MIRACLES HAPPEN IN NEW JERSEY

Roy, a troubled white boy, goes over the edge, gets locked up and is left to rot. Along comes Linwood, a black; construction worker, who gives up his settled family life to allow Roy a second chance. John Carlin reports
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ROY

"I set animals on fire. Cats. I'd hang 'em on trees and pour gasoline over them. Then they burnt ... It's nothing I'm proud of."

Roy used to do to cats what the world used to do to him. His childhood was a torment and he responded in kind. When he was three his father died, run over by a truck. He screamed and screamed and his mother did not know what to do. With four other children to look after, she just gave up, pretended Roy wasn't there, sought comfort in strange men. Roy started fires in the home. One of his mother's boyfriends raped him one day and Roy became crazier. He burnt and mutilated animals, he stole his mother's money and did odd things, like destroying his sister's clothes. He was hungry for attention so his mother sent him to a psychiatric hospital. Roy, who was seven then, remained there most of the time for the next six years. Some of the older boys raped him. His mother and sisters hardly ever went to see him. They didn't visit him at Christmas or on his birthdays.

"I would phone home and they would hang up."

AND JOAN SERGI

At the hospital they put Roy on heavy medication. He grew very fat. The first time Joan Sergi set eyes on him he was 13 and weighed nearly 17 stone.

"I was driving into the children's psychiatric hospital and there, in the hospital grounds, I looked up and there was Roy. He was walking aimlessly along the sidewalk, alone, like a zombie. He was totally huge, drugged up on Thorazine, which makes you gain weight tremendously. The way he was walking, we call it the Thorazine Shuffle. It was winter, about four in the afternoon. He came up to the car and knocked on the window. He was in a stupor. His eyes wouldn't focus. His speech was slurred."

Sergi runs the Division of Youth and Family Services in Bergen County, New Jersey. Her job is to search for and rescue abused and neglected children, to deploy the resources of the state of New Jersey to save them from drowning. Her options are to put the children into institutions, like the one Roy attended; to locate them in foster homes; or dispatch staff to try and heal the children in the communities where they live. With Roy she decided to try a new experiment. She would find someone to look after him round the clock. A father figure. The alternative for Roy was a life in and out of institutions, more in than out. Most likely he would end up in jail. Look at the profiles of America's most hardened criminals, the lifers, the prisoners on death row; more often than not, their upbringing corresponds in the harrowing essentials to Roy's. America has more people locked behind bars than any other country. Sergi wanted to rescue Roy from the rubbish heap and give him a chance to live happy and free.

"If he stayed there he would be warehoused. He'd be institutionalised. All you learn is 'the bell rings, I get up, I get fed'. There are never enough staff so they compensate by prescribing heavy medication, the easy answer. It became our goal, our battle to get Roy out of the residential set-up. To establish a precedent. See what happened if you gave a child like this unrestricted, unconditional care. The doctors at the hospital said Roy could not live outside an institution. The head psychiatrist said he could not let Roy go because he would become a rapist. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could give Roy some hands-on care?' But everyone at the hospital said, 'no way'. We had fight after fight with people who sincerely believed they were proposing the best course of action for Roy, though in some cases there were egos on the line too."

Sergi has a Master's degree in psychology. She has been working with abused and neglected children for more than 20 years. She wears jeans and T-shirts to work. Her hair is long and blonde and falls in a fringe over her brow. Her office is like a greenhouse, dense with large, leafy potted plants. On the walls she has pictures of mountains and beautiful lakes. She is a child of the Sixties. But she is also tough. She won the battle with the psychiatrists. Chemistry and confinement lost out to love and Linwood Sykes, the man she selected to be Roy's surrogate dad.

AND LINWOOD

"When he first met me his first words were, 'Here's a big black nigger'."

Linwood had no hard feelings. Roy was his mission and he was going to accomplish it. A skilled construction worker, he left his job to take care of the boy. Sergi made an arrangement with him whereby her office paid him the equivalent of what he made on the building sites in exchange for him devoting himself full-time, six days a week, to Roy. Linwood would turn up at Roy's mother's place, where he now slept, early in the morning. He would wake Roy up, groom him and dress him, ride on the school bus with him, spend all day at school with him, bring him home, settle him down. Roy attended a special school for children with handicaps and disabilities of all sorts.

"In Roy's household he could do what he wanted when he wanted. His mother didn't have time to wash him or feed him. The mother had boyfriends, lots of boyfriends. And the four sisters, well ... There were a lot of things going on at Roy's household. At the school it was only white kids. I wasn't treated well because I was a black man. When OJ was acquitted they would look at me with anger and say white people should riot. But they needed me to control Roy. He acted up badly. He was real violent. He would beat and punch the women teachers. He was 14 but he couldn't read or write. His writing was chicken scratch."

Today Roy understands why he was such a problem kid. He still has problems. He has a speech impediment. Because of the medication he has to take he jumps his consonants, has a watery way of speaking.

