially and economically and the constituencies involved with the schools become more demanding.
The two superintendents who were his immediate predecessors, Edward Felegy and John Murphy, dealt with a longtime core of business and elected leaders, many of whom have been replaced as the county has both grown and become majority African American.
In the midst of an increasingly politicized environment, Clark says, "I try to be as sophisticated as I can."
But it may not be enough. "Clark is no different from his predecessors. The climate is different," but Clark should adapt by becoming a tougher personality, says a board member, who asked not to be identified because of the pending evaluation of Clark. "In this environment, when they are besieged by the state, they need George Patton."
Clark was not that forceful during a recent session in Annapolis. In fact, he was overlooked.
In a packed hearing room, the Prince George's leaders involved with school funding had gathered to make their case. It was clear their testimony could make or break the request for school construction funds. Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore) called Prince George's leaders to the table: County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), School board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland), County Council Chairman Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville). Clark was left waiting.
He went to the table anyway. When he was not recognized to speak, he stormed out.
"I raised my hand to speak, and the gavel fell," Clark says. "I thought it was disrespectful."
Journey to the Mountain
Tall and imposing, with rich brown skin and a black-and-white beard, Clark has an easy smile, and when he talks in his deep Barry White voice, people listen. Conversations with staff are peppered with phrases like "this is high stakes," and "I need this now." The words are spoken more matter of factly, not with emphatic flashes of anger or angst.
In his office, the walls are decorated with a black-and-white picture of a segregated classroom, scales of justice, a painting of Martin Luther King Jr., a sketch titled "Tell the Truth" and prized paintings of black Buffalo soldiers.
The many plaques describing his achievements are in a box, and it is hard to tell whether the box is packed for coming or going. Lying on top is a stuffed monkey. Clark picks it up, explains with a smile that this is his symbol of management.
Ask his staff members and they can tell you about the monkey. When they come in, they know, "Don't bring me any monkeys. When you come in, don't tell me, We have a problem.' Say, I have a problem and this is how I think we ought to resolve it.' "
Clark puts down the monkey. "I have my own problems," he says.
The increasing presence of poverty in the schools, declining test scores, the drain of qualified teachers, the patchwork of struggling reforms -- those are Clark's problems, many inherited, some created. He is concerned. He had promised himself that as long as he was sitting in the superintendent's chair, he would project a professional image, he would look the part, he would have the information. Becoming the county's first African American school superintendent, Clark carried the accomplishments of a race on his shoulders. Nothing he would do would bring embarrassment upon that chair.
How did Clark get to this mountain?
Follow Interstate 70 west to Indianapolis. Turn down McCarty Street and come on a view of Eli Lilly, the giant pharmaceutical company. Drive west on Kenwood to what remains of Senate Avenue and Michael Park. The houses are gone, the parks disappeared, the schools vanished.
"It was as if we didn't exist," Clark says.
He was born Aug. 31, 1942, one of six children to Jesse Evans Clark, a secretary and bookkeeper, and Waymon Clark, a laborer in a steel mill.
Jerome was the second oldest, one of two boys. His mother never gave him a middle name.
He could read long before he started school, "Robinson Crusoe" and the children's version of the Greek classics. His mother taught him to read with phonics -- a topic debated in her son's school system, although she is unaware of that. "I told them there is no way you can know words if you don't know how to pronounce them." recalls Jesse Clark, now 78 and living in Indianapolis.
Clark went to a hand-me-down school. When the district built a school for whites, Clark and his neighbors went to the building they left behind.
No matter their ambitions, by 10th grade, the system began weeding them out of the rigorous curriculum, encouraging students to learn trades, with the most promising steered toward barbering. "Nobody in my family had gone to college. I had not seen any examples of anyone going," Clark says. "My desire was to graduate -- get myself a barbershop and enjoy life."
It was only by chance that Clark ended up at Indiana Central College. A group of friends dared each other to go to college "to see what it was like." But there, "I didn't think they wanted African Americans students," he says. "I was rough around the edges. I used to wear brims, and I used to refuse take them off."
He dropped out and worked at a warehouse and later, for Chrysler, where he assembled car starters at $3.20 an hour. The work was mind-numbing, and in a factory where heat rose to 110 degrees, "you quickly come to the realization there is something better to do."
He returned to the same college and graduated in 1966 with a degree in early childhood education.
He began teaching in Indianapolis. In 1969, he went to visit an uncle in the District and got a temporary job teaching sixth grade. When the job ran out, someone told him to check out Prince George's. He interviewed at Beltsville Elementary and was hired on the spot. He taught sixth grade for three years, and then took leave to work on his doctorate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He returned to teaching and quickly rose through the administrative ranks.
It was as an elementary teacher that he recognized a type of teacher he now denounces. In the lounge, Clark could learn all the gossip, but he also often heard teachers disparaging students in a way he found repugnant.
He vowed never to go to a teachers' lounge again, and he decided he would someday write a book called "Hired Assassins," about teachers killing off students one by one by assassinating their dreams, lowering their expectations.
"Basically, those teachers are there for a paycheck." They are found in Prince George's, too, he says. "We are doing everything we can to get them out." But he can act only on those referred to him by principals.
Clark pauses. "It's not easy."
Toughness and Poetry
The superintendency is a lonely job. To find people who understand his job, Clark reaches across county lines. Of his colleagues across the region, Clark talks most regularly with Paul L. Vance, superintendent of the Montgomery County schools.
"He is a very thoughtful person," Vance says of Clark. "When there is data published that puts the school system in a bad light, he takes it very personally and becomes determined to do something about it. He accepts it. He handles it. His public face, his stoicism is remarkable."
But inside, Vance says, "there is a volcano raging."
That tough side of Clark is one many outside the system still have not glimpsed.
Don't read him wrong, Clark says of himself. He is no weak man.
"I don't mind a fight," he says sternly. But as superintendent, he believes he must maintain a professional image.
Jerome Clark the man is another story.
"As Jerome Clark, I'm a different person," he says. His face changes. His long fingers tap his gold wire-rimmed glasses. Living as an African American man in this country for 55 years, he has learned never to back down.
He is thinking of a trip when he was 17, riding with a church group to a revival. They stopped in Nashville, got off at a restaurant. The owner served them on paper plates and told them, "You can't eat it here. You have to eat it on the bus."
Clark stepped forward. "We are not going to eat then. We got back on the bus and the owner called the police."
Clark wasn't afraid. "You have to stand up for what you believe. I'm quiet, but I'll look at you straight in the eyes. And my body language is multilingual. Folks know. I don't think I'm misread."
After three decades in the system, many people know about Clark. But they don't know him. He doesn't trust easily. A guarded person, he says, he never wanted anybody to get too close.
He talks openly about his 11-year-old son, Jared, a fifth-grader at Woodmore Elementary School, but doesn't want to reveal details about the rest of his family. A request for an interview with his wife, Karen, a 46-year-old resource teacher in the county, was declined. "I want to keep that part separate," Clark says.
Few people in his cabinet have been to his home, where he collects antique cars. And he "holds pure" one weekend day each week for his family. On those days, he wakes them early. They know not to ask questions. It is his treat to pile them in a car and take them to surprise destinations.
He is a poet and a musician. His poetry says what he won't. His pen name is Jay Cei, and he writes of love -- deep, sometimes unrequited love:
I walked with an arrogance that love afforded ... my gait was haughty ... my shoulders erect. ... Time was my slave and I was a hard task-master.
Now ... I sit with voice mellowed by the strength of our love given over time. The cadence of my walk has slowed ... my back now bends toward the earth ... both signs that time, now free, reclaims what it so generously gave in my youth.
His three volumes, each bound, each poem dated, abruptly stops in 1995, the year he got this job. The last volume is titled "Just Before the Silence."
Parking Lot Meetings
There is no more time to write poetry. Clark squeezes time at both ends of his day, meeting as early as 6 a.m.
Sometimes, before he pulls into his parking space in his metallic rose Lincoln Continental, people already are waiting for him. On a recent day, a vice principal to whom Clark has been a mentor catches him. The man wants to become a principal, and for an hour, Clark stands in the lot talking about his aspirations. "Those parking lot meetings," as he calls them, "are the most important ones."
But for the rest of that day, Clark runs behind, late even to his staff meeting where senior managers await him in a conference room ringed with grids charting test scores for each school in the system. In many of the frames, the bar graphs fall short of the black line, the standard. They are reminders of the urgency of his job. The 17-hour days are taking a toll on Clark physically, emotionally and spiritually. Murphy, one of the prior superintendents, saw him recently at a conference in California. "He was tired. You could see he is tired," Murphy says.
He doesn't eat breakfast. He doesn't eat lunch. If he returns early to his house in the affluent gated community of Woodmore, he says his son asks: " Are we going to be able to do anything together or do you have to go to another meeting?' Most times, I say I have to go to another meeting."
Men don't last in these jobs forever.
Clark watched Julius W. Becton Jr. retire after a year and a half trying to uproot the bureaucracy in D.C. schools. Becton gave in, saying he was tired. Clark empathizes with Becton, but says nobody would write that kind of ending to his tenure.
"I'll never quit anything," he says.
Clark won't say what he thinks the board will do about his contract. "People don't want to deal with the root causes of why kids fail," Clark says. Instead, "they throw out the superintendent. It's much easier."
Returning to teaching would not be a bad fate. "I always say, My name is Jerome Clark and I'm a teacher. I will always be a teacher.' " He is wistful only when he mulls his pension. "I only have 27 years in the state. Next year gives me 28. I need 30 to have a full pension."
If he leaves, Clark says, "they might say I wasn't hard-nosed as I might have been. But nobody can say I wasn't seriously compassionate about the kids." If he "can leave with my integrity intact, I don't care what else they try to take away."
Clark said he sees himself in the faces of little black boys in classrooms across the county. If he fails them, he fails himself.
