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A struggle to survive

The Baltimore Sun

The minister stood in the vestibule of his East Baltimore church and told mourners to go home. The funeral was canceled because there wasn't enough money to bury Barbara Griffin.

The Rev. Milton E. Williams needed the final $500 to properly lower her body into the ground. He passed out purple fliers announcing that the burial would occur the next day, but the money still didn't come together, so that was canceled too.

It was a final indignity for a young woman who had endured little but sadness and tragedy in her short life. She had lived on society's margins, sick, angry, forgotten - and eventually was recorded as Baltimore's 135th homicide of the year. Her body was found on June 11, the day before her 19th birthday.

Williams, who was Barbara's minister for a decade, provided an outline of her life: Abandoned as an infant. Lived with a foster parent. Sexually abused as a toddler. Poisoned by lead paint. Had trouble learning. Fought at school. Arrested with a gun. Joined a Bloods gang. Evicted from her family's longtime home. Lived on the streets.

He talked so others would understand Barbara the way he did, and in doing so, provided a rare window into how some young people live in the city.

"She was rough," Williams said. "She was real. In some ways, she was more righteous than not. She let the world know 'This is who I am, all of my faults, all of my pain, this is who I am.'"

As Baltimore's homicide tally grows, these are the lost lives that nobody talks about. These victims led imperfect lives and left behind few, if any, achievements. Barbara made so many mistakes she took on the nickname "Can't Get Right" - or CGR for short. She tattooed the initials on her arm, along with the phrase "Love is pain."

"She had so many strikes against her," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner. "Sometimes kids just very clearly have the worst circumstances from the beginning. How can anyone have a normal life under some of the circumstances they grow up?"

Anonymous

Barbara's death did draw some attention because of where her body was found: within eyeshot of classrooms full of youngsters at West Baltimore's Bentalou Elementary School.

But she was relatively anonymous in death. At first, police described her only as a teenager. When her name was finally released two days later, it became clear that she had not contributed much in her short life, and general interest in her story evaporated.

The case remains open, according to police.

Reconstructing Barbara's life is difficult.

Photos and documents that might provide a sketch were destroyed when the family's house was firebombed in February, her mother says. Her circle of friends included gang members who refused to talk to a reporter. Other acquaintances, known only by nicknames like Dump and L. Jeezy, could not be found.

And the house where Barbara most recently lived, a condemned, city-owned rowhouse at the corner of Ashland Avenue and North Castle Street, yields few clues.

The front room contained a smashed television, the remains of a window air conditioning unit and children's toys. The smell of smoke hung in the air, as if there'd been a fire. There was a hole in the ceiling, and it was possible to see the rafters. Gang graffiti "O77 TOP" - a bloods gang - and "L up" were scrawled on the sidewalk and on nearby houses.

"She did have it hard," said foster mother Beverly Miller.

She spoke about Barbara's life on several occasions - first while in a pew at the New Life Evangelical Baptist Church on North Avenue, a city church with a methadone clinic in the basement.

Unsettled life

Barbara's early life was full of disruptions.

Her biological mother, Gwendolyn Griffin, lived in Las Vegas. Barbara was conceived during an affair with a traveling salesman from Baltimore.

The baby was born in June 1988. Griffin had three other children and a husband in jail - a man who was uninterested in bringing up a child that was not his, according to Miller and an early evaluation of Barbara's life by the East Baltimore Mental Health Partnership.

Barbara was soon entrusted to her biological father, Frederick Jefferson. He took her to Baltimore and asked a childless acquaintance - Miller - to babysit. Then he disappeared. Barbara heard from her biological mother only once.

"She became my baby," Miller said. Miller was 35, and Barbara was 15 months old. It would take seven years for the relationship to be legalized by court order.

Miller said Barbara didn't behave normally. "You know how you play with little babies and they laugh? She didn't have that for two or three months. She didn't have no response." It's not clear why, though Miller blames lead poisoning, a condition for which Barbara tested positive at age seven.

There was other unusual behavior. The baby wasn't used to lying down at first, and Miller could only get her to sleep by propping her up with pillows. Each day she removed a pillow so the baby would learn to sleep lying flat.

Abuse apparently occurred early. Miller said one of her ex-boyfriends touched the infant's genitals - a claim backed up by Williams, who has reviewed related medical records.

Miller said the man was imprisoned for this offense, but a criminal record check listed no abuse charges for him.

