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Karen Lost and Found Part 5: A runaway's bold plan to reclaim her own life

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 24, 2013, at 9:18 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, at 6:21 a.m.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 11, 2000

After Karen Countryman ran away from Monica House in September 1996, she disappeared like a rock thrown into a lake. She wanted freedom from state custody. She had a plan to win it. She needed time.

She dropped out of East High School so state authorities could not find her.

She dropped out of sight.

Karen Irene Countryman, the 16-year-old runaway, was never caught.

"Young people today are not smart about how to stay out on the run," Karen would say later.

"They just go from place to place, and they steal until they get caught, which usually doesn't take long. Most kids on the run? They're caught within the first 24 hours.

"Hey. If you are going to be out on the run, you might as well learn to survive.

"And I learned how."

-- -- --

She had a plan. But first she needed to survive.

During her previous runs, her brother Jeremiah sometimes ran with her. But on this latest run, a boyfriend ran with her, a young man whose name she wants to remain a secret.

Jeremiah and the boy protected her from curious strangers.

Many kids on the run in Wichita trade sex for food and a place to stay, Karen said. She never did that.

"But every moment was a crisis."

"I taught myself not to even think about it. You don't have time to face what you're really feeling. We'd try to find a place to sleep; we knew people, but we sure couldn't call a lot of them friends. We'd stay with them. We'd wonder. I trusted no one.

"I still don't trust anyone."

She lived all over. Oklahoma, for a while. Back to Wichita. Then to Whitewater. Great Bend.

She and her boyfriend went shopping at Wal-Marts.

"We stole."

She's not proud of that. But on some days it meant they could eat.

"How do you think I fed myself?

"We didn't steal much. Just small stuff, and not often. It's when you steal bigger stuff that you get caught."

She slept on the couches of friends. She learned how to eat cheap.

QuikTrips are good, she said.

"You can get a really big nasty sandwich for a dollar."

They'd go to a pizza place and forget to pay.

"And I taught myself not to eat," she said. "I learned I can go a long time without food.

"In Oklahoma I had jobs. I waited tables for money under the table."

In Oklahoma, she remembered: Mom used to clean houses for nice old ladies from church.

So in Oklahoma, Karen went to church.

"You go to church regularly in a place, and eventually you get in good with nice little old ladies. And they hire you for odd jobs, cleaning houses, giving you a little money to live on. And so you can stay out for a while longer. Go to church, meet the old people, clean a house, earn a few bucks.

"And then you keep going."

She hated it, hated sleeping in strange places with nothing to call her own.

"I got so I desperately wanted to have my own room. I wanted so much to have a place where I could say this is my room, this is my stuff.

"Sometimes just having a few things at the Children's Home can be so valuable to a kid. You know why? It gives you a tiny little snatch of home - this is my room, this is my stuff.

"A lot of kids don't have that.

"For a long time, I didn't have that."

She hated living like this.

But she was buying time.

While she was scrounging for beds and dollars and meals, she was also knocking on office doors. ***

Almost immediately after she ran away, Karen went to a lawyer. She asked how to get emancipated from state custody.

The lawyer told her what the social workers would not.

She took notes.

She went to a psychiatrist and submitted herself to a psychiatric evaluati on.

She went comparison shopping, pricing apartments.

She shopped for groceries: macaroni and cheese, apples, bathroom cleanser. She wrote down the price of every item.

She planned menus, wrote them down.

She brushed her hair. Got plenty of sleep.

She went to Butler County Community College and enrolled in a GED program, to obtain her high school equivalency diploma.

She had stopped smoking pot long before. She had never become addicted to any drug. She smoked a cigarette once or twice a day, but after what she'd done and what she'd survived, how bad could it be to have a couple of smokes a day?

She started reading again.

"Would you like to know what one of the best places is to hide out when you're on the run?" she would say later. "The library at Butler Community College. Sit there and study. No one will ever suspect."

She wasn't just hiding. She studied.

Even in the worst of her bad girl phase, she'd not forgotten the kind of person that her mother had wanted her to be.

She would show them.

Her surrogate moms at the Children's Home had said no judge with any sense would set her free, not with her record of rule-bending and running away. Why should a judge, especially a judge as tough as Carol Bacon, set Karen free from state custody, at the age of 16, when Karen had repeatedly placed her own safety at risk by running away? When no one knew whether she could care for herself?

Karen had pondered this.

She would show them.

She would show that the daughter of Karen Countryman knew a few things.

About the price of apartments.

About shopping for groceries when money is tight.

About how to live and love and take care of cats; about how to pay the bills.

About how to bake chicken gravy casseroles.

She would show them.

***

On Dec. 3, 1996, the lock popped open at the front door of the Wichita Children's Home once again.

Karen stepped inside.

She turned herself in.

Karen Irene Countryman, age 16, had been absent without leave from state custody for 72 days.

She said that she wanted a court hearing as soon as possible and that she'd already had the psychiatric evaluation done, the evaluation the courts would require as part of any deliberation of her future.

She said she'd started work on her GED and that she was studying day and night. She said she wanted to go to college.

She said she had a job, clerking at Yale's.

She said she wanted freedom.

She said she wanted it now.

Roy Wenzl can be reached at 268-6219, or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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