"These are youngsters like the youngsters I played with in my neighborhood. And they keep you honest," Clark says. The Prince George's schools, Clark says, "will be turned around. ... I'm more determined than ever to make sure I don't lower my expectation and that no one in the organization will lower their expectations. I know what will happen to them if we do."
The risks are always there, a hard truth reinforced just last month.
One day when he was out of town, a former student who kept in touch with Clark called him. When Clark returned, his secretary handed him the pink "While you were out" slip.
While he was out, Clark then learned, the former student had been killed in an armed robbery attempt. "I wasn't here for him." He is shaken. "He may have needed some money. He might have needed to talk ... "
The conference Clark attended may ultimately benefit many students, but Clark is haunted by the one who slipped away.
"I can't afford to fail these kids. And anybody who knows me knows I'm serious about that." Clark says. "I take it very seriously."
This time, his voice is steely.
A good whuppin'?
many who survived childhood spankings now endorse them, renewing debate over a peculiar institution
September 13, 1998
She remembers the sting of the switch beating out the rhythm of her father's words against her bare legs. She prayed that the sentence would be short because with each word, with each syllable, the stick whipped the air and fell.
I (WHACK!) told (WHACK!) you (WHACK!) to (WHACK!) stay (WHACK!) in (WHACK!) the (WHACK!) yard! (WHACK!)
The stings swelled into welts that she nursed along with deeper hurts.
If I told you once, I told you a million times. When I tell you something, you better listen to me. Now stop all that cryin'. Stop! Do you want some more? Well, you better stop all that cryin'.
TuSheena Watson came of age in the 1970s, in a house where there was no debate about whether beatings were fair. The whuppin's were promised and always came. The infraction and its connection to the punishment were clear. Her father and mother never heard of such things as a "timeout." There was no talking, no talking back, no questioning authority and no analyzing disobedience. Going to your room meant nothing, because she had no room of her own. The beatings were plain and sufficient, and today the memories of them are seared in her mind, but "they were a good thing," she now declares as the parent of two children.
"My mother and my daddy would beat us, all 10 of us. The switch, they would pull the leaves off. You are crying before they come to you. And they used to give the neighborhood permission to whip you. They would whip you, then tell you to shut up. Shut up before I give you something to cry for.' You already did. You just beat me to death, now you're going to tell me to shut up. How can I shut up?"
She is living it again, sitting in a job-training classroom in Prince George's County. Hair pulled back from her face, clad in T-shirt and jeans, she looks young. Back in New Jersey she was the baby girl of the family, but now, at 32, she is on the other side of the switch. She knows the trials of controlling her daughters. She swears by spanking.
Go outside and pick me a switch. And don't pick a small one either.
That command, for many, is part of being black in America -- part of a cultural tradition that sought to steel black children for the world, forge their characters, help prepare them for the pure meanness that waited out there, just because of the color of their skin. Many black parents who whipped felt more was at stake if they did not scourge their children.
Don't get it wrong. The wielding of the switch and the belt and the wooden spoon is not a practice unique to black people. Most races spank their children, especially Southern whites who are fundamentalist Christians. But the stories of beatings done in the name of love, beatings that were endured by many -- not all -- black parents, are like a familiar song. There are some bad associations with slavery. There are some good associations with survival.
Many black parents see what is happening now -- the dope, the guns, the gangs -- and they wonder what went wrong. When they came up, it didn't matter what socioeconomic class, a whuppin' was a whuppin' -- and it seemed that adults were in control. Now, old people are locked in their houses even in the middle of the day, scared to go outside, scared of the young boys up the street. When did the old people, who would switch you all the way home if you did wrong, fold up their chairs and go inside? Maybe when the whuppin's stopped, the control stopped.
There was a ritual to whuppin's, and many of that generation talk with a kind of bravado about this rite of passage to adulthood. They tell tales of out-of-body experiences, of spiritual epiphanies, of praying to God, of the art of tearful fakery, of agonizing defiance against belts, of loyalty among siblings and not breaking rank, of the time so bad a parent broke a switch on a child's soft flesh. And they speak always of the wrong they committed and why they deserved it.
Spankings make up neighborhood legends and family folklore, comical and sincere. They connect folks, haunt them, set them up to wrestle over what they will do with their own children.
The questions are clear, the answers are not. Will the tradition continue? Will the law allow it? Should it continue? At what cost?
When she hung up from talking to the fifth-grade teacher, Armender Banks was sputtering with rage. For eight months, the tension had been building. Her 10-year-old daughter, Maria, had been "in a little rebellious mode." She had been grounded. Television had been forbidden. Her bicycle confiscated. Extra book reports assigned.
"I guess she thought she was grown," Banks remembers. "We kept asking her, What's wrong? Why are you acting this way?' "
On the afternoon of Feb. 9, Maria's teacher from Assumption Catholic School in Peekskill, N.Y., called. "Didn't you get the slips I sent home telling you about her behavior?"
There had been three -- and neither Banks, a nurse, nor her husband, the Rev. Henry Banks, pastor of a small, nondenominational congregation, had seen any of them. Maria had forged her father's and mother's signatures. That evening, when Henry Banks came home, his wife was waiting in the kitchen to report Maria's latest infraction.
She pointed upstairs: "Get her!"
Henry Banks, who has a soft, caring face and graying hair, didn't like the idea of spanking his youngest daughter. But a God-fearing man has to do what a God-fearing man believes God tells him to do.
Proverbs 19:18: Chasten thy son while there is still hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.
He loves Maria. He paid for her to go to parochial school when they could barely afford it. He paid for her to have a private tutor to help her with homework. He taught her the ways of the Lord and explained to her what could keep her from going to Hell. Her soul was his responsibility.
On his way upstairs, he counted the commandments the child had broken.
One: "Thou shalt honor thy mother and father." Her behavior was out of control and there was no honor.
Two: "Thou shalt not steal." By forging their signatures, she had stolen "the integrity of our names."
Three: "Thou shalt not bear false witness." She had lied to her teachers and told untruths to her parents.
Four: "Thou shalt not kill." She had kicked another girl at the tutorial center. Any violence against humanity breaks this commandment.
"My daughter knows the commandments," Henry Banks said. "We have taught her and she still disobeyed."
He was not angry. The Lord says not to hit in anger. He was hurt. When he climbed the walnut staircase and turned to his left, Maria was waiting. The father told Maria to take her clothes off and prepare for her "strikes."
There would be seven, two for each commandment she broke. The final strike would be spared because God says have mercy.
"Get on your knees," he said, without raising his voice, "in a praying position."
The little girl, who still wears pigtails, knelt beside her white canopy bed.
"She had on her panties and training bra," her mother recalls.
Her father lifted his belt and it came down on her seven times. She yelled and she covered her bottom to break the strikes, but her hands did no good to ease the pain. The belt whipped her arms. She cried. The welts began to swell.
Proverbs 20:30: "The blueness of a wound cleanses away evil."
The old people in the neighborhood used to say: "The police department finishes raising other people's kids." Another way of saying: If you don't raise your kids right, you'll lose them to the street corner.
As the debate rages across the country over whether to spank -- as some Christian groups advocate the Bible-sanctioned striking of children, as the American Psychological Association releases its limited blessings on spankings, and more books and chapters are published -- conversations in beauty shops, churches, living rooms and around kitchen tables start to sound like this:
"Kids these days just don't know how good they got it. ... I remember my daddy's belt. ... Look at them acting up. ... They could use a good whuppin'."
"It is a cultural thing," says Russell Adams, chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. "There is almost a masochistic celebration that it happened, that it was good for me. They say it like an ordeal righteously survived. You get this kind of amen to the old days."
You know this is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you ...
The whuppin' ritual has certain theatrical elements.
First, the anticipation: "Oooooh, you gonna git it! Wait until your father gets home."
Then, the interrogation: "Did you do that? No? Well, you are lying because so and so said they saw you."
Then there is the recital of the law of the house, the neighborhood, the universe: "Now you know better. How many times did I tell you not to ... ?"
The next stage is the laying on of hands: In some families, the child is held, often producing a hopping dance around the pole that is the parent. In other families, the command is to freeze.
"You were supposed to stand there with your hands raised up in the air," Adams recalls. "We called that the crucifixion position."
The next thing is the art of the preemptive wail, often followed by: "I haven't hit you yet!" Or: "Quit all that crying." Or: "I'm going to give you something to really cry about."
Cunning children always learn fast how much noise to make to receive mercy.
Adams: "There is always the outcry, Mama, you are killing me!' The crying is supposed to be a sign you got to me. You almost try to make the whipper feel wrong."
Proverbs 13:24: He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.
Henry Banks is sitting at his dining room table in his Victorian house in Peekskill, a small riverfront town. White, ruffled curtains cover the window. A white lace tablecloth protects the table. A worn King James Bible in big print sits before him.
His is not a dusty Bible. The scriptures are highlighted in blue, orange, yellow. Some are underlined in blue ink and red ink, indicating he has read them over and over again, consuming the Holy Writ, turning the meanings of the words over in his head.
Banks, 59, has been a minister for 15 years. Ordained by the Disciples of Christ in Brooklyn, he heads the Church in the Wilderness, whose 27-member congregation meets every Sunday right here in his living room.
Spanking is a commandment, he says, not a choice.
He's reading from the Good Book now.
"In the Old Testament, if a child is disobedient, he could be taken by his elders and stoned." He is pointing to Deuteronomy 21, verses 18 through 23.
"It is not that easy to spank, believe me. But God tells you how, where and how many strikes. This is not something you play with."
He is flipping through Proverbs, stops at 13:24 and reads slowly. He that spareth the rod ...
This is a sermon he has preached many times.
The day after the seven lashes, Maria went to school. She wanted her teacher to know what had happened after that phone call -- the impact of her words.
Maria asked her teacher for an ice pack.
The teacher sent the child to the nurse's office. The nurse called Westchester County Child Protective Services, and an hour later, social workers came to the school and drove Maria away.
"If we didn't believe there was a God, I would be in my grave," her mother says now, recounting that awful time in February.