Dr. Mark Riddle, director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said that such an unsteady early childhood will affect brain development and how a person interacts with their peers.

"You end up with a teenager and young adult who has some basic lack of trust with other people," he said. "With a person who has trouble with intimacy and, generally, then is going to start to develop antisocial behaviors - which she did."

The lack of trust surfaced quickly. A first grade report showed Barbara "had trouble with her peers" who would "tease her and steal her school supplies." In second grade, she was taking Ritalin twice a day for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

By sixth grade, she was moved to Woodbourne Day School, a place for children with emotional problems. That year she took a knife to school, assaulted someone and was transferred to different schools four times.

Her foster mother was in prison for some of that time, serving a three-month sentence for drug distribution.

"Fighting. Barbara was fighting," Miller said. "She's not going to back down with the teasing. She got made fun of for the way she talked."

She entered ninth grade at yet another special education school, the Central Career Center at Briscoe. She was enrolled there, off and on, for the next four and a half years but only advanced to the 10th grade.

She was still supposed to be attending the school, and leading the marching band, when she was killed.

There an evaluator wrote: "Barbara may become verbally abusive ... due to her poor sense of self-esteem and poor coping interpersonal skills." Teachers wanted her to limit "emotional outbursts" and "respect boundaries of others."

Academics on hold

Her academics remained stunted, too. At age 16 and in ninth grade, she was reading on a third-grade level. She didn't understand fractions and couldn't compare different forms of measurement, according to a school assessment.

Her education there was interrupted twice when she dropped out on her own accord, and two more times when she was sent to state institutions for juvenile and adult offenses.

During one of these stays, she adopted her nickname: Can't Get Right.

"Stuff that you'd ask her to do, she wouldn't get it right," said LaTarsha Giddins, a longtime friend. "She couldn't get right. I just laughed at it. ... That's what she liked to be called."

Williams, the reverend, said: "She was passed from class to class. From school to school. Suspended. Expelled. ... Eventually Barbara stopped going to school. Nobody looked for her."

As Barbara grew up, she brought friends home to the two-story rowhouse on Sinclair Lane.

Miller cast it in a positive light, saying that Barbara always wanted to feed people and stray animals. But there was not enough money to feed everyone. Miller said that at one point she wanted to tear down some of the walls so she could see who was in her own living room.

Miller concedes that she didn't have a firm grasp on the household. A man she called her grandfather was living there, and then taken away by adult protective services, but it is not clear to her why they took him. Others lived there too; some helped maintain the house, others didn't.

The family lived on two monthly government checks. One was for Miller, a veteran's benefits check for roughly $1,000 that she has received since her first husband died. The other, about $550, was from Social Security for Barbara's learning disabilities, according to Miller.

At age 16, Barbara arranged for the Social Security check to come to her.

"I was angry about that," Miller said. "She was being taken advantage of. She'd get her check today, it was gone today.

"She wasn't paying me rent. She was using it to buy food. It was nonsense food. She has the tendency of an 8-year-old. She was easily led."

But the check gave Barbara a measure of freedom. Steady money, in a neighborhood where cash is hard to come by, made her popular for once. She started to run away from home.

Micah Mitchell, a community activist who knew her for years, said Barbara would disappear with friends for weeks and then re-emerge. He called these episodes her "Houdini acts."

"She had a misconception of what loyalty was," he said. "She would do anything that made her feel good, and feel good about herself - that is whether it was good or bad."

Still, Mitchell doesn't blame her. "If ... I had to walk a mile in her shoes, I wouldn't want to trust nobody either."

Legal trouble

On the streets, without supervision, Barbara predictably got into trouble. She was charged as a juvenile with robbery, assault and theft in 2003.

Her first adult charge occurred about a block from her house in October 2004 at age 16. Police arrested her and a boyfriend named Kyle Bridges in a drug raid at 2042 Cliftwood Avenue. Officers found a gun, as well as 237 gel caps hidden in a kitty litter box, according to court papers. Barbara was charged with drug distribution and having a handgun.

The charges were later dropped.

Miller blamed the boyfriend for what happened, but she couldn't stop the relationship.

"If you try to lock them in the house, and I wish I could, that is corporal punishment," Miller said. "When she didn't want to go to school, I couldn't make her. You couldn't tell Barbara anything."

