To school authorities, trapped Crestwood girl didn't exist

Johns Hopkins University

On a bungalow-lined street in south suburban Crestwood, residents caught glimpses of an adolescent girl who never seemed to go to school.

The girl would meet her younger siblings as they got off the school bus, but she never was on the bus herself.

"Sometimes she would sit on (her) front steps and say, 'I can't stand it in there,'" one resident told the Tribune. "People all over the neighborhood talk about this."

But the neighbors felt uncomfortable sticking their noses in other people's business.

And so it went for five years, until the girl escaped the house at age 16. According to police, court and school records, her parents were forcing her to stay at home to serve as a caretaker for four stepbrothers.

The case underscores that school and government authorities cannot be expected to retrieve missing elementary-level students on their own. Often they must rely on neighbors and relatives to step forward.

The Crestwood girl had never been enrolled in school after her mom brought her there from the Middle East. To local school officials, it was as if she didn't exist.

Indeed, while some truant children in grades K-8 are on the street during school hours, many are staying indoors, said Johns Hopkins University research scientist Robert Balfanz, who studies school attendance. Only close family members and neighbors may know they are there.

"If there were actually tens of thousands of kids roaming the streets of Chicago at one o'clock in the afternoon, there'd be a big community uproar. And sure, there are tens of thousands of kids not in school, but it's not visible," Balfanz said.

The girl's tragic story finally came to light in 2010 when she fled and was taken into state custody.

"Her mother does not allow her to leave the house and ... she has to cook and clean the whole house like a slave," a Crestwood police report stated. The woman was convicted of battery, having beaten the girl in an effort to thwart the escape.

Beth Michalski, who served for a time as the girl's foster mother, said the teenager "could not read or write a word (and) didn't know the concept of adding and subtracting."

To help her learn basic vocabulary, Michalski placed labels on household items and furniture, transforming the foster home into a forest of Post-it notes: Stairs. Light. Picture. Bed.

Now 19 and in an alternative school, the girl declined comment for this story. Records and interviews show she has steadily pulled her reading up to the fifth-grade level.

Gary Marx and David Jackson

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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