"It was because I lost my father. It was growing up without a man in the house. But men did come to the house. Spanish guys. They would pay my mother's bills. They would get drunk and they would break things. Or they would punch my mother if she didn't cook their meals. There was a guy called Buddy who would take out my sister. He wanted to have sex with her. The guys wanted to have sex with me. My mum put a restraining order on Buddy. Tony, the police came and took him away. So there was no man in the house to look after me. When my dad died it was a real big one."

Roy mistrusted Linwood at first, like he mistrusted all men. Linwood being black made it worse, because Roy had never been in the company of black people before. Linwood was tall and corpulent, a basketball player long since out of training.

"I didn't look forward to him at first. I was scared, very scared. I'd never seen anyone so big. But after a week I saw he was doing things for me no one had ever done before. He took me to the zoo. He made me my first hamburgers on a barbecue. He bought me an ice-cream. No one had bought me an ice-cream before."

Linwood kept at it for two and a half years, six days a week. Roy got better. He lost weight. He learnt to read and write. He received awards at school for most improved student, student with the best attendance record.

"I went with Roy to the Bronx Zoo. Before he just wanted to hurt animals. Now he got to like them."

Then, one day, disaster struck. When Linwood wasn't around, Roy met a youth adviser who told him he could be free, end his dependence on all supervision, live a normal teenage life. But he had to end his dependence on Linwood first. So he came up with a plan. He pretended Linwood was beating him up. He hit himself with a baseball bat. Linwood backed out, went back into the construction business. Chaos followed. Roy went berserk. He fell apart. He begged on the streets, he stole from shops, he was dragged off in handcuffs by the police. "I was like a waterfall going right over a cliff."

AT LINWOOD'S HOME

Roy, now 16, spent two months back at the psychiatric hospital. He realised, in the rare moments when he deviated into reason, that he had blown it; that Linwood was the best chance he ever had. Sergi, refusing to believe the war was lost, resolved that there was only one thing for it. Roy had to move in with Linwood. Linwood agreed to take him in, even though he had a family of his own; a wife and three teenage children. Sergi again battled with the authorities and won. The day Linwood went to pick Roy up at the hospital he found that he had grown enormously fat again.

"I was eating like an animal. But then when Linwood came for me, it was indescribable. I was so relieved. I was bouncing all over the hospital. The date - I never forget the date - was 10 February, 1994. I'd spent Christmas alone. I felt really stupid. I said, 'I'm not going to blow this second chance'."

Linwood had been hurt by Roy's lies about how he'd been beating him up but now he too made a similar resolve. He understood that for Roy lying had become a reflex for self-preservation. He could not help himself.

"I really liked Roy a lot and I figured everyone who comes into his life leaves him and that makes him angry and I just put it in my mind that I was never going to leave him. Slowly, as he learns trust, he's been learning not to lie. At first he would lie for two months; then a month; then two weeks; then two days. Now he'll lie for five minutes and then he'll apologise and come clean."

Linwood lives in a two-storey red-brick home in a quiet neighbourhood. The home is spotless, amply furnished, cluttered with framed family photographs. Roy sleeps upstairs, opposite Linwood's bedroom. His wife is a devout Christian, but her charity, and Linwood's, were tested to the limit within two weeks of Roy's arrival. Twenty years ago her family had given her a gold ring to mark her graduation from college. The ring had a value beyond price.

"Roy stole the ring and sold it at a pawn shop for $20 to buy candy. It was hell - still is, sometimes. I suppose I could have said, 'I don't need this'. But it didn't cross my mind. I was stern with Roy but not rough. I never treat him with violence. You never do that to a child that's been abused. I never yell at him because if I do that then he can do that too. Roy tries to make me angry because that's always been his only way to get attention, but the more angry he tries to get me the more calm I become. Roy always tests my patience. But I'm everlasting." Roy would sometimes steal money, wipe snot on the walls and then lie that it was nothing to do with him. That upset her, but she share's Linwood's fortitude.

"My wife's a Baptist and she offers everything we do for Roy up to God. It was hard for our kids to understand at first but we explained it to them like this, 'You too could be in a bad situation. You never know, something could happen to us, someone else could have to raise you, so you should appreciate what you have and value what we do for Roy'."

BLACK AND WHITE

President Clinton says that lifting the burden of race in America is the unfinished work of our time. At Linwood's home they have done it already.

"I think we all need to get together, buckle down, get along. With Roy it's a complete coincidence that he's white. It's not an issue for me. It doesn't matter if you're black or white. He's a kid and needs some help. It don't matter. This kid had no place to go. He had nobody," says Linwood.

For Roy, Linwood is not black, he's not white. He's "Dad".

"Roy is scared of black people. Some-times I take him to certain parts of town, to Patterson where I grew up, and he won't get out of the car. Yes, he's scared of them, of black areas. I can understand that. When I lived in Patterson I swore wouldn't bring up my kids there."

There is a reason Linwood has taken Roy under his wing. Linwood knows what it is like to grow up living on the edge. He could have ended up living a life of crime, in and out of prison.