"For seven days," says Henry Banks, "we didn't know where she was. It was pure torture. They incarcerated my daughter."
The Bankses found a lawyer though the 700 Club, a Christian television ministry. And they took the agency to court. Reveal Maria's whereabouts, the parents demanded.
Armender Banks begins to cry, remembering how she could barely hold on during the separation from her daughter. "They are nothing but the Devil," she says. "It's a horrible thing."
"It's very evil," her husband concurs. "Once they get a child into that system, you can't do anything."
The authorities made it clear: Maria could not go home until her parents promised never again to spank her. They refused. They were answering to a higher authority.
Ultimately, spanking is about control. Not just controlling your child, but running your household as you see fit -- no matter what the nanny-state social planners and the supposed child-rearing experts have to say. But increasingly, parents who favor spanking are clashing with the law.
In Minneapolis, police are investigating the case of a 12-year-old girl who was whipped in church, in the presence of her congregation after she was suspended from school. In Florida, a pastor was arrested on child abuse charges after he spanked a 5-year-old child for refusing to eat a strawberry.
Any number of psychiatrists and pediatricians and social workers can be mustered to support either side.
"There is absolutely never any reason to hit a child or adolescent," writes Irwin A. Hyman in his 1997 book, "The Case Against Spanking: How to Discipline Your Child Without Hitting." Hyman is leading a national campaign to make spanking not only illegal in all public schools but at home as well.
"Every state I know of doesn't allow foster parents to hit children," notes Hyman, a psychology professor at Temple University and director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives. "The only place you can legally hit kids is in schools and in the home."
The debate on spanking escalated in the late 1970s as a number of states outlawed corporal punishment in public schools. Some states still allow, and even encourage, corporal punishment in schools, including Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama and Kentucky. A number of private and parochial schools also continue to spank.
In the past decade, advocates for spanking seem to have gained ground among parents -- although earlier this year the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that spanking was "no more effective" than other forms of discipline and that corporal punishment has "negative consequences." Conversely, the American Psychological Association, which has opposed corporal punishment in schools since 1974, recently decided not to condemn spanking in every circumstance.
Some academics believe that the history of spanking among blacks can be directly tied to slavery. Adams, the Howard professor, argues that whippings -- as an act of brutal control by white owners -- spread into the black culture on these shores.
"There is not a record in African culture of the kind of body attack that whipping represents," he says. "The maintenance of order by physical coercion is rare in Africa."
The custom may be connected to a desire by some blacks to be like the majority culture: "We have imitations, just as we have imitations with hot combs, from those who wanted to look Caucasian. I grew up at a time when people wore clothespins on their noses to make them smaller. We would go to the movies to see Hopalong Cassidy and come back and compress our lips to make them smaller."
Blacks and others who endorse spankings might be suppressing or rationalizing their pain, some psychologists suggest.
"Most of us must admit that the most indelible and most unpleasant childhood memories are those of being hurt by our parents. Some people find the memory of such events so unpleasant they pretend that they were trivial, even funny. You'll notice that they smile when they describe what was done to them. It is shame, not pleasure, that makes them smile," writes Jordan Riak, who heads Project NoSpank, a California advocacy group.
Gary Ezzo teaches that a swat here and there on a child's backside to prevent a dangerous situation is not child abuse. He's the co-author of "On Becoming Babywise," one of the top-selling books on child-rearing, and a franchiser of sorts when it comes to discipline. During the last 10 years, more than 1.5 million parents -- most of them white -- have used the Ezzo program in churches and Sunday school classes across the country.
"Spanking is not a cure-all," says Ezzo, who has been portrayed in the media -- unfairly, he believes -- as a pro-spanking spokesman. "While 85 to 90 percent of parents may be spanking, we in no way are saying they are all doing it correctly.
"We teach never to use a wooden spoon, never to use a father's belt. ... We teach never to slap a child in the face, never to spank them on bare skin. ... The dignity of the child must always be preserved during any type of punishment. You should never ridicule a child, never attack their dignity as a human being."
Ordinarily, juvenile cases are sealed by state law, but because Henry and Armender Banks made their case public, Westchester County prosecutor Alan D. Scheinkman will give the official side of the story:
"The school nurse observed the child and found reason to think there are reasonable grounds for child abuse. ... It was unrefuted testimony that the child was hit with a plastic belt that caused bruising and swelling."
According to Scheinkman, the Bankses initially agreed to allow Maria to stay with a "third party" while an investigation was conducted, but the "parents did not honor that agreement. And because the parents violated the agreement, that effected a removal of the child from the home, which is allowed under state law."
Removing a child from her home is not something county officials do lightly. Ted Salem, an associate commissioner in the county's department of social services, says officials may investigate 5,000 reports of child abuse and maltreatment any given year. "We will probably remove fewer than 250 children."
Was Maria's whipping excessive enough to qualify as child abuse?"
"The department has never brought a case against somebody based on a slap on the wrist," answers Salem.
Scheinkman says the law respects the rights of parents to raise their children. "The law becomes involved whenever a parent crosses the line."
In a red brick building in Seat Pleasant, Md., several women in their twenties and thirties are gathered to receive lessons in what social service bureaucrats call "life skills." This particular program will help them find jobs. They are doing double duty: Raising children on their own and trying to pay the bills. Keeping their kids in line is important.
Seated at a table at the side of the classroom, their teacher, Carol McCreary-Maddox, invites a discussion on how they intend to control their children while they juggle.
TuSheena Watson is remembering her parents' house in New Jersey:
"They beat us for what we did -- wrong things, for wrongdoing. And I appreciate it. I appreciated it then and I appreciate it now more than ever. And I know my other brothers and sisters do as well . . .
"When they took us anywhere, we were like soldiers, we were in line, respectful -- and because of that I know right now to this day that's why all the 10 of us had never been in trouble and incarcerated or any of the bad things."
A woman named Beverly begs to differ. "My mother beat us and three are incarcerated and one is dead," she says of her siblings. "When they got out of the house, they broke all the rules."
Beverly is 34 now. She has three boys -- 12, 8 and 3 months. She hated getting spanked by her mother. She believes discipline must be unwavering, but she is resolved not to spank her own kids.
"I don't see how it helped me -- not that it hurt me, but it didn't help me," she says. "Her spanking me ... well, we called it beating when I was growing up because that's what they were, a beating. All it did was make me scared to come to her with things.
"I don't beat my boys because I don't want them to feel like they have to beat a person in order to communicate with them, or to get them to do what they feel they should be doing."
So how does she punish her older sons? For misbehaving in school last year, 8-year-old Jocque was confined to the house all summer. Totally grounded. He couldn't go outside to play. No matter what, he had to stay inside.
McCreary-Maddox tells Beverly that some people might say confining a child to the house all summer is a more severe form of child abuse. She believes that a spanking provides an immediate lesson about what is right and what is wrong. "Kids need to know what the limits are. You don't want a child growing up to think they can get anything they want and all that will happen is a good stern talking to."
McCreary-Maddox has three children, ages 20, 17 and 12. She loves them all, and she has spanked them all -- just as she was spanked as a child. She favored a wooden spoon. "Belts leave marks. I think there may have been a time when I used a belt, but suppose the buckle hits and they are scratched. That is not what you were intending to do."
Her 12-year-old, Allyssa, sits still in the campaign office where her mother volunteers after class. The ponytailed girl freely offers this opinion: "I find it unfair when parents are allowed to hit when they get mad, but we aren't able to do anything. Getting a spanking only makes me madder."
She is remembering the last one.
"I kicked this boy and I got suspended. She said go up to the room and I got a spanking. It didn't really hurt, but I cried before she hit me.
"My cousin told me to say Kunta Kinte,' " a reference to the scene in "Roots" in which a white slave owner tries to beat Kunta Kinte's name out of him. "He did it when he was getting a whipping and his mother started laughing."
That tactic didn't work for Allyssa. Her mother still gave her the spoon.
Proverbs 23:13-14: Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.
Henry Banks presses those words on the thin pages of his Bible. The rod, he says, "that is like a belt, or a switch."
After a series of court hearings and 28 days in which Maria was kept from them, the Bankses finally agreed they would not spank the girl. A judge agreed to return Maria to her home and scheduled the whole case for dismissal in December -- if the parents abide by that promise until the hearing.
Banks says he had no problem agreeing because the judge understood the Bible, and further understood that spankings are not done spontaneously.
"Spanking is not the first thing," the pastor says. "It is the last thing you do."
Besides, Banks says, Maria is now 11 and soon she will reach her age of reason -- 13 -- at which point, he says, the Bible commands him not to spank.
Since Maria came home, there have been no major problems. She hasn't had a need to be spanked, her parents say.
"She is scared she could be taken," Armender Banks says.
Maria takes a seat in the corner of the living room. Her parents tell her it's okay to talk about what happened to her. She is reluctant at first. She doesn't want to discuss the time she spent in foster care.
"That's in the past," she says. "It was bad. I didn't like it. There was a lot of cursing, drinking and piercing."
"Piercing?" her mother asks.
"Yeah, piercing body parts," Maria says. "They tried to pierce me."
"You see what can happen when a child is out of her household."
Maria says she doesn't even think much about the spanking that started this whole story. She fidgets and recites the Bible: " Spare the rod, spoil the child.' That means give your children spankings. ... They spank me because they love me."
Maria asks to be excused. She is tall for her age, but inside she is still a child. It's a Saturday; she wants to play. She chases a friend into the kitchen and they beg for sodas, then run upstairs to watch television.
A few minutes pass and they run back downstairs, now wanting to walk to the riverfront for a festival. After a series of nos, then maybes, Armender and Henry Banks relent.
"But be back before the sun goes down."
The parents keep talking, the daylight fades and Armender checks her watch: 8:45 p.m.
"The sun been done gone down," she says. "Where is Maria?"
The mother climbs in her van, drives to the riverfront and scans the crowd. Neither the girl nor her friend is there.
"Maybe they already walked home," Armender says.
