KALAMAZOO, Mich. — She remembers the exact dates, every detail of the events that turned her childhood into a nightmare.
She was raped at age 11, a mother at 12 and, in the interim, became the subject of dizzying courtroom debate over whether an adolescent ward of the court could, or should, be compelled to have an abortion.
Helena Marie Robinson became an anonymous celebrity in 1981, a pre-teen in pigtails who was old enough to be pregnant but judged too young to decide whether she should be a mother.
"I was scared," Marie says now, sitting in the chilly living room of a dilapidated house on this city's impoverished north side. "I was thinking it was all my fault. They kept saying, 'It's not your fault.' "
She gave birth Feb. 6, 1982, and a few months later, she and her daughter were placed in separate foster homes. The public spotlight blinked off.
Life went on, however, for Marie, now 17. "I'm happy, I guess. Except for having to give up my daughter," she said.
Raped at Home
Raped by a man who lived with her mother and younger sister, Marie was the focus of national publicity after a judge refused to allow her to have an abortion.
Since then, she has dropped out of school and enrolled again, lost custody of one child and had a second, left her foster home and moved back in with her mother. Now, on the brink of adulthood, she is on her own.
"I'd like to go to college, get a job," she said. "It's my dream, to get a job and try to live regular lives. I don't feel right, the way me and my sister and my mother live. We should start trying to turn things around."
Pretty, slight, with close-cropped hair she cuts herself, she sits on a sofa next to baby Kenny, her son by her boyfriend. Shy at first, she gradually opens up.
Her favorite television shows are "Crime Story" and "Miami Vice." Her favorite singers are Phil Collins, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. She plays the clarinet and sings.
She dropped out of school for a year, then enrolled in adult education night classes. She says she pulls Cs and is two years from her high school diploma.
Lives on Welfare
In February, shortly after she spoke with a reporter for the first time about her case, Marie and her son moved from her mother's home into a nearby house, where they live on welfare payments of $402 a month. She recently tried to get a job at a Wendy's restaurant, but struck out.
In late 1981, Kalamazoo lawyer Nelson Pelletier was appointed to represent Marie and her sister in neglect proceedings against their mother in Kalamazoo Juvenile Court. The charges were brought after a doctor diagnosed Marie as pregnant, apparently by a man who lived in her house.
Pelletier said the psychologists and social workers who dealt with the girl recommended an abortion. They advised that going through pregnancy and giving birth would be too traumatic for an 11-year-old.
Kalamazoo Juvenile Court Judge Donald Halstead, on record as a staunch opponent of abortion, maintained in several hearings that he didn't have authority to rule on the question.
The case became public when Pelletier appealed to Kalamazoo County Circuit Court, where another judge refused to address the abortion question.
Pelletier then appealed to U.S. District Court, arguing that a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision required states to name tribunals to decide if pregnant children should have abortions.
Court Ordered to Rule
On Oct. 20, 1981, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Gibson ruled that Halstead had violated the girl's constitutional rights by refusing to address the issue, and ordered Halstead to make a decision in three days.
Marie was then about six months pregnant.
Halstead appointed an attorney to represent the unborn child. At Juvenile Court, after a closed hearing during which dozens of reporters crowded the corridors, Halstead ruled that an abortion would not be in the girl's best interest.
The case took a stunning turn in the summer of 1982, when the Michigan Department of Social Services charged 12-year-old Marie with emotionally neglecting her infant daughter and Marie temporarily lost custody.
Both cases, Marie as neglectful mother and as neglected child, remained under court jurisdiction until last November, when Marie permanently lost custody of her daughter and her own status as court ward was ended.
"I never see her. That was my daughter. Her birthday is Feb. 6 and I'll want to see her, but they won't let me," she said. "I'll always think about her."
Marie says she is glad she didn't have an abortion.
Still Against Abortion
"I don't believe in it. I just don't believe in it."
She remembers in remarkable detail the dates and developments in her case, and she has definite opinions of its pivotal figures:
- On Pelletier: "I think he tried to do his best."
- On Halstead, who has refused to comment on the case since it began: "At the time I thought he was mean. Now I don't even think about him."
- On Alvin Zackery, now 33 and serving seven to 15 years in prison for raping her: "I hate him."
Pelletier, reflecting recently on the case, said the girl was victimized by a system unequipped to deal with her situation.
"Every district, probate and circuit judge is elected, and he or she certainly isn't going to take the initiative and rule on whether somebody should have an abortion," he said.