Judgment at Hookyville

The volunteer jurists running a truancy court for St. Louis get an up-close view of wayward kids, don't-care parents and war-zone schools. It's worse than they thought.

A serious game of musical chairs is played in the St. Louis high schools, with kids coveting transfers the way preps jockey for Ivy League acceptances. Everybody's grown used to it. Sometimes the judges point out that life isn't about transferring away from your problems. Other times, they agree with the kids.

"I'll be glad to put in a word for you," says Frawley. "But you keep shooting yourself in the foot. They'll look at your record and say, 'Why would we take a kid who won't go to school?' You're screwing yourself, man. So what can I do to help you out? You want me to drive by Roosevelt every morning and make sure you're going?"

Lamar nods eagerly, so hungry for attention that the sarcasm is lost on him.

"Truancy basketball," where the tensions of rebellion and judicial tough talk get sweated out on the court. At left, Frawley takes a breather; these kids have nothing but energy.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Truancy basketball," where the tensions of rebellion and judicial tough talk get sweated out on the court. At left, Frawley takes a breather; these kids have nothing but energy.

Frawley's used to this phenomenon, too. He's seen kids shape up but still maneuver to come back to court, just so they can hear somebody say something good about them. Court is the only place they've ever seen their parents smile in relief.

The next boy, Joneal, is older, tall as a tree, his hair in cornrows. He says he's doing great. His mom winces. His DJO produces the file: six cuts, one tardy, four unverified misses and three suspensions.

"I'm gonna go to school," Joneal insists.

"You gave me that crap the last time we were here," Frawley fires back.

Then his voice softens.

"You know what this is all about? We want to keep you safe. You got any friends who've been shot? You got any friends who've died?"

Joneal nods yes.

"How'd they die?"

His head rolls around, as if the question's coming toward him and he can duck it.

"We don't want to lose you, man," says Frawley. "You can do this. You've got a mama who cares."

Joneal looks up, startled. Then he leaves, and Daniel walks slowly to the bench, pushing his wire glasses up on his nose. His hair is fuzzy and uneven, his neck long and skinny. Truancy started after his mother died, his Division of Family Services caseworker reports. Now he's entering high school at Vashon.

Frawley frowns.

"That's a tough place to be," he says, "and you will be the new kid on the block. But you need to improve your attendance before we can try to get you into another school.

"It's tough when you lose your mama," Frawley continues. "I just lost mine. I guess what I'm saying is, honor her memory. And talk to that grief counselor. It'll give you a chance to say you're pissed off. Your mama's passed, and you're living with somebody who's not your mama."

The next boy isn't even present. Social workers gather around Frawley, admitting they're at a loss. The kid busted out of his drug treatment program. Now he's on the street.

His mother will have to get herself charged with neglect and give up custody in order to turn him over to DFS and get him a residential placement somewhere safe.

But even if she does this, there's no guarantee he'll be accepted anywhere.

"We've got to do something," says Frawley, jaw tight,"'cause we are gonna lose this kid totally."

The next girl's sullen, her eyes glazed.

"Drop her," directs Frawley.

Ten minutes later, the bailiff sticks his head in the door, stripping off latex gloves.

"That one's dirty, Judge."

"I figured."

And now Shanda comes forward. Her DJO says she's been climbing out of the window, missing the night-watch curfew. She rolls her eyes.

"I don't sneak out of the window," she says huffily. "I just don't be there when they come."

Frawley keeps a straight face, asks her what he should do with her.

"Put me in a program," she says, already habituated to a life of whatever social services strangers think she needs.

"What kind of program?" asks Frawley.

"It don't matter."

A long volley follows, punctured by angry denunciations from her mother. Finally Shanda, head down, mutters two words.

"My daddy."

"You want to live with your daddy?" asks Frawley, grabbing for it.

The mother explodes.

"Shanda! After all them years he didn't even want to claim you, and you are going to tell me you want to go live with him?"

Shanda looks her straight in the eye.

"You don't want me."

Last on Frawley's docket is Eric, who's in drug treatment, staying clean. He's decided not to go back to Vashon. Frawley grills him about his plan to take the GED exam instead, then says, "Frankly, I think you made the right decision."

Caseworker Ed Bell comes up and shakes Eric's hand.

"Keep up the good work. That was a good decision."

Throughout the three-hour court session, Bell has stood quietly against the wall. He wears gold-rimmed spectacles and has the vocabulary of an Oxford don -- sailing out from the wiry, hard-muscled body of a bantamweight boxer. Bell spent 20 years in the military before he started working with violent male juveniles.

He describes his job as "a fool's errand."

"If you are going to be in this business, you have to understand that you are going to affect very little of it," he says. His voice is deliberate, his eyes black pools of too much knowledge. The judges turn to him whenever they can't think what to do, and he spends his days trying to calm an ever-growing caseload scattered across the city schools. They're angry, all of them, and their offenses run the gamut from truancy to murder charges.

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