More charges followed: drug distribution, assault with a deadly weapon, robbery.

In her short life, her adult and juvenile record totaled nine criminal cases, though she was never found guilty of an adult charge. The disposition of her juvenile cases was unclear.

'Pain turned to anger'

At 17, Barbara got pregnant, but miscarried. "I thought it was a blessing," Miller said. "Honestly. Because she wasn't ready for a child. How can you be ready if you aren't responsible?"

Williams, the minister, described her mid-teens like this: "The older Barbara got, the more her pain turned into anger and rage. The older she got, the deeper that hurt became." He says he recalls her saying: "Something inside of me is eating inside of me, and I can't stop it from hurting."

He added, "It seems the only way Barbara could deal with it was physical violence."

Miller isn't sure when Barbara joined a Bloods gang, probably at age 16 or 17. Barbara would wear red, and Miller recalled saying: "Take that [expletive] off."

The family slipped further into poverty in Barbara's last year. Miller was found guilty of another drug charge and then was evicted from the Sinclair Lane house. The two moved into a city-owned house at 1902 N. Rose St. with a man Miller described as an alcoholic. The rent was $160 a month.

Barbara, now out of the gaze of watchful neighbors, would run away for longer periods of time. She was charged with second-degree assault and assault with a deadly weapon shortly after they moved; those charges were dropped. Then, in January, police accused her of "robbing and violently beating" a woman, according to charging documents. The case fell apart when the victim didn't show up in court.

In February, Barbara became a victim, too. Somebody tossed three Molotov cocktails into her house. The first ignited around the front door. A second came though the front window, and lit the living room and kitchen on fire. The third was tossed at the back door, probably to prevent the occupants from leaving.

Describing the incident, Miller held her hand to her chest and said, "The flames were this high." Instead of trying to escape, she said that Barbara and the others ran to the basement. "They were scared to go outside. They thought they'd be shot." Police are investigating the arson, but no arrests have been made.

The blaze destroyed the house and further fractured the family. Miller drifted from one East Baltimore house to another, relying on a network of friends. Barbara lived mainly on the streets - ultimately landing in the decaying townhouse on Ashland Avenue.

Like other problems in her life, Barbara didn't talk about the fire. Neighbor Delores Inman, 79, who considered herself like a grandmother to the teen, didn't know about it. "She would always tell you something good rather than bad. If she had a bad day she wouldn't talk about it."

But Barbara's life was clearly unraveling.

The week before she died, Miller said, she was beaten in an alley near the Ashland Avenue house. That's partly why she spent her last weekend with her foster mother at a friend's house on East Monument street.

At a barbecue, Barbara danced and drank soda. A wading pool was set up in the backyard to keep cool. Then Barbara left.

Some people said she stopped at her church on Sunday night. Her body was found early the next morning in West Baltimore.

'Deal with it'

The funeral finally took place at New Life Evangelical Church on June 21. No obituaries were handed out. "Deal with it," Williams said from the pulpit. A man did pass out laminated cards with her picture on it, but there were not enough for everyone.

It's wasn't a fancy affair. Several people wore flip-flops; others wore T-shirts and short jean skirts. One woman had a monitoring bracelet around her ankle.

Neighbors from Sinclair Lane came, teachers from the schools Barbara never finished showed their respect. Leaders from community groups also attended. All people who had tried to help her.

Those who hurt her came, too. There were women she'd fought and Bloods members from her more recent life on the streets.

The emotion was genuine. A young woman with a silver headband viewed the body and sat in the back of the room, rocking back and forth while holding her stomach and crying. Another young woman, dressed in black, sat outside the sanctuary crying for most of the service. Over and over, she said: "I can't go in there."

Inside the sanctuary Charlotte Johnson, a preacher who knew Barbara, spoke: "A lot of people may not have thought a lot of Barbara, but there was a lot of life in Barbara."

Johnson used a familiar metaphor of planting a garden. Barbara, she said, was a flower who needed tending and perhaps transplanting. "Barbara may be gone from here physically, but she has been replanted. She has gone on to a better place."

Today, her body lies in an unmarked grave in an overgrown corner of the Sacred Heart of Jesus cemetery near Dundalk. Her plot is next to a barbed wire fence, out of sight from the well-kept rows of marble headstones.

The cemetery marks each pauper's grave with a numbered, metallic disc. Barbara's marker would be number 419.

It's missing.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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