“Ah, it ain’t so bad, Judge, ‘cept for the shriveled up old men”. Sparrow justified to me while she sat in my court for the third time. She had been adjudicated a Child in Need of Supervision for being a runaway and ungovernable kid. Over the last year, I had placed her in two group homes and a shelter facility near the French Quarter, one run by a man whom I trusted with these damaged kids. She ran from all three placements.
What fifteen-year-old Sparrow explained to me was that turning tricks in the French Quarter “Ain’t so bad ‘cept for the shriveled up old men”. For this frail, pale, blond-haired, blue-eyed child, the “family” she found in the Quarter treated her better than the one from which she had fled. In Sparrow’s mind, her pimp treated her better than her stepfather. Her stepfather had sexually abused her from the time she was nine. To avoid offending her abusive spouse, Sparrow’s passive, dependent mother chose to ignore what was happening to her helpless daughter. I have known women who killed their spouses for less provocation, but Sparrow’s mother could only cringe as she continued a life under the influence of the subhuman who repeatedly raped her daughter.
I had seen Sparrow in the French Quarter two weeks earlier, when I tried to get her to return to the shelter on Rampart Street. She promised, “Yeah Judge, you know I will.” But years on the bench had finally allowed me to acknowledge the likelihood that this young girl would not leave the bricks until apprehended by the police again.
My fifteen-year-old daughter and I were returning from the Cafe Du Monde with a sixteen-year-old boy named Ronnie. This young man had fled his father’s home after having enough of his old man’s drunken beatings with the buckle end of a belt. “Well, what would you do if you were chained to the doghouse in the backyard, sir?”, Ronnie had described a level of abuse that was difficult for me to understand before I’d listened to other, similar stories.
His mother had long since abandoned Ronnie and the abusive father. He, like Sparrow and kids from all over this country who had been abused and thrown away, found refuge in the French Quarter. I had also found him to be a Child In Need of Supervision and confined him to a mental hospital in Uptown New Orleans run by the State of Louisiana, for evaluations so I could get a fuller understanding of his needs.
I had committed Ronnie to the hospital for evaluation after his social worker had testified in a review hearing that she found Ronnie living in the French Quarter with an eighteen-year-old girl. At the time of the court proceeding, I joked with all the hearing attendees, “Sounds like Ronnie has a good deal. Here we are all working late in a courtroom on a beautiful spring afternoon and Ronnie is being cared for by an eighteen-year-old girl. Who is in worse shape?”
On the Sunday I saw Sparrow in the Quarter, my daughter Paige and I picked Ronnie up at the hospital for an approved afternoon away from the mental health facility. We went to the Audubon Park Zoo, then down to the French Market for beignets. As part of my personal policy of sitting on the bench, I frequently made unannounced visits to institutions that housed kids who’d been committed to the State’s custody. I had learned early on in my career that an announced visit would only give me what the facility staff wanted me to see, without revealing the deficiencies of the operation. All too often, kids would jokingly say to me at their next court hearing, “Were you there on the day they gave us steak or the one where they served shrimp?”
No longer the naive jurist of my first year on the bench, I now wanted to see what was really going on with the kids I had committed to the care of the State of Louisiana.
While driving on Dauphine Street out of the Quarter, Ronnie shouted, “There is that little old Sparrow. Look, there she is out on the bricks turning tricks.”
Ronnie and Sparrow had met while attending their respective hearings in my court. I stopped the car and invited Sparrow to return to the shelter. After she refused my offer, Sparrow ended back up in my courtroom two weeks later. I recommitted her to State’s custody to be placed in a well-managed group home for girls. A couple of months later at a review hearing, State social workers advised me that Sparrow had run away from her last placement. We never saw her again. I’ve sometimes wondered what became of her, especially when I came upon kids who looked like her.
Some months after we saw Sparrow in the Quarter, the New Orleans policed returned Ronnie to my jurisdiction, where I conducted a trial to determine if he was a Juvenile Delinquent for having discharged a shotgun in a French Quarter barroom. The evidence clearly showed that Ronnie somehow got hold of a Remington 12 gauge, pump action shotgun, walked into a gay bar on Decatur street and started shooting. He obviously didn’t intent to shoot anyone. He took his anger out on the liquor cabinet, the chandelier, the artwork on the wall and the stained glass windows. He created extensive physical damage to the premises before the police arrested him. Witnesses testified that patrons and employees fled the bar onto Decatur Street squealing in panic. Ronnie declined to give me any explanation for his violent actions.
When I looked down at him, and said, “Ronnie, you’ve left me no options now,” the sullen youth just sat silently. I confined him to the Louisiana Juvenile Correctional facility with orders for further psychiatric evaluations. In subsequent reviews of Ronnie’s case, which I did every six months with all children I had committed to State custody, I found Ronnie had matured and seemed to be able to control his behavior. He eventually was released from State custody. Like all the kids I have seen, I wonder what has happened to Ronnie in his life.
A few weekends ago, my wife, Karen and I had occasion to visit the French Quarter again when I went to a training session at the beautifully restored Louisiana Supreme Court building on Royal Street. While wandering the Quarter photographing old buildings with lacy wrought iron balconies, local characters in costume, art hanging on the stately iron fences enclosing Jackson Square and street bands, we also saw young, grubby street waifs huddled in doorways cupping their hands around pungent smelling cigarettes. Seeing these young street urchins brought back memories of Sparrow and Ronnie and of all the abused, neglected and throwaway kids I have seen over the years and tried to help. Truth be told, some are so damaged they are beyond help.
When I hear the allegations in the Penn State scandal, I know, that if true, we will learn of many more victims. Some may flee to the falsely perceived safety of the French Quarter. One would have thought that by now the administrators and staff at Penn State should have made themselves aware of the the nature of the pedophile and reported these atrocities to law enforcement authorities much, much sooner.
Regrettably, this looks like a colossal cover up that has cost unmeasurable damage to incalculable numbers of victims–all for the purpose of preserving the reputation of a money-generating football team.
One can only hope this travesty will help us get our priorities straight.