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
By Frank Owen
William Boatwright argued with his wife, Wendy, late into the night on November 13, 1988. Around 4 a.m., William put a gun to Wendy's head and pulled the trigger. Half an hour later, he called for help. Police found the 28-year-old woman lying in a blood-soaked bed, dead from a single gunshot wound.
The Boatwrights' seven-month-old baby girl was in the couple's Tampa trailer at the time, theSaint Petersburg Times reported the next day. She was taken into state custody and then placed with relatives. Though William Boatwright told police he thought the gun was empty, he was convicted on July 7, 1989, of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
On January 3, 2003, at about 7 p.m., a 14-year-old girl dressed in a man's baggy shirt and jeans leans against a pillar at the county bus terminal in downtown Fort Lauderdale.Pale-green eyes cast down, she is talking with Perold Pierre, an intense, muscular Haitian man in his mid-30s. It's a tug of wills. He is an outreach worker from the Covenant House runaway shelter. She is a runaway.
He wants her to leave the street and come with him.
She looks up and fixes him in her gaze. "It's like prison," she says. "When you're 14, they won't let you leave."
She looks back down at the ground. "I can't handle it," she says matter-of-factly.
Wendy and William Boatwright's baby girl is almost grown now. Allie was raised by her grandmother after the murder, the 14-year-old says. Twelve years later, after serving less than half his sentence, Allie's father was released from prison. The girl's grandmother immediately returned her to William Boatwright's care. She wasn't happy about that. This past March, she explains, the state removed her from Boatwright's Lake Worth home. She didn't like that either. She has been running from shelters ever since. Allie, who asked that her real name not be used, says she hates her dad and doesn't get along well with her stepmother. She gives a shorthand version of their differences, delivered staccato:
"I like black people. "They don't. "I like rap music. "They don't. "I like posters on the wall. "They don't. "I like Fort Lauderdale. "They don't."
She pauses and shrugs, "What else is there to say?"
Of course, race, geography, music, and interior design are only surface eruptions. The conflict roils deeply.
Baby fat still softens Allie's face. But at around five feet, eight inches tall, she can pass for at least 18 if you don't look too closely. She's pretty, but not in a bright-eyed, cheerleader way. She wears her femininity off-handedly, as though she would disdain anyone who warmed to her because of her looks. And she certainly wouldn't rearrange herself to seek confirmation. "I'm kind of a tomboy," she says. Tonight she's wearing a white football jersey, tight capri-length jeans, and an oversized navy-blue, patterned, long-sleeved man's shirt hanging almost to her knees. The top half of her medium-length, straight brown hair is pulled back into a scrawny ponytail.
Her intelligence -- combined with a low tolerance for B.S., a distrust of authority, and cynicism -- is unsettling in someone so young. Her eyes pierce. As she listens to Pierre, you can see her mind separating information, considering it before she gives it to her emotions for a reaction.
Allie was smart enough to skip ninth grade, despite missing a portion of her eighth-grade year. That's one of the reasons it doesn't matter whether she is in class today, she says. If she stays on the street for a year, she'll still be where most other 15-year-olds are academically when she returns. "Big deal," she shrugs. "I'll still be in tenth grade."
Five months ago, an aunt invited Allie to live in her Tampa home. Allie was staying on the streets of Fort Lauderdale at the time after running from a Broward County shelter. Bus ticket to Tampa in hand, she conferred with her friend Jermaine at the downtown bus terminal. He had run away from home, and from state care, four years before, at age 14. "It's hard," he says of living on the streets. "It's crazy, and it's hard. You never know where you're going to sleep at night... You can't wash your clothes. Some of the kids out here don't even have the money to use a pay phone."
Jermaine urged Allie to take her aunt's offer. But the arrangement didn't work out. "Because she's so uptight and neurotic," Allie says, anger flashing through her indifferent veneer.
She had to break into her aunt's house because she was locked outside on a cold night in her pajamas, Allie says. She broke the front door. "That's the only way I could get inside." She returned to Fort Lauderdale on December 17 and hooked up with Jermaine and some friends at the central bus terminal, where Pierre found her.
On this January night, the temperature is supposed to go down into the 50s. Allie is nursing a sore throat and shivering slightly.
"Girl, it's going to be cold tonight," Pierre implores, "and you don't even have a coat."
She hugs herself and looks down. "I have one," she says. "It's at the motel."
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."
"This is where everybody comes to get away from our parents arguing," says a boisterous teen named Mark. "If you get disgusted with stuff, you just chill here and hang out until the police make you leave."
