Searching for Brittany

There's no resting place for a 12-year-old runaway

Every kid should have an uncle like Kevin Markey. He's a little low on the cool scale. With his wide Irish face, blue eyes shaded with Ray-Bans, and long-sleeve, striped, Oxford dress shirt tucked into fitted jeans, the 44-year-old real estate investor looks like a no-nonsense cop on his day off. But he has a soft spot... for his niece Brittany.

She snarls at the mention of his name. The 12-year-old squirms restlessly at her grandmother's French provincial dining room table in a fifth-story Pompano Beach condo. Brittany checks herself out, from several angles, in a wall of mirror tiles where shiny Greek replica statuary glows like white hard candy. She says she's bored. She misses her friends. She wants out of her grandmother's place where she has been imprisoned for a week, unable even to make a telephone call without clearing it first.

Her Uncle Kevin is responsible, she says.

Brittany's dark-brown hair is pulled from her small, round, milky-white face. Her large, limpid, brown doe eyes are expertly made up -- a thin line of black eyeliner drawn just above her lashes, on top of a thicker line of white liner. She takes a drag on a cigarette. She takes another drag. She's been smoking cigarette after cigarette since her grandmother left to make a quick trip to the bank. She flicks the flint of a blue plastic lighter, staring at the flame. She flicks it again, and again, and again, and again.

"I hate him," she spits out, finally. "He should just leave me alone."

For the past four months, Markey has dogged Brittany's every move. She runs. He finds her. She runs again. Markey has forcibly hauled Brittany off the streets at least 12 times, he says. "More like a thousand times!" she snaps. Once, after Markey got her to the front lobby of a runaway shelter with the help of four sheriff's deputies, she walked out the back door. "I was like, 'Peace,'" she boasts, "and I was gone."

It's beginning to seem more and more like a pointless exercise for Markey, but he persists.

Brittany is a chronic runaway. She's the kind of kid that the $3.6 billion Department of Children and Families (DCF) keeps losing. No matter how much money is thrown at the problem -- and the department is now asking for an additional $473 million from the state legislature to help children in its care -- authorities are powerless to intervene. Running is not a crime in Florida, officials say. Locking up the chronic runaway is an absolute last resort. Brittany has been involuntarily hospitalized several times for evaluation, but those stays are brief.

"The law in this state is very strong on children's rights, and they do not provide an avenue for you to simply lock children up," says Mary Allegretti, DCF deputy district administrator for Broward County.

Brittany's court-appointed attorney, Larry Smith, is inclined to agree with Allegretti. "I often find myself at odds with families," he says. "My feeling with Brittany is she hasn't broken any laws and hasn't committed any crimes, so locking her up should be last resort, not first resort."

But that sort of approach is deeply worrisome to Brittany's family. Some day, Markey won't be able to find her, they think. What about Melissa Karp, a 17-year-old who also ran repeatedly from state care and who was found murdered in August 2002, her body tossed in a canal in the Everglades?

It's time for aggressive intervention, says Brittany's grandmother, Ann Corsa. Brittany needs residential treatment, she contends, even if it means locking her up. "We're not professionals," she says. "That's what this kid needs."

Each time Brittany runs, Markey says, she becomes more and more embroiled in the life on the street. Each time, she becomes harder for the family to reach.

The truth about Brittany's life on the streets is almost as elusive as she is. When Fort Lauderdale police picked her up, she told them she had been raped. Now she says the alleged perpetrator is one of her closest friends. "He's too fine to have to rape anyone for sex," she says. She told the family at one point that a friend of hers was gang-raped. Brittany now says the girl wanted to have sex with a bunch of guys. Brittany bragged to her grandmother that she and her 18-year-old boyfriend, Marcus, pulled up to a house with a moving van and completely cleaned out its contents in order to furnish an apartment.

"It's street madness," Markey says. "She's going to get killed on the street."

Tracking Brittany has been a long, frustrating odyssey for Markey. The girl's mother, Lorraine (Markey's sister-in-law), named him as her daughter's godfather. He has turned the assignment into a mission. "To me," he says, "that's just like being her father, especially now."

Markey first learned Brittany needed help on October 13, 2002, the day her father tossed her things into a bag, threw her bed into the street, and drove her to Oakland Park to a safe haven for teens. Anthony Balsamico allegedly told his daughter to get out of his car, saying she was no longer welcome in his home.

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