She drives home and opens the screen door. The house is dark. Her husband comes in. He has not seen Maria either. It is pitch black in the foothills of the mountain-ringed town. Worry creases their faces.
This would be the perfect scenario for a spanking. But they are under court order.
They get back in the van. "Maria is going to be grounded for this," says Armender, now riding in the passenger seat.
A block from the house, Henry Banks lowers his window. Two figures are walking slowly up the street.
"There she is." He stops the van.
"You were supposed to be back before dark," Armender says. "Get in the van."
"But we were walking back," Maria pleads.
The father will hear no excuses.
"The next time you ask to go somewhere the answer is an automatic no," he says.
He wheels the van slowly up a hill, his wife at his side, his daughter sitting in the seat behind him. He is still the father. He is still the man in charge of his household. But not totally. The child has disobeyed in a blatant, dangerous way. He thinks of the time she left the yard when she was 3 and her mother burned her legs up with a switch. After that, she never left the yard without permission again.
You can see the frustration in his face. He knows that girl could have used a good spanking.
A gunman stopped her abortion. And gave her a burden she can't bear
September 27, 1998
ONSET, Mass. -- Deborah Gaines sees him still, his face framed by black curly hair, his dark eyebrows arched. He is a contradiction. He is evil and benevolent. He is a murderer and a savior. He is the abortion clinic gunman, and his face haunts her.
She remembers running out of the clinic that cold December morning. He, the shooter, is chasing her, the patient. He is firing his semiautomatic rifle. The bullets are spraying all around her, banging into the metal gate through which she is trying to escape. He is staring at her as she desperately pulls at the gate, trying to get it open, trying to run. He is standing only three feet away, yet the bullets seem to bend around her and ricochet, ding-ding-ding, off the black steel gate.
She hears him saying something like "Darn, I'm sorry I missed you."
She keeps clawing and yanking at the gate. It finally opens and she runs for her life -- but not for the life that is now about seven weeks old within her womb.
She runs and runs, pulling herself over another fence and falling flat on her back. She gets up. She doesn't know how, but she finds her feet beneath her. She is not looking back. She believes he, the man in black, is after her. She does not stop running until she crosses the street, pulls open an apartment building door and frantically pushes all the buzzers, crying for anybody to help.
Behind her, in the Preterm Health Services Clinic in the Boston suburb of Brookline, blood is pooling on the first floor. An antiabortion zealot named John Salvi III has pumped bullets into three staffers. One of them, receptionist Lee Ann Nichols, is dead.
On that day in that place, fates got up and exchanged places. One life ended and another life received a reprieve: a baby who was not yet wanted, but who would come to be named Vivian Gaines.
Deborah Gaines remembers Dec. 30, 1994, as if it happened an hour ago. She remembers it every time she looks into the small honey-colored face of her daughter, the child she now loves dearly but the same child she went to the abortion clinic that morning to get rid of because she could not afford to raise her.
Gaines, 31, is sitting at her kitchen table in the white clapboard house she rents next to a busy highway in this town on the edge of Cape Cod. The child she never wanted to have is sitting in her high chair refusing to eat her morning bowl of Cheerios. Vivian is 3; her soft brown hair is carefully pulled into a ponytail high on her head.
The pretty little girl squeals. She communicates, but with few words. She can barely say her sisters' names. She has developmental problems -- emotional, physical and intellectual deficits. Doctors say that at 22 months, Vivian had the cognitive ability of a 6-month-old. She is hyperactive. She likes to grab a face and sink her nails in and not let go. "Vivian, be nice," her mother says. "Nice, nice, Vivian." The girl is a trial for her mother, who never married and has three other children.
All this helps explain why Deborah Gaines has become something of a local celebrity. People here are talking about the suit she filed against the abortion clinic, seeking damages for the trauma she says she suffered that day. It also seeks to recoup the cost of raising her child. Her suit relies on the concept of "wrongful life," making the rather novel and controversial argument that Vivian should never have been born, and therefore the clinic should defray the cost of raising an unwanted child. The suit says the clinic failed to protect clients against madmen like John Salvi and foreclosed Gaines's option to have an abortion -- an argument the clinic's lawyers call patent nonsense.
The mother folds her hands on the white table that has been scrubbed clean in the white kitchen with white stucco walls. She is wearing a black pantsuit. Her soft face is troubled. She is thinking. It is all so complicated; the issues raised here are shaded in gray. But on one level, to her, it is quite simple.
"It shouldn't have happened to me," Gaines says. And somebody's got to pay for what she went through.
She looks at her daughter. She cherishes the little girl, but she knows that Vivian would not be here had Salvi not chosen that clinic in Brookline to air his rage against abortion. Salvi, 23, a devout Roman Catholic, justified killing as part of a militant mission to protect the unborn. Gaines once viewed her daughter's survival as a "sign from God," but now she's convinced what Salvi did was the work of the Devil.
"God don't kill anyone," she says. "God don't put a blessing on a murderer coming into the clinic and shooting people up."
But the troubling questions don't end there. There are these: Who is responsible for Vivian's life? Is she solely Gaines's burden? What about the father? How much responsibility does the clinic have, if any? Or the state?
Gaines doesn't fully understand all the legal issues, but says she doesn't feel she's shifting responsibility with this suit. She quotes something her mother told her when she was pregnant with her first child: "You decided to lay down and have them. You take care of them."
A Woman Scorned
People who don't know Gaines are judging her life and her decisions. She picks up a local newspaper. A columnist who never called her to find out her story has labeled Gaines a welfare mother who deserves no money -- and deserves to be in the sorry situation she is in. A man on the street yells that she should have just gone back the next day to the clinic and gotten the abortion.
It's true that she was receiving federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children when she became pregnant with Vivian. She knew that she could not afford to have another child. She didn't want to make her life any more difficult.
"No one knows how hard it is raising four kids by yourself," she says. No one knows how hard it is to find a job without a high school diploma. They don't know how difficult it is to find a babysitter for Vivian. How difficult it is to keep a job when she can't keep a babysitter. How difficult it is to make ends meet when the rope is too short to begin with. In her world, there are no safety nets for bad choices. In her world, when you fall there is nothing to catch you -- except what's left of the welfare system.
People are talking, but they have not lived for one moment underneath her skin. Those people don't know her pain, the intense fears. They are not with her when she wakes up in the middle of the night with the nightmare visions of John Salvi shooting at her, and the medicated child she did not want to have is screaming at the top of her lungs.
Yes, she loves Vivian. Yes, she wants Vivian. The conflict is that Vivian exists.
Gaines's lawyer, Chris A. Milne, puts it this way: "The resentment is there. The love is there. It's inconsistent but she feels them both."
At the kitchen table, he flips through a report from Gaines's counselor. It shows that one month after the shooting, she was terribly confused: worried about the impact of having the baby but fearful of going back to another abortion clinic.
Milne is a well-known Boston area child advocacy lawyer who specializes in setting up trusts for children hurt in accidents and shootings. He says he is seeking between $100,000 and $500,000 for Vivian's care.
His suit, filed last year in Superior Court, argues that the owners of Preterm, aware of shootings at other clinics and the fierce and continual protests outside the clinic's own doors, should have seen Salvi, if not someone else, coming -- and they should have been prepared with "full-time armed security guards, police presence, metal detectors and locked doors to protect patients such as Deborah Gaines, who were entering the clinic to exercise their lawful right to an abortion."
The lawsuit also says that Gaines suffered "post-traumatic stress disorder" after the attack, with symptoms including "frequent crying episodes, headaches, cold sweats, flashbacks, sleep irregularity, psychic numbness."
The filing anticipates the public response that she could have gone elsewhere, and argues that "she could not go back to an abortion clinic because she fears for her life."
Earlier this month, Judge Patrick F. Brady rejected a request by Preterm to dismiss the suit, allowing the case to go forward even while pronouncing himself "very, very, very, very skeptical" of the arguments.
In the past 25 years, various courts have granted damages to parents who have claimed "wrongful life." Many of those cases involved failed sterilization procedures or amniocentesis tests that failed to determine that a child would be born with genetic defects. Other cases have been won by women who felt they "lost the opportunity to terminate a pregnancy," Milne says.
In 1990, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled in a landmark medical negligence case in favor of a couple who sued a doctor who had failed to sterilize the woman properly. The woman gave birth to a "normal and healthy, but unwanted, child after the physician had performed a sterilization procedure which the mother had sought for reasons founded on economic or financial considerations," the judges wrote in the case.
After the baby was born, the court ruled that the parents could receive damages to cover the cost of rearing the child to adulthood, "offset by the benefit, if any, that the parents receive or will receive from having the child."
Preterm, which has settled two cases brought by shooting victims and their families against the clinic, argues it has no responsibility to Gaines or her daughter. Says Adrian Sevier, an attorney for the clinic: "Preterm had no notice a madman like John Salvi would enter the premises and open fire. Their security was adequate and there is nothing they could have done to have prevented John Salvi's actions, and there is nothing Preterm did or did not do that caused any harm to Deborah Gaines."
At the heart of the case, to hear the lawyers tell it, is a word that has defined the abortion issue for decades: choice.
"The argument is essentially that Deborah Gaines chose not to have an abortion after December 30, 1994," Sevier says. "She was free to go to any clinic of her choice and have an abortion. She chose not to do so and she is therefore responsible for her decision."
Says Milne: "The responsibility starts with Deborah at Preterm exercising her right to have an abortion. ... It's legal and she had the full right to expect that she would be given one. She was exercising her right to choose."
One Mother's Story
Deborah Gaines's black eyebrows are drawn on perfectly. Her hair is just so. Today she is wearing tight curls. There is still a trace of the girlish vivacity that probably impressed the judges when she won the Duncan Projects Beauty Pageant back in New Jersey, when she was 14 and she still had hope.
That was before she had her first baby at 17, before she had her second baby and her mother put her out of the house. Before she moved to a trailer park, before she fell in love and out of love and couldn't find a job and lived in a house with no heat and lived in a shelter and received a Section 8 housing certificate and then tried to live on meager checks from AFDC.
