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Gregory's File: A Childhood of Neglect, a Life of Crime : Juveniles: In a Seattle courtroom, one 17-year-old's case reveals the common threads in tangled young lives.

KIDS IN CUSTODY. How the nation handles crimes by juveniles. One in a series

August 23, 1993|RON HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — As 17-year-old Gregory stood before her, charged with drug dealing, King County Superior Court Judge Norma Huggins studied his juvenile record and came to the conclusion that she had reached in so many other cases.

"This kid never even had a chance," she told herself.

Gregory's file was filled with ominous details--gang membership, car theft, weapon possession.

But it was filled, too, with evidence that life had stacked the deck against him almost from birth--with abandonment, abuse, poverty and neglect.

To Huggins, it seemed that Gregory had been almost destined for this day when a judge would be trying to protect the community from him while at the same time trying to rescue him from the forces that had shaped him.

Cases like Gregory's have become a focal point in the country's juvenile justice system, officials say, because while policies have been tailored to deal with hardened, heartless juvenile offenders, most of the youngsters filing through courtrooms and filling up juvenile prisons are, like him, as much victims as villains.

While their crimes differ and the circumstances vary, officials say that most children being housed in the nation's juvenile facilities share one experience:

"Neglect," says Margaret Nickish of St. Gabriel's School, a suburban Philadelphia custody facility for delinquent boys. "It is the biggest common denominator among the children that we see."

Judges complain that even as they carry out the nation's mandate for tougher sentencing, they know that many of the juveniles they are sending to jail are not criminals by choice but the product of abuse, poverty and inattention.

Often, they are children of impoverished, overwhelmed mothers and absentee fathers. Or they are raised by emotionally crippled, chemically dependent parents, by overmatched grandparents, uninterested aunts, uncles or cousins, or by brothers and sisters themselves barely removed from adolescence.

Left With Lockups

They are orphans and foster children, high school dropouts, academic underachievers for whom school holds little hope or relevance. Their childhood has been one long descent through the nation's porous safety nets to juvenile court, historically the last and most intense stop in a series of rehabilitative efforts.

In today's juvenile system, however, punishment has moved to center stage. While rehabilitation is still regarded as a goal, public programs designed to offer poor children counseling and other support services have been choked off by a lack of funding.

Consequently, judges increasingly find themselves exercising the only option left: lock them up where they can do no harm and hope that something good will come of it.

So it was to be today for Gregory, whose last name is omitted, as required by juvenile court rules, but whose life offers a case study of many of the circumstances that deliver children to lockup.

Gregory was scarred almost from the beginning. Just before his first birthday, his father, a mentally disturbed and physically disabled Vietnam veteran, killed his mother, starting the boy down a path that would eventually land him in Huggins' courtroom.

Streetwise Childhood

While his father went to prison, Gregory and his older sister were shuffled to relatives in Seattle, then to Memphis. But their father was paroled five years later, and they were returned to him in Seattle.

There, although poor and often unkempt, they attended school and appeared to be no different from other children of age 6 and 11 in the neighborhood. By night, however, they helped their father peddle marijuana up and down the city's back streets, usually falling asleep on a makeshift bed in the back of his van as he made the rounds.

"We would help him package it up," Gregory recalled. "At first, what we mostly did was get all the seeds out. Then he showed us how to weigh it on this scale he had so that you got just the right amount."

Gregory's father proved to be his own best customer, and as his drug and alcohol dependency grew, the family lost its home. For nearly four years, Gregory and his sister wandered with their father from homeless shelter to relative to acquaintance to motel to shelter.

When Gregory was 9, he and his sister were taken from their father and placed in separate foster homes. They would never live together again. Over the next four years, Gregory would rotate between foster homes and life with an alcoholic aunt who would tend to him for a few months, then be overwhelmed by the chore.

Gang as Family

And with each foster home there were new rules, new expectations, new people. Gregory became withdrawn, suppressing his real feelings in order to get along, and learning to tell adults what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to know.

At 13, he wandered into a neighborhood gang, which became his real family, protecting, consoling and advising him. Its members taught him to fend for himself, to shoplift, to steal cars, to get guns.

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