Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 10, 2000
About 6:30 p.m., there was a knock at the door of the Wichita Children's Home. When a staff member at the front desk pushed the button to pop the door lock, Karen walked in, head down, not looking at anyone. She was carrying a shopping bag filled with clothing. Polyester.
She went upstairs to her room and shut the door.
"Everybody was looking at me," said Jamie Johnston, teen girls department supervisor at the home. "Asking, 'What are you going to do about this?' "
Staff members had called police to report Karen Countryman as a runaway when she'd failed to come home on the bus that day.
It was Oct. 11, 1995, a day after another girl at the home had attempted suicide. Her screams had shredded Karen's self-control. Karen had run the next morning.
But now she was back.
Jamie was relieved. She'd wondered whether the girl had dropped back to the bottom again, back to being that stray-cat street girl.
But now the girl had come home, knowing she'd face discipline.
This was good, Jamie thought. The kid was growing.
-- -- --
Jamie went to Karen's room.
Well? she asked.
Marbles, Karen told her.
She said she'd gypped school with some friends, gone downtown to the railroad tracks to look for marbles.
And she'd been shopping. For polyester.
She walked west on Douglas all the way downtown. She'd gone shopping at the Disabled American Veterans thrift store on West Douglas.
"It really occupied my mind, looking at all the cool-funky-hippie clothes and trying them on. I spent every last dime I had on polyester," Karen wrote later.
Downtown, she climbed nearly all the way to the top of the empty shell of the Keen Kutter Building, climbed up among the old brick walls, broken boards, broken-up wood floors. She sat up there, in the tower, looking out over downtown, thinking, remembering. Alone.
She'd gone to the railroad tracks that run on a bridge over Douglas. She had climbed up there and looked for marbles in the gravel along the tracks.
She and her mother had walked those tracks one day long ago, when her Mom was well. And they had found marbles.
She poked into a pocket and brought out a marble to show Jamie.
Round, clear glass.
"See?" Karen said.
She didn't know why marbles could be found lying along railroad tracks. But there they were.
It was wrong for Karen to skip school, Jamie said later.
But with those suicidal screams still ringing in her ears from the night before, it was no wonder she'd run, Jamie said. Maybe it was the best thing she could have done for herself.
And she had come back.
For three months, Karen followed all the rules of the Wichita Children's Home. She became a model resident.
In November, she became a ward of the state. The Sedgwick County District Attorney's Office asked that Karen be declared a child in need of care - a legal status meaning that the state needed to take responsibility for her custody. District Judge Carol Bacon granted the request.
By the following January, with Bacon's approval, Karen was placed with another foster family, another set of friends from her mother's time.
They tried to help her, she said, but there were disputes and disagree ments. Karen was speaking up for herself more, trying to define who she was.
She discovered body piercing. She fastened metal into her ears. Her navel. Her tongue.
"It was a rush."
Six months after she joined the foster family, Karen walked through the doors of the Children's Home again.
It was July 17, 1996.
She said she was turning herself in.
She said that she had run away again and that she had been living on the streets for the last month.
Jamie was disappointed. This looked like backsliding.
No, Karen said.
She had run to learn how to live on her own. She had stayed healthy, off drugs.
She talked to them bluntly, almost as an equal. No longer the deferential little girl, she told them how it was going to be.
She told them she was fed up with foster care, fed up with state custody.
Her first and second runs had been impulsive, she said. This third run had been done for a purpose.
"I'd decided I was living someone else's life, and the only way I was going to live my own life was to get out and learn how to live it," Karen would say later.
She'd watched a masterful mother run a household; she knew how to do it right.
She wanted to do it herself. She wanted Karen to look after Karen. She wanted to live on her own.
She told Jamie she wanted to be "emancipated." It was a term she'd picked up from the other runaway kids in state custody.
No, Jamie and Jill told her.
Emancipation - freedom from state custody - is not something that children in state custody get for the asking, they told Karen. Especially not from Judge Bacon. Especially not 16-year-old girls who run away from foster care and run away from school and run away from state custody to go shopping at the DAV.
You need an intermediate step, they told her. ***
Twelve days after Karen turned herself in, Jill and Jamie infuriated her by sending her to Monica House, near Oliver and Lincoln. They meant well. It was a home for teen girls.
It was July 29, 1996.
About a dozen girls lived in the house, watched over by staff members like Sjonna Hermanson. The purpose of the home was to teach independent living skills. The house rules said that to help win release, the girls must show they could live on their own, save money, manage a budget.
Sjonna knew Karen from occasional visits to the Children's Home. She'd heard Karen's wit set off roars of laughter in rooms full of adults. She'd seen Karen jump onto the back of a big man, a staff member at St. Joseph's hospital, where the girls played games, demanding piggy-back rides. She saw Karen flirt playfully one moment and stare like a cat the next.
But from the moment she set foot in Monica House, Karen felt stuck and silly. The other Monica House girls talked about girlish things, boys, flowers; Karen had lived on the streets, scrounging meals and beds from friends and strangers.
In group sessions, where Monica House staffers tried to get girls to talk through their pasts, Karen sat silent, aloof and disappointed.
She'd come to like the Children's Home, where Jamie Johnston and Risa Rehmert acted like moms, where she felt she'd been gaining ground on the road to freedom.
Now here she was, uprooted again, and sidetracked in storage.
She hated it.
One day, a girl at Monica House tried to hang herself.
She failed. But it left Karen feeling as jangled as the previous attempt by that other girl in the Children's Home.
Karen wanted freedom from state custody. It infuriated her that no one would tell her how to get that.
It dawned on her - she would have to find out for herself. And to do that, she'd need to get out of there and buy herself some time.
By day, she began to toy with a plan.
At night, the nightmares came.
Sjonna was on duty one night as the girls slept. She heard a scream.
Sjonna ran to Karen's room.
The scream had brought half the girls in Monica House to their feet.
Several of them were standing over the bed.
Sjonna reached down to hold Karen, shake her, stroke her hair.
"In a trance," Sjonna said. "She threw out her arms, as though reaching for someone.
"I couldn't wake her," Sjonna said. "Not even by screaming her name. Her eyes were open, but she looked right through me."
Karen flung out her arms and screamed again.
Sept. 19, 1996. Night.
Karen opened the window of her room. It was raining.
She'd lived in Monica House for 52 days. Nightmares every night. Plans made by day.
She was ready.
One by one, she threw every one of her belongings out the window.
Pages of her own poetry.
Pages of her journal.
She thought the other girls would steal it all after she left. So she threw it out into the rain. She threw away everything except the clothes on her back and the plan in her head.
She walked to the front door.
She turned and spoke.
"I told them all to f-- off."
Then she walked into the rain.