"Life just got rougher and rougher," she says. Whenever she talks to her own mother she finds strength. "My mother always says, Hold it to the road.' Take care of things. Be strong."
Deborah Gaines was born in the Jersey City projects, the youngest of five children. Her father was a boxmaker. Her mother was a homemaker.
Deborah learned to fight early and to defend herself. She says she was in a "little" gang. She dropped out of high school. She lived with a sister in Cherry Point, N.C., before her boyfriend found a job at a nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass. She packed up her son and daughter and moved north to be with the man.
"But things didn't work out and I went into a shelter for the homeless." She and her children were living in assisted housing when she met a house painter named Michael Richardson at a nice restaurant in Plymouth.
"We started talking. I was having dinner with my girlfriends. After dinner, he asked me to dance." That was May 7, 1989. "We've been together since then," Gaines says. Richardson is the father of her third child, Debbie, and of Vivian.
Over the years, Richardson has helped out almost daily with the kids, but he didn't marry Gaines or move in -- that would have cut off the AFDC checks. He says he felt he couldn't make as much to support the family to offset the loss of the welfare benefits.
Gaines did hair in her kitchen, pressing and curling and braiding. And she tried to make a home for the family: Once she moved into a cottage with a nice little yard on the waterfront. They found a picket fence and painted it white. They got a dog named Rex and brought him home. They called him "Rex, Malcolm X."
But she had to move from that house on the shore because it was very cold, and she couldn't afford the oil heat. Once to keep warm she and the kids huddled together under blankets with a blow dryer.
In the early '90s, she found an apartment with wood floors, a patio, a small deck. There was just enough room for her and her three children. She had no intention of moving again. Then she woke up one morning with a familiar queasy feeling.
"I just didn't want to know what I knew -- but you know I knew. So I went to a clinic in North Plymouth and they did a pregnancy test for me." It came back positive. (Gaines won't discuss whether she was using birth control at the time.)
"I just shook my head. ... I was feeling like, Debbie, you done messed up.' I mean I had so many. I was living this fantasy, you know. I always dreamed about having my own and doing for my own ... and when I felt that I was pregnant I was totally devastated."
It happened just when she was trying to get herself together. She had already started to study for her GED and was planning to get a job -- a result, she says, of a personal epiphany, not the pressure of welfare-to-work reform. She already had filled out the paperwork at the unemployment office.
Richardson, now 36, didn't seem eager to have another child, either. And it was coming at a bad time. He recalls thinking, "Deb's pregnant. She's trying to get ahead in life. She was going to school."
"He didn't want to say go ahead and have it or don't have it," Gaines says. "It was more like Make your own decision from here on.' "
"I said something has to go. I mean I can't go through this and have another child, and there's so much that I want to do."
She made her choice. She found a telephone book and made an appointment at Preterm Health Services, where an abortion would take about an hour. She was scheduled for 9 a.m.
That morning John Salvi drove his black Toyota pickup, the one with pictures of dead fetuses taped to the back window, into Brookline from New Hampshire. Dressed in black, he walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic around 10.
A woman asked Salvi whether he needed help.
"Is this Planned Parenthood?" he asked.
When the woman told him it was, he pulled out a .22-caliber semiautomatic and opened fire, killing receptionist Shannon Elizabeth Lowney. A female counselor and two male volunteer escorts in the waiting room were wounded in the spray of bullets.
Salvi calmly walked out of the clinic, got back in his truck and drove a mile west to Preterm.
Gaines and two friends, Debbi Davis and James Magazine, had arrived late at the clinic around 9:10. They parked across the street from the squat red brick building, they fed the meter quarters, and Gaines hurried to the first floor. The receptionist told her the doctors were running behind and asked if she wanted to reschedule.
"I want to go on with it today," Gaines told her.
The receptionist gave her a form that explained the procedure. After filling it out, Gaines took an elevator to the fourth-floor waiting room. It was crowded, she remembers, maybe a dozen people sitting there, holding on to their own secrets. In the uncomfortable silence, she grabbed something to read.
Around 10 a.m., Gaines impatiently put down her magazine, got up and asked, "Do you know how long it will be?"
"You're going to be next," the receptionist told her.
"I was wondering, can I step downstairs to smoke a cigarette?"
"Okay, Miss Gaines," the woman answered, "but don't be long."
Gaines raced downstairs and found her friend Magazine and asked him for a cigarette. He reached in his pocket but didn't have any.
Together they went looking for Davis, who they thought was in the car parked across the street.
About that time -- 10:10 -- John Salvi walked into Preterm's first-floor reception area and was stopped at the front desk.
"Is this Preterm?" he asked a woman answering phones.
She told him yes.
He reached into his duffel bag, pulled out the rifle and shouted in a voice like a preacher: "This is what you get! You pray the rosary!"
He shot Lee Ann Nichols.
"Then he took a step to his left, lifted his gun and shot me," Jane Sauer, a patient administrator, remembered. Sauer rolled behind a column and heard Salvi yelling as he pumped 10 more bullets into Nichols.
Gaines, who was outside, hadn't heard those shots. She still couldn't find Davis, or the cigarettes, so she turned around to go back into the clinic.
Right inside, right away, she heard what she thought was a firecracker. Then she saw women running her way, trying to escape. They knocked her over.
She saw a man running down the hallway, firing a gun. Nothing made sense. Her instincts told her to run.
"I jumped down the steps and landed on my knees." She dropped her pocketbook but didn't bother to gather it. Everyone else, it seemed, ran to the left of the entrance. For some reason, she ran to her right. Salvi followed her.
He was still firing, maybe seven shots, but gave up the chase after she finally escaped through the black steel gate. She ran to the apartment building and somehow her friend James Magazine had ended up there, too.
"We fell to the floor. I told James, Please, don't make a noise.' "
But he insisted on going out to check out the chaos.
"He came back and said, It's okay.' He grabbed me and said, It's okay.' "
What happened next was a blur for Gaines. All of a sudden reporters were pushing microphones in front of her and the FBI wanted her to look at photographs. She picked Salvi out of a lineup and somehow ended up back home, she doesn't remember how.
For days, Gaines says, she was afraid to leave the house, afraid to turn the lights off, afraid to open the windows because she had pointed out Salvi. He or someone connected with him was certain to be coming after her, she thought.
Two weeks later, she found herself sitting in a mental health counselor's office. Now more than two months pregnant, she wanted help.
In a report dated Jan. 17, 1995, a therapist at the Mayflower Counseling Center wrote, "Ct. :client: has experienced intense fears that (pro-lifers) someone is going to kill her. She has had nightmares and is also experiencing flashbacks. :Client: states feelings of overwhelming guilt and confusion and fear.
":Client: states that she is unsure of whether or not she should terminate the pregnancy. She feels it may be a sign from God to keep the child, but she states that this is an unplanned pregnancy and she doesn't want it to hold her back (planning to start school, seeking employment)."
":Client: states that she will not go back to a clinic to have an abortion because she fears for her life."
Later, a psychiatrist prescribed Ativan for Gaines's anxiety.
A follow-up reports states: ":Client: has made decision to give birth to child and not abort."
A New Life
Vivian Victoria Gaines was pushed into the world Aug. 7, 1995, arriving at a healthy 6 pounds 5 ounces.
"Oh, it's a girl!" Gaines cried. She held her and gave her a little kiss on the forehead. "I was very happy. I loved her immediately."
In the kitchen of her home, Gaines flips through a photo album that she says will someday be given to Vivian as proof of the family's love for her. Gaines is pointing to the pictures of Vivian and her sisters, Octavia and Deborah, and brother Davon. She comes across a newspaper article that she framed. The headline says, " This beautiful child': Clinic shooting changed many lives profoundly."
Gaines is quoted as saying that she would never for a moment give credit to Salvi for saving Vivian: "I know ignorant people out there are going to say if it weren't for John Salvi, this baby wouldn't be here. But this does not make him a hero."
The shooter escaped from Brookline that day and went on to fire 20 rounds at a building housing an abortion clinic in Norfolk; he was later convicted of two murders and five counts of armed assault with intent to murder. Salvi was found dead Nov. 28, 1996, in his maximum-security prison cell with his hands and feet tied and cotton stuffed in his mouth. Authorities called it a suicide but Salvi's lawyer said he was beaten to death.
Little Vivian walks over to the table and points at the pictures. She sees herself in a pink dress, sitting in her mother's lap at 4 months. In the snapshot, Vivian has a juicy drool. Her mother is smiling.
"When Vivian was born, she had it all, like all of my children," Gaines says. "Vivian is very much loved." Michael Richardson nods and says, "She's here now, and I love her."
Gaines has put a baby gate between the porch railings to keep Vivian from running out into the heavy traffic. Her constant fear is that somehow the child will manage to open the door and run out there to her death.
She turns her back to the table for a second. Vivian darts through the living room to the front door. Gaines turns around.
"Did the baby run out there?" She gasps. Her stomach drops. She drops the album and runs after her. She catches her. Holds her hand gently. Walks the child back to safety.
Gaines looks at her watch. It is the first day of school for her older daughters. The school buses come, and Gaines and her three girls go to the park up the road. The mother sits on a wooden bench, watching the children play on a clear blue afternoon. The scent of salt water is in the wind. Blowing with it is the question:
Has she ever thought about the irony of all this? Had the shooting never happened, Vivian would not even be here. Then how would she feel?
She thinks about the question. She decides it is impossible to answer. Of course Vivian wouldn't be here. But why ponder? It doesn't even make sense. Who can change history?
"I can't go back." She made choices. Choices were made for her. Things happened that were out of her control. She can't dwell on the what-ifs. The what-ifs won't feed this baby.
