I was standing mid block in the Central district of Seattle restraining a 12 year old African American kid in bear hug at two in the morning. He was screaming. Telling me to get off of him. Yelling as loud as he could to call the police and trying everything he could to get away. He screamed, he growled, he kicked, and he told me that Smokey was going to kill me.
When the first person yelled down from a window above us that they were going to call the police I calmly told them that I was Sean’s case worker, that he had run away and it would be great if they would call the police. I heard the window shut but it was a long time before I finally saw the police.
When the the three men in the Impala pulled up and told me I better let go of their cousin, I started to wonder if maybe this wasn’t the best idea. I recited my line about being his case worker and they drove off. They didn’t threaten to call the police.
His name was Sean. He was 12 years old and it was only because I had one of the first cell phones that I was able to save him from another set of nights with a man called Smokey.
I was working for the Southeast Youth and Family Services as a case worker. I had a caseload of about 16 kids. Sean was special. A smart, good looking kid with a smile that would always get him an extra piece of candy or special treatment. He lived with his Grandmother and she was not the problem. There’s a chance his mom or dad were part of the problem, but I never found out.
What I did find out was where he was likely going to be if he ran away again. Once, while taking him home from an outing we were driving by a Taco Bell parking lot and he said, “This is where I dip in”. I didn’t know what he meant. So I asked, and he told me, “This is where I go when I run”. I didn’t think much of it at the time.
When his grandmother called me to tell me he’d run away again I remembered that conversation and figured I’d give it a shot. I had told her to call at any time. After all, I did have a fancy new cell phone. I was up, I don’t remember why, and crossing the I-90 floating bridge across the lake back into Seattle when I got the call on my Sprint PCS phone. I finished crossing the bridge and headed for Jackson street. I parked in a parking lot facing the street and it wasn’t long before Sean walked in front of my truck. Dumb luck.
I called out my window and got out figuring he’d be happy to see me and get in the truck for a ride home. He saw me and ran.
The kid was fast but he was still a kid. And he was scared. He screamed as he ran. Slamming my door, but leaving my window down, I ran after him. He ran across what would be a busy street if it weren’t one in the morning and into a nearby neighborhood. It was there that I caught up to him.
I didn’t tackle him to the ground or anything as dramatic as that, I just caught him and pulled him into a big bear hug. I fully expected him to calm down once he felt like he was safe. He didn’t calm down.
He pleaded with me to let him go. I calmly told him that I wasn’t going anywhere. That he was safe now. He just cried and screamed, helpless to get out of my hug. I wasn’t letting go.
Sean had come back from running away once before with long black and blue braids woven into his hair, wearing a bright yellow halter top and short shorts. If you are a 12 year old boy and you want to dress in girl’s clothes, there’s no harm in that. If you’re a 12 year old boy, dressed up in women’s clothes spending multiple days and nights as a runaway with a man named Smokey, well, that’s a little more complicated. Sean never really told us the experiences that he had when he ran away. He just showed that bright smile and changed the subject. When pressed he got sullen and when silent. None of us believed that no harm was being done.
The police eventually came. Two cars. Four officers. Lights flashed off windows as the officers got out of their cars. Unconcerned, they approached us. By now Sean was sniffling but no longer freaking out. I once again recited my story about being a Sean’s caseworker and that he’d run away.
I finally let go and the police took him into the backseat of the police car. He immediately slumped into the corner of the seat and cried. I could see his shoulders shaking as the officer closed the door.
With my ID and my business card the police didn’t have many questions for me. Before they left me standing mid block in the Central district at what was now close to three in the morning an officer looked at me and said, “I know you think you were doing the right thing. Don’t do it again.” I nodded and started walking back to my truck. It was still there. Window down with my new Sprint PCS phone on the passenger seat. I picked it up, hit *69 and told Sean’s grandmother that her grandson was safe.
She thanked me. And that was enough.