By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Allie says she fronted the cash for the motel room, and an older teen rented it. Later, she and her friends will sneak in.
Pierre asks her if she wants some juice. She replies proudly that she doesn't need it, but she'll take some since he's offering.
He waits while she sips thirstily from the carton and then tries a new tack.
"How you going to eat out here?"
That day, she boasts, she ate Italian and Chinese. A woman she panhandled took her and a friend to lunch.
"Honestly," she says, "it's not that hard. I eat better out here than I do at home."
A police cruiser slowly loops through the station. "Uh-oh," she says. She explains that she's not sure what will happen if the cops stop her. She claims that the state Department of Children and Families has given up on her. She's not listed on the department's website of missing children. "They don't care," she says.
So why is she concerned about the cops? "I don't want to deal with the police tonight," she says. "It takes my energy. And I don't like to put any energy into anything, basically. If he stops, I'll have to run. I just don't feel like doing that."
For more than a year now, since the state admitted in April that Rilya Wilson had disappeared from her Miami home, public attention has focused on the incompetence of the state's child welfare system. In August, Gov. Jeb Bush formed a task force to locate 393 children missing from state supervised care. That same month, it took the Sun-Sentinel only a couple of weeks to find 24 children the Department of Children & Families had been unable to locate for as long as eight years.
Of the children DCF couldn't find, 339 were runaways and 77 percent were girls. Many of those kids, the December 17, 2002, task force report stated, were in hiding. They had called caseworkers or caregivers, often to assure the adults they were OK. Many vowed to remain on the run until they turned 18 and to flee at the first opportunity if taken to a shelter or placed in foster care.
In its comments to the task force, the Miami District of DCF, which includes Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, said runaways characterized care at shelters and foster homes as grossly inadequate. "Complaints include poor food, sleep deprivation, lack of educational opportunities, and abusive mental and physical treatment," the district reported.
Many children who run from state care find refuge with parents, relatives, and friends, but those situations are usually temporary. Often, they slip into the underworld of the street. Like stray dogs, they form packs. They panhandle or commit petty crimes and share the take. They rent rooms at flophouses or glom onto adults who offer food or drugs. It's a dangerous world. The same month Bush created the task force, the body of 17-year-old Marissa Karp was found in a canal in the Everglades. Like Allie, Marissa -- whose family lives in Lauderhill and Parkland -- had run repeatedly from state care.
The Fort Lauderdale bus terminal, located on Broward Boulevard just north of downtown, is the local epicenter of this underworld. It's a disturbing mecca of traumatized children who desperately want to believe that, with one another, they have found the trust, reliability, and care missing from their other lives. There's not just Allie, whose father killed her mother, but a pregnant 13-year-old, a boy sexually exploited by his stepmother, a girl sexually abused by her father, a teenaged boy led into the drug trade by an uncle. And the tragic truth is that on the street, they often reenact with one another the exploitation and brutality they left.
From the street, the central terminal seems as happy as the red-and-yellow McDonald's located across the street. A public art project gives a weirdly whimsical air to the 1986 building. A wall of marine-blue tile is dotted with red portals and backed by gray-and-white checked concrete. A red railing decorates the building's top, as though it has an observation deck. Vaulting concrete buttresses slice through the roof, which is open to the impossibly blue South Florida sky. Inside, it is purely functional. The sound of buses groaning and belching, amplified to industrial-level rumbling, reverberates off the concrete walls. The dank air has a metallic odor. Buses pull in, doors fold open, and passengers tumble out and fan through the station, boarding other buses or hurrying off.
Yet for the teens whose numbers range from 30 to 50 a day, the bus station is a destination. They are here in the morning and late at night. They are as much a part of the furniture as the bus benches, the trash cans, and the pigeons. They sprawl over the benches, run to the convenience store for snacks, trade stories, trade information, hook up, join small packs.
They hang out in an empty lot across the street where a homeless tent city was once located. They gather on the sidewalk and on a row of benches inside the terminal. They feel such ownership of this spot that they call it "the hood."