Maybe her life would be different if Vivian weren't here. Maybe she would really have completed her GED. She probably would have a full-time job by now. That would mean she could deal with these overdue bills, like the one for $189 for cable TV installation. Maybe she could find the $400 to fix her car and go to her uncle's funeral. It certainly would be easier to find a sitter. And maybe other parents would bring their children over to play because they wouldn't be afraid that Vivian would stroke their faces, then without warning sink her fingernails into their skin and not let go.
The child is running through the park now, oblivious, climbing up the slide. Vivian, in a blue jumpsuit with a yellow Big Bird on the front, comes speeding down fast. Her hands are in the air. She's wearing new black Hush Puppies. They have been buckled with care by her mother. Her clean white socks with the lace edges have been neatly turned down.
"Whee!" Vivian cries. Her mother is excited by this moment of pure happiness.
"But wait!" She runs to catch her. Before she can, the girl plants her feet, her new shoes, in a deep puddle. Then she races back up the ladder to the top of the slide.
"I think I'm a good mom," Gaines says. "I take care of them the best I can."
She already is planning her speech, preparing for the day Vivian asks.
"I know the question will come up: Mommy, if you love me now, why did you decide to get rid of me?' And I'll explain it to her like I explained it to other people. Hopefully she will understand. I'll tell her I was there to have an abortion. But things happened. Then I'm going to show her all the pictures we took."
Vivian comes down the slide again, this time backward. She bumps her head slightly. She cries. She runs to her mother. Gaines kisses her head. Holds her close.
So forget the questions. Gaines pauses and says what is the absolute truth in her head: "If she wasn't here, she wouldn't be here for a good reason."
First she chose not to have Vivian. But ultimately she chose to have her. It's a contradiction she'll have to live with.
Noted with: Nanny envy
Baby, don't get hooked on her
October 11, 1998
They didn't hear me when I came home early that day. The other woman was in my kitchen. He was in her arms. He was dreamy-eyed and drooling. I could see, from where I stood, her lipstick smudged on his face. She giggled. They both laughed. They were singing some silly song, all wrapped up in each other. I had caught them in the act and they didn't know.
I spied them from the garage door. They did not hear me still, so I slammed it again. Then they both looked up at me.
She was wide-eyed, fumbling, uncertain about what to do. I hurried to wrest him from her arms. He began to cry.
Betrayal, I thought, in my own house, and in the light of day.
Insane jealousy whirled through my mind. And all he could say about the matter was "Mommy!"
I tried composing myself, yet I felt overcome. This woman was doing everything I wanted to do, except I had to work. She was in my kitchen. I wanted to be in my kitchen. She was singing to my baby in the middle of the day. I wanted to sing to him in the middle of the day. She had all the fun times. I had the middle of the night when he wouldn't go to sleep.
"Mommy," he says, looking so innocent. That word could not fully squelch my jealousy. I kissed him and calculated my revenge. My goal: Get that woman out of my house; get my baby out of her arms. That was Plan A. I had no Plan B, meaning what I would do with this baby in the middle of the day when both my husband and I had to work. At that moment, Plan B didn't seem to matter.
Babysitter jealousy was a term I could not comprehend until six months after I delivered a child, nursed him, pampered him, read to him, cradled him -- then handed him off to another woman. The nanny, the babysitter, the woman who lives under the stairs, whatever you may call her, is the woman who is there to keep your baby when you cannot, who has full power over the home when both parents are out.
In some households, for more than 10 hours a day, she is there when you are not. And who knows what kind of bond they develop in those long hours when Mommy and Daddy are gone? She is possibly one of the most important people in your life. That was something I would not come to realize until much later.
I had watched "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," and I remembered the line from the movie. The hand on the cradle rules the house. I was having none of that: Nobody's hand was going to be rocking my baby's cradle or ruling my house. I had heard the stories from other women: "Just wait until he calls her Mommy." I had read the stories in the parenting magazines of women whining about what to do when their babies cry for the sitter over the real mommy.
As I prepared to go back to work, I prepared to mark my territory.
My mother-in-law, who has two doctorates, called the week before I was to end my maternity leave. "It's going to be hard," she said in a soothing voice, "but your baby will be able to pick you out of a crowded room of women. Don't worry, no other woman will be able to take your place."
Right, I thought, and burst into tears. He doesn't know that if I leave I'm really coming back. He's too little to understand the complicated world of economics, commutes, career maintenance.
A friend advised me to explain everything to my baby in adult words: "Listen, I am your mother. I'm going to be gone for a few hours. But I will be back. Don't even think about calling this woman Mommy. I am your mommy. I will always be your mommy. Okay? Now give Mommy -- your real mommy -- a hug."
With the baby prepared by this lecture, I moved to other areas. I had to walk a fine line of contradictions. I had to let this woman know I trusted her but I didn't trust her. I wanted to let her know I was leaving the house but I would always be there. I wanted her to know she had some control but I ruled.
I asked her to write down the baby's daily schedule: when he slept, when he ate, what they did. It was okay for her to hold him, but only after I left. It was okay for her to feed him, but I would decide what he ate. I picked his favorite red cup.
I combed his hair and dressed him. I read to him every morning: "Guess How Much I Love You." I could have had five minutes to put my lipstick on and run out the door, but I would sit there calmly in the big overstuffed chair, acting as if I had not another care or thought in the world until I finished that book and he knew that I loved him to the "moon and back."
Then I would drive to work listening to the oh-so-caring Dr. Laura, who would tell any parent working to quit her job, move to a more affordable area and make sure there was always one parent home with the kid. I would slump in my seat, bite my lip and think of ways to be there. At the end of the working day, I would race home. Anybody in my way became an intolerable hurdle between me and my baby.
There was no advice in the "What to Expect" books about this kind of motherhood-induced insanity. My husband had absolutely no idea why I was so obsessed with getting rid of the sitter. "When I came home from work today," I argued, "she was in the basement cleaning and he was all the way upstairs taking a nap."
"What's wrong with that?" my spouse asked, clearly puzzled.
I couldn't explain, so I clearly had to make a better case.
She microwaved his milk. Crumbs were on his face when I got home. She let him sleep in his shoes.
My husband could find nothing wrong in those infractions.
I did nutty things like call home in the middle of the day to see whether I could catch him screaming in the background.
He never was. He was always happy. And she was always pleasant, patiently answering all my questions. I tried like a government prosecutor to find something egregious that she'd done, so I would have cause to get rid of her. But nothing she said or did could convince my husband that she was evil or incompetent.
Then one night when we were trying to teach the baby to fall asleep by himself, I heard him down the hall yelling, "Mommy! Daddy!" No response. (The book says to wait a few minutes before you answer -- otherwise babies think they can control you.)
"Mommy? Where are you? Daddy, where are you?" our son asked.
Then we heard: "Raquel?"
And then it hit me: This child trusted her. And needed her. If he called out for her at a moment of need, then that meant he liked her. And if he liked her, that meant she liked him. And if they liked each other, it meant somehow he was telling me he had a good babysitter.
Slowly I began to see beyond the green that clouded my vision, and I grew to praise this woman. I could see that she was really good with him. She taught him the alphabet before he was 11 months old. She prepared a whole curriculum for him. One day I came home early and they were taking bowls from the cupboard, getting ready to work on a lesson in gravity. In moments of joy away from her, he would recount the little silly songs that she taught him.
I came to realize that my life -- the one that holds down the three jobs of household, baby and work -- would be much more difficult without her.
Finally, I knew it: I don't want her out of my kitchen. I don't want her out of my house. Now, when I hear the sound of the car outside at 9:18 a.m. -- when I am trying to feed him one last spoonful of oatmeal and he is squirming and I have six minutes to get dressed and get out the door -- the expectant voice I hear is my own.
For two little boys, wrongful murder charges could stick for life
November 1, 1998
CHICAGO -- The persistent sound of someone trying to saw through thick plastic woke her from a deep sleep. She slid heavily out of bed and followed the sound that was coming from down the hall, from the bathroom. The rasping of metal on plastic reminded her that nothing had changed. Her 7-year-old, her baby boy, was still facing charges of first-degree murder.
She found him in the bathroom with a butter knife, futilely trying to free his leg of an electronic shackle. He sat cross-legged on the floor, naked, yanking at the hard black plastic strip that a judge had ordered clamped around his ankle. He slid his chunky fingers under the shackle and tried frantically to pry it off -- not having sense enough to know he could not free himself, and his mother could not free him either. He was caught, trapped.
This chubby-cheeked boy, barely four feet tall, had spent much of the week in court. Reporters from across the country studied his caramel face, his fat braids, his missing two front teeth, and wrote down every detail.
A prosecutor, a blond woman with short hair and a crisp green suit, had sliced the air with her finger, then pointed at him and his 8-year-old friend, and proclaimed them callous killers. She argued that an 11-year-old girl had been fatally "brutalized at their hands."
For eight hours in court that day, attorneys argued back and forth about whether the 7- and 8-year-old boys were a danger to society. When the boys stood up, deputies raced behind them. When they went to the potty, deputies stood guard. But the judge knew that the children, under state law, couldn't be placed in a locked facility. So he sent them home, to be monitored by their parents and the custom-made electronic shackles.
The 7-year-old, believed to be the youngest murder defendant in the city's history, didn't fully understand what was happening. Because of his speech disorder, he couldn't or wouldn't talk about it. All he knew was that because of the uncomfortable shackle he couldn't nap that Saturday afternoon, and he wanted to take a bath.
"It don't come off," his mother sleepily reminded him.
"Man, why they got to put this stuff on me?" he grumbled, the words barely distinct because of his speech impediment.
"If you don't leave it alone, the sheriff is going to be here," she scolded.
The phone rang. The sheriff's office was on the other end. Deputies wanted to speak to the boy to make sure he was not trying to escape from the house.
The mother put him on, and he recited his ABCs and numbers until they were satisfied they had their prisoner.
"Police Say Suspects Not Too Small to Kill," declared the lead headline in the Chicago Tribune on Aug. 11, two days after the two boys supposedly confessed to the murder of their neighborhood playmate, Ryan LaShaun Harris. "We are certain we have the right individuals," a Chicago homicide sergeant said.
