Searching for Brittany

Her uncle's soft spot
Colby Katz

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.

It had been a stormy relationship for the past year. Brittany claims her father seriously mistreated her. Balsamico declined to answer questions.

After Lorraine Dillon left her husband 12 years ago, there was little contact between father and daughter. That changed following an accident on Interstate 95 on April 5, 2000. Dillon died after she was thrown from a pickup truck in which she and Brittany's older sister, Ashlee, were passengers.

For more than a year after the accident, Ashlee and Brittany lived with their Aunt Deborah in Pensacola. It was an informal arrangement, but Deborah promised to raise the girls as if they were her own daughters. The sisters thrived there, Corsa says. Both sisters balked at Deborah's strict ways, but it seemed to be working. Brittany made A's and B's in school.

Then, in September 2001, Balsamico called and said he wanted to raise the girls. Corsa opposed the idea. Fatherhood had never interested Balsamico before, she says. But the family felt it didn't have a choice. A year later, Brittany was abandoned by her father.

Enter Markey. He raced to Oakland Park to find her. By the time he reached the teen center, Brittany had already left. One of the regulars there, Markey says, told him to look for Brittany at the downtown county bus terminal, a de facto community center for the area's runaways. Markey asked the teens there about his niece. "And a girl named Faith took me right to her," Markey says.

Brittany had her arms wrapped around a boy named Anthony -- her boyfriend, she said. The couple was with a group of kids hanging out in a park along the city's Riverwalk. Brittany told her uncle that she could take care of herself. Outnumbered by the teens, Markey retreated to call his wife and confer. "I was naive at the time," he says. "I came back, and they had taken off."

For the next two days, Markey tracked Brittany, offering money for information. "I was always two steps behind her," he says, "and then I was one step behind her. I kept getting closer." Finally, a teenager told Markey he had spotted Brittany in front of the main library in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

Markey offered to let Brittany stay with his family. During the next four days, Brittany went boating with Markey. She went out to dinner with his family. She seemed to be settling in. That Saturday, Brittany asked if she could go to the skating rink; some of her friends were going to be there. Since she was doing so well, Markey agreed but asked his son Ryan to accompany her to the rink and keep an eye on her. When Ryan used the restroom, Brittany and two of her pals escaped.

The next time, when Markey found Brittany, he took her to the DCF. As soon as she was checked in, Brittany walked right back out onto the street. That has happened numerous times.

When Brittany ran again on February 12, Markey gave her a choice. He would either seek to have the Baker Act invoked to commit her to a hospital as a danger to herself, or Brittany could stay with her grandmother. Brittany and her grandmother Corsa decided to give it a try.

Everybody was on tenterhooks. On the first day in the Pompano condo, Brittany looked through a drawer where her grandmother used to keep toys. She took out a favorite doll. She colored at the dining room table. She asked to see her mother's ashes. Brittany opened the jar, put her finger in, touched the ashes, and then kissed her finger. "It's you and me now, Grandma," she told Corsa. "We have to take care of each other now."

Corsa says she bought Brittany the cigarettes. "You can't expect her to change overnight," she says. As long as Brittany stayed put, Corsa was willing to overlook a little.

But it was still touch-and-go. When Corsa left to run an errand February 19, Brittany said she wanted to split. "I don't need to be in a home," she said. "I don't need anything. I just want to be left on the street."

By the time her grandmother returned, Brittany was stoked up and ready to go. She told her grandmother that working out at the gym together, playing cards, and going out to dinner bored her. She said she wanted to be on the street with her friends.  

"What would your mother say?" Corsa asked. Brittany looked skyward. "Sorry, Mom, but you're gone."

The street wasn't so bad, she argued. She ate better with her street friends than she did at her grandmother's home.

Corsa had had enough. "Oh yeah!" she shouted. "No wonder you want to be on the street! It's such a wonderful life. I'm not going to keep you here, Brittany. You want to leave, fine."

But Corsa notified DCF, which sent a crisis intervention team, and Brittany settled down.

Last Friday, Brittany split once again. On Monday, Markey found her down at the bus station. As he walked up, Brittany was telling friends about spending the weekend with a 23-year-old telemarketer named Richard.

Markey bundled her into his car and headed to Memorial Hospital, where she was placed under observation. In the psychiatric room, a staff member asked Brittany why she kept running. "What is it you want us to do for you, Brittany?" the woman asked. "What do you need?"

Brittany stuck her thumb in her mouth.

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