High up in Benson Tower on Poydras Street, a young girl with braided hair gazes quietly down upon the beach-white roof of the Louisiana Superdome. Her name is Kiristen. She is a ward of the state, a child of what one social worker calls New Orleans’ “vulnerable population.”
Six years ago, she was a 4-year-old girl huddling with her mother and six siblings inside the Superdome as Hurricane Katrina tore at the stadium’s roof. Today, Kiristen is living in foster care and is available for adoption.
Her view of the gleaming renovated Superdome is an office window at the state Department of Children & Family Services. A math enthusiast and fan of pop singer Justin Bieber, she recently celebrated her 10th birthday: “I’m two digits!”
On a recent summer day, Kiristen was one of very few New Orleans residents – of any age – who were talking with public enthusiasm about becoming a police officer with the troubled New Orleans Police Department.
“They keep people safe,” she said, reiterating earlier remarks on a brief profile posted with her picture on the state Family Services website.
Sally-Ann Roberts, a preeminent advocate of New Orleans youth and co-anchor of WWL-TV’s morning show, mentioned Kiristen’s career ambition in a brief, heart-felt adoption feature on June 1. The same show featured separate in-studio interviews with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux on Quatrevaux’s controversial decision to clear Police Chief Ronal Serpas of any wrongdoing in an ongoing investigation of a police “paid detail” scandal.
Both the NOPD and the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office have been under intense federal scrutiny for various alleged civil rights violations, ranging from deadly police coverups during the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to prison rapes and in-custody deaths of mentally ill inmates.
Kiristen’s cameo comment on her hopeful future in law enforcement stood out against the familiar drone of police corruption and misconduct.
Detra Ward, an 18-year veteran of Family Services, says Kiristen is unique among the hundreds of foster care children she has overseen during her last five years as an adoption supervisor in the New Orleans area. “She’s the first one I know that wants to grow up to become a police officer,” Ward says. “That’s a key thing for us to know – that they feel safe and the trust that they have in police officers.”
Annette Snyder, a state social worker and adoptive home recruiter at Family Services, says most of the agency’s children up for adoption are victims of parental neglect; others have been sexually assaulted or physically attacked. They are children whose parents are judged “unfit” by the local courts, social workers say. They are kids orphaned by unplanned pregnancies, substance abuse, mental illness and other social maladies.
In an exclusive interview, obtained after agreeing to respect the privacy of her biological parents, Kiristen made clear she wants one day to protect others from harm – including prison inmates. If she doesn’t become a police officer, she sees a future as a security officer “at the jail.” “They keep people from fighting and hurting each other,” she says.
Kiristen’s auspicious opinions of cops and jailers appear shaped in part by personal observations. “You call 9-1-1 and (police) come out to your house; they stop the people from fighting.”
Prior to being placed in foster care, Kiristen says police were called to her house three times last year. “They were nice each time,” she says, adding, “when my little niece was crying, they held her.”
“Why was she crying?” asked Snyder, the social worker who stayed with Kiristen through her interview.
“She was scared,” Kiristen says.
Kiristen says she has never actually talked with an NOPD police officer and would prefer to meet a female cop. “I want to know how they deal with people,” she says.
Q. “What should happen to police officers who break the rules?”
A. “They should look for another job.”
Kiristen says Louisiana would be a better place if the “bad people” were taken “out of the state.”
Q. “How many bad people do you think there are in Louisiana?”
A. “A million.”
Q. “How many good people do you think there are in Louisiana?”
Kiristen, who says she has traveled to Texas, North Carolina and Rhode Island since Katrina, alarmed both social worker Snyder and this columnist by talking about leaving Louisiana.
Asked if the governor and mayor could do a better job of getting rid of illegal drugs, she said “Yes!” before this reporter could finish his sentence.
Asked what else could be done to make New Orleans a safer place, the little veteran of Katrina said: “Get the houses raised up.” Kiristen, who will not be eligible to join the reforming NOPD until age 20, says the best way to thank a police officer for good work is to “give them a card.”
Kiristen celebrated her 10th birthday on June 6. She was one of 4,543 living in foster care in Louisiana that date including 430 from metro New Orleans (Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes). She was also one of 74 children available for adoption as of June 6, Family Services figures show.
There were 90 murders in New Orleans by Kiristen’s birthday in 2011; the same total for June 6, 2010, Police Chief Ronal Serpas said in an interview with Gambit (June 14, 2011).
Snyder says November is National Adoption Month. Family Services is co-hosting a 2-mile walk with the Greater New Orleans Foster Parent Association at Zephyr Field in November. She plans to invite Chief Serpas to attend.
Meanwhile, prospects of finding Kiristen a “forever family” appear bright, Snyder says. She is also eagerly anticipating a trip to Disney World this summer – a foster parent’s reward for good grades in school. She says she hopes to one day have a baby sister and a “dog or a parrot.”