Within a month, the charges were dropped and the shackles unbuckled. Investigators found semen on the panties of the victim. Boys that age cannot produce semen. Now, suddenly, the evidence pointed to someone else -- someone much older, someone powerful, someone the boys' parents and their neighbors had always suspected was the real killer, the one who battered that pretty little girl, crushed her skull, beat her face, rammed foliage up her nose, pushed her panties so far down her throat that she swallowed her tongue, making sure that if she did not die of the beating, she would most certainly die from lack of breath.
Ryan Harris was slain in a poor South Side neighborhood that had seen many other heinous murders. When the news of the boys' arrest was flashed nationally, many gasped and thought, Why not?
Why not -- when kids were shooting kids in alleys, parks, school halls and playgrounds? Why not -- when not far from this neighborhood two boys, 12 and 13, had dropped a 5-year-old out of a 14th-story window because he wouldn't steal candy? People, especially those who don't live on the South Side, seemed more than willing to believe the worst about kids -- black kids in particular.
The police version of events -- that the 7-year-old had knocked Ryan off her bicycle with a rock, then dragged her body into the weeds with the help of his friend -- was based on an interrogation of a shy child with speech problems who could easily be coaxed into saying anything an adult wanted to hear. Yet to this day, the police and the city refuse to apologize to the boys or to their parents. Saying the case is still under investigation, officials will not comment further.
There is one central question they really can't answer. Perhaps nobody can.
How does a little boy who still sucks his thumb put his life back together after he has been accused of murder?
How does he wash away the dry taste of a police interrogation room, the stain of the fingerprint ink, and the thick, lingering suspicion? How can he go on playing tag, walk to the store to get candy, go to school, when the grown-ups who caused all of this -- "the mean police," as he calls them -- won't just say they're sorry, and clear his name?
You don't remove the stigma by simply dismissing the charge.
The mother says it happened after church the other Sunday. Some kids called him a name: "I don't want to play with you anymore, you little murderer," one boy shouted. "My mama told me you murdered that girl."
"He will always be suspect. He will always be known as the youngest murder suspect in Chicago's history," says his mother. She is 28, round-faced, a hard-working woman who keeps her four children well behaved.
It's 7 a.m., and she is pressing his hair. It sizzles. His sisters, 6 and 8, and brother, 10, sit at the kitchen table in the small apartment above her mother-in-law's house. The mother takes the pressing comb and puts it in the stove's blue flames. He's having his second-grade pictures taken this morning at his new school, where the children don't know he was "the 7-year-old accused killer." Only the principal, his teacher and the counselor know.
The boy's long hair hangs nearly shoulder-length. He is proud of it, and of his perfect-attendance trophies from last year. An industrious child, he liked to help out at the corner store and the laundromat, offering to sweep the floor for quarters.
All that has changed since the charges were filed. The family had to move. He doesn't like to talk about his arrest. He does not like to talk much at all -- for when he speaks, he is often misunderstood. His voice is deep and gruff, and his tongue gets tied. The words bump together: "Amgoingtoschool. Don'tbe laughing atme. Yourhair isalmostlongas mine."
His mother knows what he's saying and interprets.
A court-appointed psychiatrist diagnosed him as having something called a receptive/expressive language disorder. "If you ask him where is his right hand, he will point to his left," his mother explains. But it goes deeper than that.
"I'll say, Where did you go last night?' And he'll say, To the store.' And I'll say, No, we went to McDonald's.' "
The family may have actually gone to the store. But once he's told it was McDonald's, the boy would believe it to be true, she says.
So: If you told this boy that he killed somebody, he'd believe that, too.
The mystery begins on July 27, in a neighborhood known as Englewood. That afternoon, Ryan Harris, a straight-A student who wanted to be a basketball player, didn't come home after riding a borrowed bicycle. Ryan had been spending the summer with her godmother.
In Englewood when a little girl is missing, residents tend to fear the worst. Her family called police, mobilized a search party and passed out hand-printed fliers, with a photo of a smiling Ryan Harris standing in front of a chalkboard, her braids pulled up in a ponytail.
Ryan's body was found the next day behind an isolated row house in an overgrown lot near the railroad tracks. The medical examiner determined she died of trauma to the head and asphyxiation. A collective, almost primal scream came from the community. Somebody was hunting their little girls and had made a kill. The residents, poor and powerless as they were, demanded that the killer be found.
Police began investigating older men, but then got an anonymous call saying the murder was connected to some boys throwing rocks. Detectives went to talk to Ryan's relatives, who told them that a few days before Ryan died, she and her little sister were going to the corner store to buy candy when two boys started throwing rocks at them.
"You better get back home and don't come around here," one of the boys yelled at the girls, according to police reports.
"I want that bike right there," a boy yelled, pointing to the blue bike Ryan was riding.
Ryan got scared and peddled away.
The 7-year-old's parents were high school sweethearts who married four years after graduation. She got an associate degree in liberal arts from a local college. They both found work in fast food. She is a manager at a KFC franchise and he is a fry cook. On Sunday, Aug. 9, both were at work.
The boy was at his grandmother's when police knocked on her door. They needed to ask the 7-year-old just a few questions. It seemed he had some information and might be able to help them out. The grandmother told the detectives she was taking him to church, but would be sure to stop by the police station after services that afternoon.
A slender woman who wears her hair primly pulled back, the grandmother drove the boy there about 5 p.m. She says that when they arrived, a detective greeted him: "Hey, big guy, come with me."
The detective took the boy to the lieutenant's office, a small room with a desk, a telephone, a typewriter, a computer, four file cabinets and three chairs. According to a police report on the interrogation, the door was left open so that the boy's grandmother could see him.
The detectives, James Cassidy, who is white, and Allen Nathaniel, who is black, introduced themselves. But before they asked him any questions about the dead girl, they made small talk. They asked him about his favorite sport (basketball), what kinds of things he liked to do (play with trucks), how old he was and whether he was looking forward to going to school.
Then they began the real questions.
"Do you know the difference between the truth and a lie?" a detective leaned over and asked.
"You should never lie," the boy told police, according to the report. To tell the truth is to tell "what really happened" and a lie is "when someone makes up something."
"To tell the truth is good," a detective said. "To tell a lie is bad. ... Good boys only tell the truth."
"Are you a good boy?" a detective asked him.
Yes, he told them.
The officers then asked him to hold their hands "because we were all friends."
The boy gave Cassidy his left hand and Nathaniel his right.
The detectives showed him a poster with Ryan Harris's picture and asked the boy, "Do you know the girl who was killed?"
"Without further questioning," the detectives' report says, the boy told them this story: He and the 8-year-old were playing and throwing rocks. When they saw Ryan riding her bicycle, the 7-year-old threw a rock and hit the girl in the head, knocking her off her bike.
"After she fell off the bicycle she wasn't moving so he and :the 8-year-old: each took one of the girl's arms and moved her into the weeds where they began to play with her soft,' " the report said. "He said they took her panties off and put them in the girl's mouth and rubbed leaves on her."
According to the report, the boy told police, "They put leaves in the girl's nose and also a stem." And police said the two took the bicycle and moved it into the weeds by the railroad tracks, where someone must have taken it because they never saw it again.
Police won't comment on the interrogation, which was not taped, but a source close to the investigation, who did not want to be identified, put it this way: "At some point in the conversation, police were being told things that were very disturbing by the 7-year-old. He said things that implicated himself. The cops were stunned.
"They said, We dragged her.' There were drag marks on her body. They said they put things in her nose. There was dirt and leaves in her nose."
At that point, Cassidy left the room and Nathaniel continued talking to the boy about basketball and school.
In another room, officers approached the 8-year-old and his mother, and told them they wanted to get a witness statement from him. Police said she allowed them to talk to the boy alone, saying, "I want you to get to the bottom of this."
The 8-year-old was given a soda and put through the same routine. He and Detective Cassidy talked about lying, and how good boys don't lie. The report says that each suspect was given a simplified version of the Miranda warning: The boys were told that they didn't have to talk if they didn't want to, and if they asked for a lawyer, then the detectives "wouldn't talk to them anymore."
Neither boy knew what a lawyer was.
According to the report, the children were told that a lawyer "protects people who are said to have done something bad." Court was a place "where if you were accused of doing something bad you would have to go there and a person called a judge would decide if you really did something bad or not."
The 8-year-old told police that he met the 7-year-old behind a house and the younger boy threw a rock, hitting the girl in the head, and she fell off her bike. He told police the 7-year-old did "something to the girl who wasn't moving," the report says.
The older boy said he didn't want to watch, so he turned his head away. Then he got on his bicycle and rode home to watch cartoons.
The boys were given McDonald's Happy Meals, then were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
The homicide case of Ryan LaShaun Harris was classified as "Cleared/Closed by Arrest."
By 6 p.m., the 7-year-old's mother was ending her shift at KFC. She arrived at her mother's house, but the boy and his grandmother were still not back and her older son told her they had gone to the police station. She panicked, thinking, "What is going on?"
Still in her uniform, she jumped in her car and sped down the expressway. She ran into the station and saw someone she knew: the mother of the 8-year-old. "You are not going to believe what's going on," the woman said.
She tried to find her son, but an officer told her the boy couldn't leave just yet because he had admitted hitting Ryan with a rock.
Later, in a green spiral notebook, the mother recorded her version of a conversation with the unidentified officer. "Now he's not being charged with anything," she quotes him as saying. "The way I see it, it was an accident, so don't be mad at him. He's going home and if you don't tell, we won't either."
She looked at him in disbelief and asked, "What about the rape allegations?"
He said, "Oh, that was just the media's imagination. You go back in the room with him while we complete our paperwork."
She went numb. An accident, she thought. She sat in a room across the hall. She didn't think anything was wrong until her son had to go to the washroom.
Police stopped him.
"Where are you going?" boomed an officer. "He needs to be escorted."
