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Salt Lake City Weekly Mean Streets

By John Harrington

July 21, 1997:  I'll never forget the sound of that brick shattering the front picture window of the 900-square-foot beach town bungalow we called home. I was 14, and it signaled for me, my little brother, older sister and father that my "mom" was back.

All the hateful memories flooded into my head in seconds — her years of drunken beatings, particularly of me, the "defiant" oldest boy who knew what she was doing was wrong, terribly wrong — even when I was 4 — and who fought back.

The nights home alone without dinner while she was out boozing. Her more-than-idle threats — no, attempts — to kill us, her filthy language, filthy house and gutter-bum, gin-bottle "boyfriends" escorting her home at 1 a.m., while I huddled terrified with my little brother in a room I secured by pushing a dresser across the door after my sister would run and hide at a friend's house.

My "mom" came from wealth, to prove that economics don't often dictate things. Her disgusting, repulsive, smarmy, fat, white-haired divorce lawyer, whom we were told to refer to as "Uncle Harvey," used the laws of the day and her old-family money to keep us in her custody while he got paid with more than cash. That dog spent untold hours, I'm sure, covering up her mounting abuse against her children so he could get his extorted satisfaction.

We were always the neighborhood's — and there were many as we bounced around — "tragic little secret."

Ah, my childhood.

It was ripped back into sharp focus recently when I picked up on the news item about 25-year-old Hope (what an irony) Victoria Hutchinson, who locked her five small children alone in a room every night for two weeks at 1639 Jefferson Street while she was out imitating my mother.

She was on a binge.

The age-spacing of her kids tells you something about this clone of my "mom." At least my mother had the decency to only have four kids, three who lived and a fourth, Mary, whom I never had the chance to meet. She died as an infant, I suppose, because she had too much trouble properly developing inside her mother's four-pack-of-cigs and fifth o'gin-a-day polluted womb.

Hutchinson's kids are 7, 6-year-old twins, 5 and 4. On July 2, the oldest, who reminds me of myself, figured out a way to jimmy the lock on the door to a bedroom where "mom" had barricaded them without food — well, she did leave some butter and frozen peas in the fridge — before she hit the bars.

When the kids forced the lock, they had to lean into the door to shove the chairs "mom" had stacked on the outside of the door out of the way so they could get to the butter and peas before calling 911 for a little help.

When the cops arrived at the pigsty, they noted the only thing in the house that was well-stocked was the booze.

Ma Hutchinson's kids were taken into protective custody.

She was not immediately arrested, but she since has been charged with five counts of Class A misdemeanor child abuse. They can't find her, though. She's gone.

This is where I remind everybody who has been ripping on the Utah Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) — which, I might add, has largely deserved it, since some children have been abused and died in its foster care — that, without the agency, the Hutchinson kids are toast.

It was the same for me when the State of New Jersey came to Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Elementary School in South Orange a couple of days after President Kennedy got shot and plucked me, my sister and brother from our classrooms that fateful week in 1963. The night before, my "mom" had topped all previous scenes when she tried to throw me out a third-story window of our rented house. "Uncle Harvey's" divorce papers had long since driven my father to another town, allowing no daily contact and only once-a-month visits. "Mom" was free to be herself and I was usually the sport. Neighbors broke in the front door and saved us.

"Mom" was taken to jail and the landlord posted the eviction notice the next morning. Before "Uncle Harvey" could bail her, our social workers were at the school after the neighbors had dropped us off.

It was a break. Previously, "mom's" tirades had been concealed. At one point, when we were kicked out of one place because of her drinking, we landed at the YMCA homeless center in Newark for a few weeks. So, yes, America, I was one of those "homeless" people. That's how it happens.

When the state finally intervened, I was a fifth grader, sis was in eighth, my bewildered brother in first. Sis was lucky: The parents of her best friend agreed to take her in. My brother and I weren't so lucky — or so we thought.

We went to a "state home" in rough and tumble Union County, where, for months, we were the only "white" kids in a group of more than 150 or so blacks and Latinos.

How was it? Damned wonderful. You could see the Empire State Building from the swings. After a few weeks of running "turf fights" because we were the "new" kids on the block, we were accepted into the amazingly colorblind fold. There were scads of staff who made us feel, for the first time in years, that we were safe, loved and had a chance.

The other kids became our family. The experience shaped my entire life. We cried the day we left. Now, when I look at anything, I always catch the view from the ground-up first. I know what the Hutchinson kids' lives have been.

That's why I am happy DCFS has them. Because, despite the fact that the agency has its problems, those five little darlings now have something they did not have before — their chance.

Caseworkers had to split the kids up, for now, but they are going to try to get them in a foster home where they can be together. The kids, whose teeth are in bad shape, will get dental work.

They'll eat more than frozen peas and butter. They'll get a few toys, and sleep in beds with clean sheets. They won't have to wade through garbage on the floor, nor watch their drunken mother bring home another scumbag from the bar. Loving people will give them baths.

Eventually, when I was in seventh grade, my father got us back and raised us through high school. The day after I graduated, I left the East forever.

The West inherited me. I have never looked back at that seething cauldron of rotten memories. I've visited, briefly, four times in 26 years. Maybe the Hutchinsons are young enough to forget. I doubt it.

From the sound of things, they'll never wind up outside of foster care or adoption until they're grown, but they will still be far better off. I urge DCFS to do everything possible to find some way to allow the kids to grow up together. Maybe some wealthy folks reading this will set up a fund so they can go to college — or even take them in.

I don't know if my "mom" is dead or alive. I remember her in my prayers, which are usually couched in terms where I ask God to let me forgive her and, now that I have three little kids who center my universe, I also ask God to make sure that if she is alive, my kids never meet her.

Now that the Hutchinson kids have been delivered from harm in much the same way I once was, my biggest fear for them is not that they are in the custody of the big, bad DCFS. No, it's not DCFS I'm worried about.

It's just that someday, when they are older and their lives seem to be getting on track, I'm terrified that the kids will be wrenched awake one night by a brick coming through their window, forever forcing them to battle the urge to live the rest of their lives on the run, hard-pressed to put down any roots.

And, God forbid, because of that, mixed with the keen survival skills they will have developed, they might become reporters.

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