"My father never took care of the family. He made good money. I shoe- shined as a kid to pay my way. I met this guy who saved me. His name was Richard Blake. I called him Uncle Blake. He was not related to me but when I was 13 he took care of me, taught me how to play basketball. He took me down south. He took me to a lot of places. He taught me what's right and wrong."

Linwood is Roy's Uncle Blake. He takes him on trips, he rewards good behaviour with pizza, he buys him the same clothes he buys his own children. He is never aggressive but he lets Roy know that there is a threat of last resort.

"He breaks the rules and he is out of my home. He knows when I say something and he does not listen to me, he knows the next thing is that he'll be moving on. I told him the rules and regulations day one. 'I'm not going to let you do to my family what you did to your family. There's going to be no robbing, no taking people's clothes.' He knows I'm always serious, that I will follow through, no crap."

AND WOMEN

"I feel very angry towards the women in my family. They're only 15 minutes away but they never come by, they never call. Well, once they came in two and a half years. My mother was married to this Spanish guy. They told me a few days later. They never invited me to the wedding. My sister's getting married now. I asked her if I could give her away. She said, 'Never!' "

There is an eerie edge to Roy's sen- timents. Linwood is afraid that, unbound, he could become a rapist. Last year Linwood started taking him to a sex therapist. "When a woman walks by he looks at her from the neck to the knees. As she walks on, he turns around, cranes his neck like he's going snap it from looking."

Roy's one sexual contact was not memorable for the warmth and tenderness of feeling. It happened on one rare night when he was out of Linwood's ken. Linwood had had to leave town for the weekend and he dropped Roy off on Saturday night at his mother's place. She was happy when a friend volunteered to take Roy out to a carnival.

"He hooked up with these four guys who got him drunk and found out that he was a virgin. So they went out and got him a prostitute. The other four guys went first then Roy went. He had oral sex with her first. She didn't give him oral sex, he gave her. Then whatever else they did. The next day I went to pick him up. His skin was covered with dirt - real black, oil stains. We went to his mother's and he asked for a glass of water. She gave it to him, then when he tried to give her the glass back she said, 'No, take it with you'. A couple of weeks later I took him for a hair-cut and he said he couldn't urinate. He had some veneral disease. They tested him for Aids and he came up negative. That's the only sexual experience he's had."

THE TAMING OF

Roy still goes to school but he is not the terror he was. He helps the teachers now. He does for other children, younger and worse off than he is, what Linwood does for him.

"I go to a private school for specialised children. Some can't walk, some are blind. It varies what they have. I work with all of them. Some kids, I read them a book or something. It's really fun. I help them cross the street. I go with them to buy clothes. Now the kids and teacher want to be around me. Before my dad - before Linwood - came along everybody despised me, didn't want to be near me."

Linwood says that at home Roy gets on fine with his two teenage daughters, 17 and 14. They don't bother him, he doesn't bother them. Roy is friends with Linwood's 13-year-old boy, Lamar. They all talk together, dine together.

"This is not just family for me. This is beyond a family. Linwood gives me everything. He shows me love I never had. He lets me know I'm somebody and not a nobody. He respects me."

In Linwood's community they know that he has not only saved a child, he has made society safer. They've bombarded him with awards and diplomas at ceremonies honouring his rare selflessness. They see him as the local saint.

"Here's some satisfaction right here that you can't measure with money at all. I make a bit less now than I did when I worked in construction but it was worth giving up because if you don't give nothing back you never accomplished anything much yourself."

The work is not finished yet. Perhaps it never will be. Roy is still on a rich cocktail of medication - 1,700 milligrams a day. That makes his mouth hang open much of the time, conveying an impression of slow- mindedness that his bright alert eyes belie. He is not fat any more; if anything he is too thin. His body is gangly and he stoops. He doesn't carry himself with confidence. He could crumple still at any moment.

"Roy is not complete. He can't take care of himself yet. He has the body of a 19-year-old but in the mind he is still 14. We'll have to see what happens when he is 21. Then the state of New Jersey will stop paying for him. But the truth is I would never kick him out of the house. Roy has made good strides but he is very fragile still. Somehow he's like a magnet. Trouble finds him. If I cut him loose at 21, it would be a slippery slope. That's the sad thing about him. He's come a long way but he could suddenly say 'No one loves me' and fall into a depression that could set off a whole reaction and consequences I don't want to think about."

Linwood and Roy together are a corny Fifties image of the strong father and the adoring gee-whiz son. They play basketball together in the back yard. They work together in the kitchen. Roy puts his arms around Linwood and Linwood envelops him in a big bear hug. Roy looks up at Linwood in worship and says, "That's my dad". But ask Roy what he likes to do most in life and, even with Linwood standing right next to him, this is what he will say:

"Sleeping. If I could sleep all day I would. Deadly honest. I'd sleep all day."

Why?

"Because I can't get in trouble when I'm asleep. I may sound stupid but I'm being honest."

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