"It's like a spot you can come to and just get free," adds another teen who says his nickname is "Ghost," because if you see him once, you won't see him again. When he turned 16, he says, he was expelled from high school for hitting an assistant administrator. "Ninety percent of these kids you see here were kicked out of school, and they don't have nothing else to do, so they just hang out."
In the early afternoon of January 3, four black teens stand around a large, black, plastic trash can in the downtown bus station. On the can's flat cover, they are playing a card game called Tonk. They slap down cards with great flourish. Crystal, a tiny white 13-year-old with long brown hair, stands beside her boyfriend, Dave, watching the action with intense scrutiny. She is pregnant and starting to show. The pair are regulars at the central terminal.
The group doesn't notice the short, 40-something woman in white tights and a sweatshirt who gets off a bus that pulls into the station next to them. She has on a Rapunzel-length blond wig that falls over her shoulders down almost to her knees. Nor do they pause for the drunk who has wrapped his head in a garland of shiny plastic snowflakes like a white crown of thorns. Nor do they acknowledge the man on the other side of a concrete barrier who is waltzing with his head tilted up to the sky and a big smile on his face.
The four teens also ignore John, a coal-black teen whose hair is wound into "twisties" all over his head. While they play, John careens toward the game, delivering pieces of narration and veering away. "He was just spraying us, just spraying us," he says, holding his arms out as if he were firing a machine gun. He moves away and returns. "So I took him down. I mean down, dog. He was on the ground."
The disinterest doesn't stop John. His eyes are wild as he reenacts the scene. "He run up against a wall, and I reached down and got a brick and wham," he says, slinging an imaginary brick across the bus station. "Wham. Caught him right in the head." The boys continue to ignore him.
One of the card players spots a Broward County Sheriff's deputy who has pulled a cruiser into the concourse and is sitting on the trunk. "That bitch is here," he says. "You know if he's here, he's coming through." They scatter briefly and then return, like pigeons who fly only to the rafters of the building and wait for the disturbance to subside.
Crystal leans against a bus station railing and stares out at the concourse. "You need to leave," one of the card players says. Dave circles his arm around her, and they all cross Broward Boulevard in a pack. "To the library," Crystal says later when asked where they went. They are less likely to be hassled there, she says, so they stayed an hour or so before returning to the station.
Around 5 p.m., Tara and Sha-Q-uawn sit on the stairs near the main bus station's ticket window, which faces Brickell Avenue. They are wrapped around each other, a white girl and a black boy, talking. She is leaning back into the crook of his legs. Her hair is coiled into tight braids that tug at her scalp. Tara is eager, with average looks, kind of on the chubby side. She says she's 18, but she still has the puffy look of a freshly hatched bird. Her friend Sha-Q-uawn is beautiful at 21, with honey-gold skin, green eyes, and kinky blond hair that he has braided and topped with a cap of black netting.
Like Crystal, Tara is already a couple of months along in an unplanned pregnancy. Tara's mother kicked her out of the house two weeks ago, and the girl had to make a choice. "It was either a knitting needle or the Covenant House," she says. She wants to have the baby. The staff at the shelter on Fort Lauderdale Beach will refer her to a place for pregnant girls.
That morning, she received a bus pass from the nonprofit organization so she could go job hunting. It seems, though, that boys are uppermost in her mind. In the early morning, she applied at a couple of places. That left the rest of the day for hanging out. She has been at the bus station for about six hours. The way she relaxes into Sha-Q-uawn's arms, it seems as if they have been together for a long time. But they met only recently, he says.
Asked about his situation, Sha-Q-uawn spins quite a tale. He says that he's from Jamaica and that he was stranded here in the United States last year when a rap tour he had joined fell apart. When he starts talking, he has a Caribbean accent, but it becomes more Southern African-American as he speaks. He says he's 21 years of age and that he has already graduated from college with a degree in graphic arts -- although such speedy matriculation seems unlikely. He says he can't find a job in the creative field. He thinks it's because of his dreads and boho looks. "No one wants to hire someone who looks like me," he says.
Both talk about their situation as though they have crossed into a world outside the social order. At the bus station, they find people who respect them for who they are, people who are willing to help out someone in need.
"The only people who will help you out is someone else who's down and out," he says.
"That's right," Tara agrees. "Everyone else wants something from you."
For an afternoon, at least, Tara basks in a world conjured up by Sha-Q-uawn where men keep their word, friends help out friends, and daddies take care of their babies.
Tara says her father walked out on her when she was a year old. Her baby-to-be's father walked out on her too. "I guess I'm getting kind of used to it," she says.
She brightens and looks up at Sha-Q-uawn. "And then I met him."
