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March 24, 2013

Karen Lost and Found Part 2: A girl's life unravels after her mom's suicide

Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 8, 2000

I ask my mother in wonder,

How could you leave me so soon?

To leave me

In a mess for life.

Feeling as if I were in hell.

Leaving me hurting,

All those long days and nights. . . .

- Poem by Karen "Reenie" Countryman, October 1995

The day after her mother shot herself, Reenie Countryman found herself living out of a travel bag. She'd been taken in by a family friend. Her mom dead. No more room of her own. At age 13, she was now a spare part from someone else's life, stored temporarily under someone else's roof.

Police had unlocked the door to her dead mother's home so she could collect a few things. Shoes. A bag of clothes.

Her journal. Feb. 16, 1994

"A black bullet hole through her chest. . . . Why?" Journal writing, the one routine that survived from yesterday. Waking up with Mom Tuesday morning. Finding her dead Tuesday afternoon. No more coming home to the smell of rhubarb pie. "All I had is gone now." Reenie's family, such as it was, could not take her in. Her father had been absent from her life for years.

She'd been shaken at the suggestion, made the night before in that conferen ce room with all those police officers and the chaplain and strangers, that she be admitted as a temporary resident of the Wichita Children's Home. "They were gonna make me stay in a child home for the night." Grief. "I want to hug kiss my beautiful Mom. Can't think. Love you, God." Anger. ("For our protection," her mother had said.) Guilt. "I wish I could have stopped her & only if I could have loved her so much more."

All of this she wrote in her small pink journal.

On that first night, a friend of her mother's stepped forward, took her in so she did not have to stay at the Children's Home. That family, in the days that followed, discussed whether they should take Reenie into the family as a foster child. Eventually, they did.

The idea had at least one appeal; the family included a girl Reenie's age, one of her best friends. Still, Reenie found the idea of becoming a houseguest to be unsettling.

But what choice did she have? Feb. 17, 1994

"Today I went to the lawyer, counselor, SRS, to get my hair cut & bought my dress for the funeral & my shoes. Lots of phone calls & stuff. I'm confused & so tired. . . . I'm in a BIG nightmare. Scary & weird."

There were rumors about her circulating among friends. Jeremiah had taken a call from one of them. The rumor was that Karen had run away and was now being held in state custody, by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services .

"Thank God that never happened!" she confided to the journal.

"I'm tired.

"Life really sucks!"

On Tuesday she'd been the little girl who liked school and C.S. Lewis and boys and pies. Now it was Thursday. Now everything was going to be different.

It was going to be bad.

She could feel it.

And she was right.

"We all have a choice," Reenie would say years later. "When the bad things come, we can decide to be bad, or we can decide to be good."

In the next 18 months, Reenie would decide to be both.

She moved in with the foster family with every intention of doing what they asked. But as the months passed, there were arguments. Her depression deepened . She began to sense that she'd lost not only her mother but control over her own life.

Just after her 15th birthday, she gave up.

Despair and dark thoughts won out over good intentions.

Reenie ran away. ***

On Aug. 23, 1995, 18 months after her mother shot herself, police officers from the city of Haysville escorted a 15-year-old girl named Karen Irene Countryman to the Wichita Children's Home.

This time, they made her spend the night.

She didn't look like Reenie anymore.

There were bruises on her face. Bloodstains on her sneakers.

She'd been beaten up in a fight.

Staff members put a new report in her file. It said she had four chipped teeth, a large welt on her forehead, a broken nose. Two black eyes.

Staff members at the home began the processing, preparing to take her in.

They recorded in the report that the police said she was a runaway, that she'd been a runaway for the last three months. And there was more, though they didn't put this in the report:

Karen Countryman, the little girl who had loved the cats Babushka and Biscuit, who liked skating and rhubarb pies and Valentine's Day flowers from boys, had been smoking cigarettes, smoking pot and grinning at rules.

And though she was still that charmer child who could flirt and crack people up by mimicking actress Rosie Perez, her eyes now examined the face of every friend and stranger with a look of melancholy mistrust.

For three months, she told them, she and brother Jeremiah had lived on the streets. They were homeless but not sleeping under bridges, she said. Like most teen runaways in Wichita - and there are hundreds of them out there each month - they became "couch kids." Usually sleeping on other people's couches - friends', strangers', boyfriends', girlfriends'. And sometimes, when she couldn't find a place to sleep, she'd walk the streets with Jeremiah until the sun came up in the east.

Staff members at the Children's Home nodded. They'd heard this kind of thing many times before. They'd hear it many times more.

They admitted Karen, assigned her a room and gave her a list of rules.

In the days that followed, staff members like case worker Jill Chambers and teen girls department head Jamie Johnston began to try to help.

She was worth helping; Jamie said they could all see that. Not only was she bright, not only was she immediately and unusually kind to all the other kids in the home, but they learned something hopeful:

This stray-cat girl, who had found her mother dead, who had seen her life uprooted in one afternoon, who'd been sleeping in a shed and walking the streets of Wichita in the deep of night, had made stellar grades at Curtis Middle School, where she'd been transferred after her mother's death.

Jill and Jamie set to work.

Karen smiled and nodded and promised to be good.

She meant it.

But it wouldn't last.

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