Choice program guides city's kids along a thin line


On Seagull Avenue in Cherry Hill, this kid in army surplus boots is flicking his left leg in a series of semi-playful karate kicks that are landing around the midsection of a teen-age girl.

"Go on!" the girl screams, trying to swat him away with her hands. She's a little plump and can't avoid the leaner, swifter kid.

More kicks follow, quick as a serpent's tongue. More squeals follow, slicing through the South Baltimore air. A couple of other teen-agers are watching from the hood of a car parked outside low-rent apartment units. There's a pretty good wind blowing up Seagull Avenue, but most of these kids seem to have sprung spontaneously out of bed and landed here in various stages of half-dress: a guy in a sleeveless undershirt, a girl in a bathrobe, and this plump girl on the receiving end of karate kicks in a thin little blouse in the morning chill.

"Go on," she cries again.

The kids on the hood are laughing at her now. The karate kicks are landing more sharply. Some yards away there's a children's playground, but nobody wants their kids to play there. The thing's filled with trash that seems to have piled up since the beginning of recorded history, and it's lying there in the frigid morning sunlight, and there's not a child in sight.

Now the girl on Seagull Avenue's running out of room. The other kids, perched atop the car hood, have begun hooting. The boy's closing in on her, the game's turned mean, but nobody's telling him to cut it out.

The plump girl reaches for the car door, hoping to scoot safely inside. It's locked. Now the boy's cut off the distance between them, and he's got the girl in a headlock. He's grinninglike a ventriloquist's dummy, and she's blinded and furious and yelling for him to stop.

And atop the car hood are the other kids, laughing out loud but silently thanking their stars they're not the ones inside the boy's grip.

Half a block away is a little makeshift basketball court. At the base of Seagull Avenue, Mark Shriver points to the court and says what a problem it is. Shriver's director of The Choice Program, which supervises troubled kids. He equates the basketball court with narcotics traffic.

"That's where everybody congregates," he says, standing on Seagull Avenue outside the Choice offices, just down the street from the little business with the boy in the army boots and the teen-age girl.

We are looking at thin lines here. A basketball court becomes a center for drug dealing. A children's playground becomes a trash dump. A playful kid practicing karate kicks doesn't know how to turn off his motor.

The city's filled with thousands of kids facing dangerous options every day, and a lot of them go the wrong way, and it falls on the programs like Choice to try to lend some guidance.

"Generally," says Shriver, "we're getting some of the tougher kids in town." The program, operated by the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is funded by public and private money and tries to catch kids before they get caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system.

The Abell Foundation, which helps support it, likes to throw a few numbers around: It costs about $42,000 a year for the various social service agencies to support each -- each -- of the thousands of neglected, delinquent, ungovernable or runaway kids in the metro area.

It costs about $7,200 a year to monitor them with the Choice


And now, on this morning on Seagull Avenue, here are four Choice case managers sitting around a conference table and running down a long list of kids they've been following.

One of the kids, says a case manager, "was real mad at me."

The kid is a 14-year-old sixth-grader who was abandoned by his parents. He's gotten a little lax about school lately, so the case manager spent much of the day with him. In school.

"Learn anything?" another case manager asks.

"Everything he missed the first time he went through sixth grade," somebody jokes.

What they're learning, also, is the lifestyle of kids on the loose. The case managers are recent college graduates who stay with Choice for about a year, often working up to 60-hour work weeks.

It's routine for them to meet face-to-face with kids several times every day and well into the night -- at the kids' homes, at school, on the street, until the kids know there's somebody who's watching and caring what happens to their lives.

"Kids don't just have problems 9 to 5," says Shriver, as case managers run down the morning's assignments: a 15-year-old with a glue-sniffing problem; a 14-year-old who fought with his teacher; a 12-year-old whose juvenile court master assigned him to do community service on a street that turns out to be drug-infested; a 13-year-old with a history of running away; and more that are mirror images of these.

The city's filled with kids like this. The Department of Juvenile Services estimates about 10,000 kids come under its wing. It's an impossible number to handle, so some of them wind up in the places like Choice, which has been operating for three years in Cherry Hill and last week opened new offices in East Baltimore.

It's a final shot at holding back the night. The line between kids going straight and losing their way is sometimes a small one. It's the line drawn when a basketball court becomes a drug den. It's the line drawn when a playground becomes a trash dump.

Sometimes, it's the line obliterated when a kid practices a few playful karate kicks on Seagull Avenue and keeps on going because nobody's ever told him to stop.

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