A few nights later, Sha-Q-uawn is at the bus station again. This time, the rapper is showing a spiral notebook of his poetry to a leggy brunette in a miniskirt. He says he hasn't seen Tara again.
Brittany, a slight 15-year-old with long brown hair and innocent kewpie-doll eyes, arrives at the station on another night with her arms draped around 20-year-old Aundrea. "We grew up together," she says sweetly.
Both girls have lived on the street. Brittany ran after she reported to police that her father sexually abused her. She says she is currently staying in a shelter. Aundrea had a child and is back home living with her mother. When Brittany sees a boy she once knew, she is atwitter. He says that he's staying with a friend for now but that he may leave soon. "If you're on the street, let me know," Brittany says enthusiastically. "I'm coming with you."
At 7 p.m. on a recent Saturday, 26-year-old Marcus sits on a bus bench in the Central Terminal smoking. The station is a scene that he knows well. When he was 17 or 18 years old, Marcus says, he and his pals would come here to pick up girls. Runaways staying at the Covenant House, he claims, were some of the easiest to lure for sex. "Show them some weed and say you got a place to stay and they come with you," he says. They'd use the girls for a week or two and then dump them.
"They go from motel to motel, from guy to guy," he says. "You wonder what's going on in the minds of some of these girls."
As he talks, there is a commotion behind him coming from a group of kids standing on the sidewalk near a pathetically stunted live oak. A white girl and a black girl are swinging at each other. Other teens surround the pair and try to separate them, nervously watching for the cops. The black girl shouts at the white girl. "Everyone knows you fucked everyone at the Cov," she says. Both girls have been expelled from Covenant House in the past couple of months.
Three police officers descend, and everyone scatters. A few minutes later, the white girl and her black boyfriend settle onto a bench near Marcus. And then the commotion starts up again. This time, the black girl lands a punch. The white girl's boyfriend comes up from behind and slams her to the ground. The black girl lies on the sidewalk and covers her head with her arms as the white girl violently kicks her in the back. A police officer walks toward them shaking a container of pepper spray, but the teens separate before he uses it. Police officers talk to the teens separately. The white girl says the black girl threw a soda on her boyfriend. "She's homeless," she spits out as though being without shelter automatically puts her foe in the wrong. The white girl says that she and her boyfriend allowed the black girl to stay in their new apartment. When the friendship soured, the couple kicked out their guest. She's now living on the street.
Perold Pierre and his partner from Covenant House, Leroy Kerr, circle Broward County looking for street kids. They regularly visit Young Circle in Hollywood and a housing project in Carver Ranches, but the central terminal is their prime hunting ground. In the back of a white Ford van, they haul a cooler stuffed with sandwiches and cartons of juice. If the offer of a spot at the "Cov" doesn't interest teens, at least the food momentarily engages them. On the Friday night Pierre ran into Allie, 20 kids ages 14 to 23 clustered at or near the bus station. Virtually all of them except for Allie deny they are homeless. But many are clearly lying or have only temporary crash rights at a friend's place. Pierre gives each a business card with a toll-free number for Covenant House.
Covenant House is a national organization founded by Franciscan priest Bruce Ritter in New York City in 1972 to provide services to runaways and homeless youths. Ritter resigned from both the Franciscan Order and his shelter in the early 1990s after four youths accused him of sexual exploitation. He died in 2000. Despite that history, the Catholic Church-run program continued to grow. There are now Covenant House shelters in 11 states and five countries.
The Fort Lauderdale shelter, which is funded mostly through donations, opened in 1985 and provides beds to an average of 93 youths per night. Although kids can stay for months with access to health care and counselors, the average stay last year was just under three weeks. The program is voluntary. Some kids walk out. Others are asked to leave. If a youth leaves the program, there is a waiting period before he or she can return.
The shelter's tenuous hold on its clients was obvious during a recent meeting of seven members of a drug abuse program. The kids sat with pained expressions at a long conference table in a fluorescent-lighted room. Most didn't want to talk about what brought them there. "J.T.," though, was eager to talk. At 20, he has a rap sheet 25 pages long.
He shakes his head as he begins his story. The one thing he can't believe, he says, is that he turned out just like his daddy. When he was 5 years old, J.T. remembers his father drinking himself into a rage, then beating his mom and throwing a dinner plate that shattered after hitting her head. After the battles were over, he recalls, his mother would tell him everything was OK. "But I saw my dear old girl crying," he says, "and I knew things weren't good."
