Barbie Humphrey was on the run for two days after she
missed school and an appointment with her juvenile
justice counselor. Schwettman Educational Center
School Resource Officer Ken Petrillo questions
her while her father looks on.
[Times photos: Toni L. Sandys]
By AMY ELLIS
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 1998
UDSON -- Barbara Sue Humphrey had just turned 12 when her older brother Charlie helped her hot-wire her first car.
Now 16, Barbie is a convicted felon and a new mother. She named her son Jacob Charles, for Charlie, who is now doing time for armed robbery.
Barbie wishes she could talk to her mother about what to do next. But Kathy Humphrey is serving three years in a work camp. With 50 felony convictions, she has been in jail most of Barbie's life and taught her more about getting into trouble than how to stay out of it.
Barbie wonders whether prison may be her only salvation too.
"At least it would get me out of here," she said, surveying the tin box of a mobile home she sometimes shares with her father Eddie, a shrimper. "Maybe then I can do something with my life."
Barbie writes poems as her way of escape. "Poems can't say nothing back," she said. "They don't get mad, and they don't yell."
One of 10 children, Barbie practically raised her four younger sisters. She cares for various nieces and nephews and her 98-year-old grandfather.
"I've been taking care of everybody else my whole life," she said, puffing a Marlboro light.
Kathy Humphrey, who spends her days picking bottles from a conveyor belt of garbage at the Levy Forestry Camp in Bronson, admits that the Humphrey home life was far from ideal.
"There was violence when Eddie would be drinking or smoking crack," she said. "I was never abusive, but I wasn't there much."
A teacher once asked how the Humphrey children ate when Eddie Humphrey was on the shrimp boat and Kathy Humphrey was in jail. Barbie lied and said an aunt was watching her. She didn't tell the teacher that she and her brothers stole from neighbors to get money for food.
"We had to take care of the babies," Barbie said matter-of-factly. "I never really did what a kid does."
School was not a priority at the Humphrey home. Eddie Humphrey never learned to read or write. Kathy Humphrey dropped out in the eighth grade.
By the seventh grade, Barbie had been kicked out of Hudson Middle for fighting. Court-ordered anger management classes had little effect.
"I try to be nice, but people don't want me to be," Barbie said. "They already have their minds made up. It doesn't matter what I do.
"They just say, "Aw, you're a Humphrey. You'll end up in prison like the rest of 'em.' "
The state is desperate to prevent more Barbies. In the last five years, the number of girls in the juvenile justice system has exploded by more than half.
"Girls are absolutely one of our biggest challenges right now," said Randy Tennant, of the Department of Juvenile Justice in St. Petersburg. "Getting to them at an earlier age, before they're lost to us, is one of our biggest priorities."
The solution, everyone says, is more and earlier intervention -- by schools, churches, law enforcement, community groups and social service agencies.
By the time Barbie was 15, she was on the front page. Six boys and six girls, ages 13 to 17, had terrorized west Pasco County in the summer of 1996. More than 50 cars and trucks were destroyed or sold for parts. Some were crashed demolition-derby style. Others were torched, riddled with bullets and dumped in a sand pit.
"We stripped most of them and sold them at the chop shops," Barbie said. "We made $4,000 in one night and spent it all on motel rooms and drugs."
Their bragging landed them in jail, where they giggled as a guard took their booking mugs. In hers, Barbie lifts her middle finger at the camera. It was her first time in juvenile detention. She had two brothers, Joey and Charlie, to keep her company.
"It was like a kiddie college," Barbie said. "All our friends were there. I'd go back in a second."
Barbie did go back: Six month later, she stole a Mustang GT and torched it.
"Jail is these kids' red badge of courage," said Walter Mitchell, a juvenile justice caseworker who has worked with several of the Humphrey children. "It's all they've got."
Back in court, Barbie was still boasting about the rampage with the cars. "You stole a car?" a girlfriend asked as they fixed their hair in a courthouse bathroom.
"We stole 50 cars," Barbie replied. "It was all over the papers. I did a year for that."
