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Archive for Sunday, September 13, 1998

TEEN-AGER SEEKING SOLID ROOTS AFTER LEARNING LESSONS ON RUN

September 13, 1998

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A 17-year-old runaway hopes to provide a different life for her daughter.

Katie Cheek speaks of her life -- of getting pregnant at age 14, running away at 15, cashing stolen checks and living in motels with her boyfriend about the time other girls her age were just beginning to date -- in a fast, matter-of-fact clip.

She rattles off the turning points of her 17 years as if she were checking off items on a grocery list.

Katie has told the story of her life many times -- to social workers, to therapists, to police.

The petite teen-age mother knows the system so well she expects others to be familiar with the lingo. ``Dirty U.A.'' The words refer to the time her urine analysis came back positive for cocaine. She says she still isn't sure what she snorted. All she remembers is that someone offered her some drugs, so she took them.

It was her positive drug screening that ended her running and landed her in the Lawrence home of Greydon and Nancy Walker, foster parents to Katie. She shares the household with another 17-year-old in the state's custody, a boy who has run away as far as Mexico. Nancy Walker says she can sense when the young man is going to flee. For a while, she tried to stop him. But she now realizes he must deal with the consequences of his decisions.

Katie and the boy compare stories, each saying his or her story is better than the other's.

Katie thinks the point is moot: Girls are so much better at running away than boys are anyway, she says.

Katie and the other 17-year-old under the Walkers' roof are among the 264 children identified as runaways so far this year in Douglas County -- children who run from abuse and neglect, children who run because they don't like their parents' rules, children who run because they believe it's their only choice. In Douglas County, the number of these children is up 95 percent this year from 1994, according to the 7th Judicial District Community Planning Team, one of several groups across the state trying to identify the risk factors for juvenile crime and hoping to come up with solutions to curb it.

Katie says she first ran from a home for unwed mothers because she didn't want the baby growing inside her to come into the world in an unfamiliar place. Lawrence-based Hannah's House wasn't home to her, and she didn't like living with a group of strangers. A social worker had sent the chronic truant to the house because she believed Katie's mother couldn't control her.

Katie's father is in prison in Leavenworth. A federal grand jury indicted him earlier this year for robbing a branch of the Douglas County Bank in February. He had been in prison before that, Katie says. And when the phone rang Tuesday afternoon at the Walker house, it was Katie's mother, calling from the Douglas County Jail, where authorities had taken her for violating the terms of her probation, Katie said.

Bouncing her 16-month-old daughter, Mercadie, on her lap, calling her ``Boo-Boo Bear,'' Katie says her daughter will be raised differently. Changing diapers, calming a crying baby is not new to Katie: She grew up caring for her seven younger siblings because her parents often weren't able to, she says.

Katie stumbles when asked to choose five terms to describe herself. After a few minutes, she comes up with two: ``strong'' and ``street-smart.''

Those two words might say as much about the girl as any case file ever could.

On the run for months

Three months pregnant at age 15, Katie figured running away was the only way she could have her baby her way.

Months passed before she and Mercadie joined the Walker home. They share a cozy room in the basement. Katie's bed is neatly made just a few feet from Mercadie's crib. A Papa-san chair invites relaxation in the corner.

While on the run, Katie bounced around from friends' homes to her mom's house to her aunt's house, from Lawrence to Ottawa. She lived in hotels with her boyfriend, the father of her child, and says he was with her the entire time.

One of Katie's favorite stories about running away is the time she narrowly escaped the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services after getting into trouble for missing an hour of school while living with an aunt.

The state wanted to send her to a home for unwed mothers in Topeka. An SRS driver was on the way to pick up Katie at school when she ran away.

She smiles when she tells the story.

Katie says she escaped in the car of a friend whom she called to pick her up and ran circles around the SRS worker, who was ``stuck on stupid.''

Later, after getting caught while trying to get a copy of her birth certificate in Topeka, Katie was sent by the state to a Kaw Valley Center group home in the Kansas City area.

She took one look around and decided it wasn't for her.

``For every last kid they deal with,'' she says of Kaw Valley, ``it's sorry for them all. The kids get screwed out of everything.''

She ran away a few days later.

In July 1997, Katie -- still 15 and her daughter then about 2 months old -- graduated to juvenile offender status by cashing stolen checks pilfered from an elderly woman whose lawn she mowed. Katie says she stole the checks because she needed the money to take care of her brothers and sisters, most of whom live with relatives. One of her siblings is in a foster home in Edwardsville.

After stealing the checks, Katie was sent to live with her boyfriend's mother. When the family had to move out of the house where they were staying, she and her boyfriend got their own place.

All was well until the ``dirty U.A.''

She's been at the Walker house ever since.

The teen-age mother shows little emotion telling her story. She tells it straight, and her voice never falters. She says she's never been one to cry, but when tears do form in her hazel eyes, it's because she's angry, not sad.

``All my hurt is just anger,'' she says. ``It's not I'm sad. I'm mad at myself because of everything I did.

``I knew right from wrong, but right to me was what my parents did. It was like everything my parents did I followed right behind, except I haven't robbed a bank.''

Hoping to help others

Katie has been living with Greydon and Nancy Walker for nearly a year.

She recently went before a citizens review board, a committee set up by Douglas County District Court Judge Jean Shepherd that hears cases, to report on her progress. Katie says if everything goes well, she will be out of the custody of the Juvenile Justice Authority in about nine months.

Being on her own and out from under the state's microscope is her dream.

``I'd be out today if they let me,'' she says. She likes the Walker family, but she'd rather be on her own. ``It's not my family. It's not my life.''

When she gets out of state custody, Katie says, ``I'm not going to call or talk to anybody for a month. I'm tired of everybody. I want them to leave me alone.''

Though still a teen-ager, Katie says she's no child: ``I've never had a childhood, and now it's too late to have one.''

She says she will ensure Mercadie has a childhood.

``She's going to have everything,'' Katie says. ``She's going to be raised differently.''

Katie, who says she loves her parents and talks to her mother nearly every day, attends Lawrence's Alternative High School and works at a printing shop. She's already accomplished one of her goals: She doesn't want to be a welfare mom.

Katie plans to get her high school diploma and attend law school at Washburn University.

She hopes to be a lawyer, she says, ``So I can do what's right for people like me.''

At 17, Katie has decades before her. Fail, and she could follow the rest of her parents' journey. Succeed, and she could teach Mercadie right from wrong.

-- Deb Gruver's phone message number is 832-7165. Her e-mail address is dgruver@ljworld.com.

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