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Karen Lost and Found Part 6: A 16-year-old asks the court to grant her freedom

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 24, 2013, at 9:23 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, at 6:21 a.m.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 12, 2000

From the bench, District Judge Carol Bacon looked down at Karen and felt a flicker of amusement. And admiration. There the girl sat, brightly scrubbed. Looking back at Bacon through those wary eyes.

"Trusting no one," as Bacon's court services monitor, Debby Lancaster, had said. "And wanting desperately to trust everyone."

Karen Countryman, age 16, ward of the state and four times a runaway.

It was Jan. 16, 1997. Karen had asked for this hearing to make an unusual request. A brazen request, really, given her record of running away.

"My name is Karen I. Countryman," the letter to the judge began.

"I am a sixteen-year-old female in custody of SRS. I am asking to be emancipated for the betterment of my life. . . .

"I came into the system at age fourteen as a minor in need of care. My mother died when I was thirteen. . . ."

Bacon read the letter contained in Case No. 95JC165 - the file, compiled by social workers, reporting the facts of the life so far of Karen Irene Countrym an. The girl who had found her mother's dead body. Exceptional student. High school dropout. Frequent runaway. Ward of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. Occasional user of drugs, though the drugs were apparently history. A resident now, once again, of the Wichita Children's Home, where she was reported to be a model child - except when running away.

None of Karen's friends and guardians thought Karen had a chance for freedom. Not as a child younger than 18. And not with Bacon, they said.

Bacon scared social workers, including some of those same guardians who cared for Karen at the Wichita Children's Home.

Cold, aloof, critical, the social workers said. Sharp mind, sharper tongue, or so they said.

Bacon herself would say later, with wry amusement, that the only objective thing to do would be to deny Karen's request and send her back to the safety of state custody.

Karen had jeopardized her own safety with all those runs, after all.

"Rule on the facts only." That's what judges tell each other, she would say. "Rule objectively, rule only on the facts, and the facts in this case were clear."

***

Bacon called the courtroom to order. She opened the file, looked at Karen.

In the file, which contained mostly official reports, was the surprising news that this clever girl had run away the last time in a calculated move to put together this case file. To build a case that she should be freed from state custody. In all Bacon's experience, she'd never seen a move as bold as this one.

The girl had arranged, while on the run, her own court-required psychiatric evaluation, with a court-approved psychiatrist. She had enrolled, while on the run, in a GED program run by Butler County Community College.

And there was this letter. And with it there were the weekly meal menus Karen had submitted. The girl had written down day after day her plans for well-balanced meals. Breakfasts of cereal, fruit salad, bacon and eggs, and French toast on Sundays. Dinners of baked chicken, spaghetti, meat loaf. Leftovers for lunch, or sometimes sandwiches.

Those menus made Bacon smile. And think.

Bacon had begun reading Karen's papers several days before, first with curiosity. Then with amazement. Finally with admiration.

As she read Karen's words, it began to dawn on Bacon that she needed to look past the facts and the dates and the police reports. She felt as if she'd gotten a peek inside this playful child's melancholy soul.

"My experience within the system and groups has been negative because it is very emotionally disruptive," Karen's letter said. "The most disturbing of these emotional aspects have been attempts of suicide which tear open wounds of a healing heart. . . ."

This child, Debby Lancaster had told Judge Bacon, was bringing books of classical literature with her to court hearings, to read while waiting her turn. No other runaways did that.

And no other runaways, Bacon said, had ever submitted a letter written so powerfully.

Bacon looked down at Karen.

"You should consider a career in journalism," she told the girl.

This child, thought the judge, was giving her facts. Not empty promises, as so many other runaways make when asking for their freedom. Real information.

The girl had submitted eight full pages of apartment price comparisons and weekly shopping lists, showing how she'd care for herself if freed from custody. She had a job at Yale's Wedding Shop, helping people choose wedding announcements, doing inventory. She proposed to get her GED, go to college. She proposed to survive on $800 a month. She would buy Scrubbing Bubbles to clean her bathroom.

"Scrubbing Bubbles!" the judge said later. "How endearing."

The judge read on:

macaroni & cheese .59

hot dogs .68

fruit cocktail .99

peaches (can) .99

Kool Aid 1.00

Kool Aid?

In those pages of lists, Bacon saw the threads of an unfinished tale. It was the tale of a Mom and a little girl, a story embedded in sheet after sheet of paper, typed out or written in Karen's fluid hand.

Bacon knew one other thing. She could sense it just from looking at Karen's face in the courtroom.

If she said no to Karen, Karen was going to run again.

In four years of dealing with teen runaways as a judge, Bacon had never known a runaway as cunning as this one. If Bacon didn't free her, the girl would disappear again. To God knows what.

Bacon decided.

She would throw objectivity to the winds.

From the bench, she looked down at Karen and smiled.

"I recommend that we release you from SRS custody."

***

Karen sat stunned.

Floating.

It was over.

And there was something else. Something wonderful. Karen could almost smell Mom's floral shampoo.

The feeling had started that morning almost at the moment Karen had walked into the courtroom, just before Bacon opened the hearing.

"You know," she said later, "I was not at the time a real spiritual person. But I cannot even explain the feeling I had when I went to the hearing.

"I have always believed in guardian angels. And I have always believed in souls - that the souls of those who love us can come back to watch over us.

"In the three years since my mother's death, I had not truly felt her presence.

"But I felt in that courtroom a presence that I had not felt since the day my mother died.

"She was there. In the courtroom. Standing right beside me."

Jan. 16, 1997. The day the judge set her free.

Mom's birthday.

***

Back in her chambers afterward, Bacon wondered what the girl would do with her life and with the threads of that unfinished tale.

Debby Lancaster would look after her. The judge had ordered that. Karen was free, but Bacon had ordered her to consult regularly with Debby.

If Karen failed, the judge would know it.

Karen herself wondered:

"Now what?"

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

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