Now she knew something serious was going on.
"They won't let him out of sight," she said. "I saw a detective go back with him. I kept hearing DCFS' " -- the Department of Children and Family Services.
Thirty minutes passed. She panicked again. "Where is he?"
A youth officer came into the room, asked her to step next door, and told her without stopping for breath or giving her a wall to lean on that her 7-year-old baby was charged with murder.
"Are you out of your mind?" she screamed. "This is a child. Are you crazy?"
She had to pull herself together. She had to listen closely to what they said. She needed to know what was going to happen next. She recorded the conversation in her mind and later put it down in her notebook, her diary.
The officers told her that her son had confessed to hitting the girl with a rock, dragging her body into weeds, stuffing "foliage" in her nose and playing with her "very softly."
It was a setup, she thought. "My son can't talk," she argued. "If he speaks a whole sentence, you might be able to pick two words out of the sentence. You must be crazy."
She told them not to talk to the boy again unless he had a lawyer. That much she knew from watching TV.
They told her she had a choice: Sign the boy over to Hargrove Hospital, a psychiatric center on Chicago's West Side, or DCFS would take custody of him until he went to trial. Her mind went blank. She wrung her hands and did what any decent mother would have done.
She signed the papers that allowed him to go to the hospital.
"DCFS you don't want to play with," she says. "They get your child and you will never see him again."
On the way to the hospital, he fell asleep sucking his thumb.
The next day, the court assigned two public defenders to the 7-year-old: Catherine Ferguson, a tough-talking lawyer who grew up on the South Side, and Elizabeth Tarzia, who was about to have her own baby.
They hadn't even met the boys before a hearing that would decide if there was probable cause for holding them.
"We were waiting for the kids to come when we saw these two little figures walking down the hall with five or six deputies," Ferguson remembers.
The boys were hysterical, crying, slobbering, calling for their mothers.
"It was the kind of cry when someone loses a mom," Ferguson says. "My partner starts to cry. I said, You gotta pull it together.' "
When the 7-year-old met his attorney, he wiped his face and asked whether he could go home.
"I tried to change the subject," Ferguson recalls. "I said, Well, you got a whole lot of boogers running down your face. Im going to get some candy. What kind do you like?' "
"Honey buns," the boy told her. She had never seen or heard of that pastry. She went to the vending machine and bought Skittles.
Under the fluorescent lights of the courtroom, the boys climbed onto chairs between their attorneys. Their feet dangled above the floor. A courtroom artist gave them crayons so they could draw pictures on legal pads. When they stood before the judge, they were crying so much that he stopped the hearing and asked the boys' mothers to stand behind them.
"But a sheriff told me, You can't touch him,' " the 7-year-old's mother says. "We couldn't hug them or touch them."
On the night of Aug. 9, lawyer Andre Grant got a call from a woman who called herself Miss Rosetta. It was a name he fondly remembered from his days growing up in the Washington Park housing project. "The woman practically raised me," Grant recalls. Now her children had had children, and she was the grandmother of an 8-year-old boy -- a boy who had been charged with murder and needed help.
Tall and slim, Grant is a former prosecutor who likes to take on the system. He headed to the police station.
The boy was sitting in a dirty interrogation room, crying. Cops were looming over him, the lawyer says. Grant asked all the officers to leave the room.
"I told him his grandma had hired me to represent him and I knew his mom. And I told him I was a lawyer. And I asked him if he knew what a lawyer was.
"He said no. I asked him if he knew who I was. He said yes. I said, Who am I'? He said, You are another police.' I said, No, I'm not the police. I'm here to help you. I'm going to fight for you.' "
The boy's face showed he didn't know whether to trust him. He wouldn't stop crying.
Grant had to figure out a way to get to him.
He leaned over and asked: "Do you like the Power Rangers?" The boy, looking bewildered, said yes. "Who's your favorite Power Ranger?" Grant asked.
"The blue Power Ranger," the boy said, his eyes a little wider.
"I'm the blue Power Ranger," Grant said. "I'm going to fight for you."
The boy stopped crying.
While editors around the country front-paged the story on the boys, their neighbors, playmates, attorneys and ministers on the South Side said it didn't make sense. Didn't make sense that the kids were riding their bike in a field choked with weeds. Didn't make sense that two little boys could produce the kind of blows to bring a taller girl to death. Didn't make sense that they could be a part of something so terrible and then participate in the search to find the girl.
Community leaders urged police to keep looking for Ryan's killer. Citing the historical racism in the Chicago police department, they raised that issue even though the superintendent of police and the commander of the district are both black. The police countered by saying race had nothing to do with the arrests, that the boys knew too much about the crime. But neighbors said other kids had seen the body before police made it to the scene and word of what they saw raced through the neighborhood grapevine. Anybody could have known those things.
State's Attorney Richard Devine said: "The police would not have filed the charges and we would not be pursuing them unless there was evidence to support the charges. Police officers are not out there to find some people to throw a charge at, particularly a 7- and 8-year-old."
But three weeks later, investigators got a call from the state crime lab that blew their case apart. The call came a day before the boys were scheduled to go back to court for another hearing. A DNA report had found semen on the girl's panties.
When the fax came in, prosecutors were waiting. "We were surprised," says a source in the case. "There was an immediate recognition we would drop the charges."
On Sept. 4, they took the new evidence to the hearing. Defense attorneys were waiting. The prosecutor stood up and read a statement dismissing the charges.
"Everybody was looking at them with jaws dropped," public defender Ferguson recalls. "Then it was like, How dare you? Why didn't you find that out before you charged them?' "
After four weeks, the boys were set free. The police still refuse to rule out that they were somehow involved.
"At this stage, all you can say is that the charges went away," says the law enforcement source. "Nobody has been charged in the Ryan Harris case."
Checking the DNA against a database, the lab found a close match with a man called Eddie Durr. But the match was not perfect, leading police to believe the semen belonged to someone related to him. They found his brother, Floyd Durr, 29, who had been arrested this summer after a series of sexual assaults. Floyd Durr's DNA matched perfectly, the police say.
Durr, a convicted sex offender who lived in Englewood, is being held without bond in three other cases. He recently pleaded innocent to sexually attacking three neighborhood girls earlier this year, ages 15, 10 and 11.
Durr, who has not been charged in the Harris case, has denied killing the girl. He allegedly told police he saw two little boys playing near a house. According to police reports, he said he happened upon the girl after she was dead and performed a sexual act that stained her underwear.
"I think that's a lie," says Grant, the 8-year-old's attorney. "They know this guy's the guy. They know doggone well these children aren't involved."
The day is gone in Englewood. The 8-year-old's father is in a fit of anger. When Andre Grant arrives, the father stops him on the sidewalk.
"You know what I heard last night? A bump. It's 4 o'clock in the morning and my baby runs in the room: Daddy, it's a man!'
The father is a mechanic who plies his trade on the street in front of his aging brown house. He paces in front of the chain-link gate. His face is pulsing with rage.
"I got to get out of here. I'm going to take my baby and go. Kids are running up to him at school saying, Why did you kill that girl?' " the father says. "I got to go. Money, no money, we've got to get out of here."
Up the creaky steps, past a mixed-breed chow, the little boy sits curled in a green chair, too close to the television. He's 4 feet 2, with a round brown face and big brown eyes. He smiles, gives his lawyer a handshake and then a high five.
He is watching a show about volcanoes. A gray and white kitten jumps in the boy's lap. He strokes the kitten's fur.
"Look at that smile," Grant says. "The first time I saw him, I knew he could not have done that. Look at his smile."
The boy says nothing.
"You know he's been asking about you," the boy's mother says to the lawyer.
Grant tells the boy he can call him any time, and reaches into his jacket pocket and hands him a business card.
Call me, he says. Do you remember my name?
"You're the blue Power Ranger," the boy says.
Thanks to the conventions of the juvenile justice system and journalism, the names of the boys have not been released. But that doesn't mean people don't know.
"I have this empty feeling," the 7-year-old's mother says. "Because you know he got a label. He's like the youngest child in the United States to ever be accused of murder. People won't say it, but I know they'll always think it."
She is sitting in the dimly lit but spotless kitchen. Her daughters are playing at the table, copying letters and counting.
It was hard for the boy to start school. His old school didn't want to enroll a murder suspect, so his mother placed him in one 15 minutes away.
The first day back, his mother held his hand, but when he saw the big building he screamed, "Those people are mean in there. Don't leave me!"
She couldn't calm him, so she took him home.
The next day, he was better. But the day after that, when the teacher was not looking, he slipped out of the classroom and they found him balled up sucking his thumb in a corner.
It's over, but it's not over.
Immeasurable damage has been done. You can see it in the boys' eyes. They feel that at any time, the police could come knocking at their doors.
The 7-year-old told his mother: "They think I killed that little girl. She was my friend."
His mother told him: "Anybody say you hurt that girl, that you killed that girl, is ignorant. We ignore ignorant people."
She is angry: "We still don't know who killed that girl," she says. "I want to prove my son's innocence. He won't stay outside and play. He won't eat honey buns no more. When we go to the store, he gets a big fat juicy pickle."
"We may never get to the truth of what happened now," public defender Ferguson says. "We always thought he saw something. I don't know if he dreamed it up or they :the detectives: said it. Every time you ask him, it comes out different."
He doesn't talk about it now. And his parents are not going to ask him. The police want to interview him again, but the lawyers have refused.
Grant also has refused to submit the 8-year-old to more questions.
"I said, You've got to be joking.' There is not a parent in America that would take their children back to the police station ... when they were framed the first time."
After the judge ordered the boys unleashed, they still walked and thought as they did when they had the monitors on. Like the prisoner so used to the chain that when he is freed he forgets how to run.
The 7-year-old's mother told him the news: "You are free. You can go outside and play."
She pushed him to the front door, but he wouldn't budge.
"Don't wannago," he said. "You tryingtotrick me."
He grabbed his mother's leg.
1999 winners of the ASNE Writing Awards announced