In fact, Barbie did three months at the Marine Institute in New Port Richey, an alternative school for teens with non-violent criminal records.
"Barbie did not do very well here," said Tim Moccia, the director. "She liked it at first, getting the attention she didn't get at home. Then she started with the bad language, walking out of supervision. . . . We can only do so much and then we have to send them back home."
Breaking into cars and homes was just something to do, Barbie says with a shrug. Her friends would gather late at night at the sand pits in Hudson, drink beer and get high.
"I just went along with whatever they were doing," she said. "I didn't care what happened. We were just out having a good time."
In quieter moments, though, Barbie admits it isn't always about having a good time. It's about family.
"My dad doesn't care what I do, so why should I?" she asked. "I miss my mom, but she's never around, even when she isn't in jail."
Barbie longs for some semblance of normalcy but hasn't a clue how to find it. "I want to go back to school. I want to get my life straightened out, but I have to get away from here. He (my dad) tells me this is my life. This ain't nothing."
Late last year, Barbie told friends she should kill herself. "I know I'll be dead before the end of the year. It's in the Bible," she explained.
"The world is going to come to an end in a blaze of fire and I don't want to be here for it. It's already starting. Why do you think all these kids are in so much trouble?"
That night, Barbie took a fistful of pills. At the hospital, she learned she was carrying a baby.
A couple of nights later, Barbie went home to tell her father about the pregnancy. Eddie Humphrey said he would take care of the baby, as he had her brothers and sisters. Kathy Humphrey agreed, saying Barbie would regret giving up her child for adoption.
Barbie's probation officer was the only one who suggested Barbie go to the county health department for a checkup. She made an appointment but skipped it. Police picked her up a few days later, malnourished, dehydrated and back on crack, and took her to PAR Academy, a drug treatment center in St. Petersburg.
This past April, Jacob had to be removed by an emergency C-section after he stopped breathing. At 5 pounds, 4 ounces, he spent four days in intensive care at St. Joseph's Hospital. Jacob is out of danger. He has been adopted.
Lawanda Ravoira, the state director of PACE, a program for at-risk girls, said kids like Barbie "make us scream from the rooftops for intervention."
PACE -- Practical, Academic and Cultural Education -- opened a center in Pinellas in 1997 and in Pasco and Hillsborough this year. "The family is where all this is really decided," said Mitchell, the juvenile justice worker. "Mom says, "Stay out of trouble,' yet she's in it deep herself. Education and family stability is the biggest thing that's going to help these kids."
The number of girls arrested for violent crimes is spiraling. In Pinellas last year, 2,503 crimes were committed by girls, up 44 percent from 1993; Pasco, up 63 percent; Hillsborough, up 39 percent; Citrus, up 46 percent; Hernando, up 62 percent.
Yet girls like Barbie can be saved, Ravoira says.
"I am not ready as a society or as an individual to give up on a 16-year-old girl," she said. "She's a child. How desperate must a child be to decide that she would be better off in prison? That's not her failure. It's ours."
Two days before her 16th birthday, Barbie added arson, burglary, battery and grand theft convictions to her lengthy rap sheet. Circuit Judge Stanley Mills spared Barbie a prison sentence but ordered her to complete a two-year Bible-based program for troubled girls in Tennessee.
Barbie will be on probation for 15 years -- if she doesn't land back in jail before then. "Nobody thinks I can do it," she said. "Sometimes I don't think I can do it."
Even Mills, who could have sent Barbie to prison for nearly 10 years, isn't certain he did the right thing. "Maybe I'm just a bleeding-heart liberal," he said, "but there is something there worth saving. However dim, there is some hope for Barbara."
Mills says he won't do it again.
"I should have just knocked the snot out of you in juvenile court," he told her at sentencing. "I feel in my bones that I'm going to regret this a year from now. If you mess up again, you are going to prison."
"Don't be back, Barbara," he warned, "unless it's to say how well you're doing. I think I would enjoy that very much."