Although there were drug thugs and bullies in his Carol City neighborhood, J.T. says he was generally a good kid. After his father left the family, things were peaceful. Until high school, he says, he made good grades, played football, and pondered college. When his mother remarried, though, conflicts started again. His stepfather had strict rules, and J.T. bucked. When the family bought a house in Sunrise, J.T. said he didn't want to leave his football team and his friends. For awhile, he stayed with friends.
One day, J.T. ran into an uncle, a big-time drug dealer, who invited him to enter the trade. Because he was 16 and a juvenile, he was immune from the law, the uncle said. "I thought at first I would make $2,000 a week and still finish high school," he recalls. "That's a lot of money for a young person." He got a nice car, beautiful girls. "I was like, forget school," he says. With his uncle as his guide, he sold drugs out of an Opa-locka warehouse. His first drug arrest was in January 2000, the same month he turned 18, for felony possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana.
In March of that year, he was charged with selling the drug. In April, prosecutors accused him of felony possession of cocaine and marijuana. In May, he was slapped with marijuana sales, in October with cocaine sales. On his uncle's advice, he plea-bargained and received community service. The heat shut down his trade, but he wasn't ready to give up the lifestyle. Carjackings and armed robberies followed. At first, J.T. says, he robbed other dealers. Then he just robbed. He spent a year in Miami-Dade County Jail and decided to try to change his life. He was released last year.
At 20 years of age, he took up residence at Covenant House several months ago. He knows it won't be easy finding work and rejoining law-abiding society. "They see somebody like me with a mouthful of gold teeth," he says, "and they say, 'Oh, no.'" Despite his pessimism, in the week after New Year's, he received three callbacks about jobs for which he had applied. He also tested dirty for alcohol. "My life was just caught up in the thug life," he says. "I want to go legit, but sometimes I just don't see how I'm going to do it. I got real down around New Year's."
Billy's at the same gathering as J.T. With prompting, he also talks openly. Last year, the 17-year-old's mom sent him from her home in Canada to live with his father and stepmother in Fort Lauderdale. She thought the boy was headed for trouble. Everything was OK for a while, he says. He liked his dad, even though he was bothered by his father's womanizing.
Then his stepmother came on to him, he says. He had sex with her. "I was just doing what I seen him do," he explains. At some point, he claims, he rejected his stepmother's advances, and she threatened to tell Billy's father that he was smoking pot in the home. During an argument, Billy's father grabbed him. Words were exchanged.
"'Yeah, well that's why I fucked your bitch!'" Billy remembers shouting. His father grabbed some of his stuff, threw it in a bag, and kicked his son out of the house, saying he never wanted to see him again.
"Don't come to my grave," Billy says he responded. As he tells the story, Billy lifts the neck of his sweatshirt up over his face so that only his eyes show. He says his stepmother still tries to reach him. He hopes to finish the Covenant House treatment program and return to his mother's house in Canada. "I still miss my pops, though," he says.
Back at the central terminal, the Covenant House's Perold Pierre believes Allie is in a dangerous situation on the street. He signals her, and she leaves a group of kids draped over a bench to talk privately with him. He hopes it's the beginning of trust. "My heart goes out to that girl," he says. "I feel so bad for her. And if something happens to her, who is going to be responsible?"
He asks Allie why she doesn't stay at a shelter and get her life back on track. He tells her the Covenant House has counselors.
But she is enamored of the excitement of street life. "I can tell if someone does crack," she says. "I can tell if someone is a drug dealer just by looking at them. The police can't even do that. You learn a lot out here. You learn to be independent, for one thing."
Allie says she isn't looking to hook up with a guy. "A lot of the girls here are dirty," she says. "They have sex with everybody."
She believes she'll return home, finish high school, go to college, and study forensic science or become a police officer, "strange as that may seem." That way, she would be able to nail men like her father who murder their wives. In March, DCF removed her from her father's house, she says, after discovering she had bruises on her neck. Reached by telephone, William Boatwright declined to comment on his daughter's situation or why she is in state care. "Frankly, I don't trust the lady," he said of Allie's caseworker.
Every time Allie runs from a shelter, she returns to her father's Lake Worth home. Like the child she is, she believes that if she takes off enough, DCF will give up on her and let her go home. Lately, she's been showing up at her father's house around 2 a.m., she says. At that hour, her father lets her inside. He gives her something to eat and lets her sleep, but then he forces her to leave.
She says she hates her father, although the relationship is clearly more complex that that. Asked about it, she says tersely, "He's not a nice man."
It's not family love that she longs for, she claims. It's the bed at her dad's place. "I can go to sleep there whenever I want to. I can sleep all day and all night. And that's pretty much what I like to do."