A Generation Lost

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, the Saint 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.

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman