Greg Jenkins: How did we fail Kourtney?

May 30, 2014 

Kourtney Dawson died on the street, a few blocks from the Durham group home where she lived with other mentally handicapped adults.

The innocent victim of a senseless criminal act, she was shot in the head Feb. 26 as police say two brothers attempted to rob another man of $20 on Holloway Street, where she was walking. She fell dead on the sidewalk in front of Antioch Baptist Church, where Wednesday night services had ended an hour earlier.

The parishioners of Antioch Baptist and the surrounding neighborhood took Kourtney’s murder hard. They hosted a memorial service for her at the church, inviting friends, family members, representatives of the mental health community, victims' support groups, and anti-crime activists. People who knew Kourtney remembered her as a pleasant person who loved animals. But they also acknowledged that Kourtney was imperfect beyond her IQ, which never measured higher than 70.

She became a ward of the state when her aggressive behavior became too much for her grandmother, who raised her, to handle. Her path after finishing at Jordan High School in 2007 wound through three other group homes until she landed at a facility on Cherry Grove Street, less than half a mile from Antioch Baptist. She was kicked out of a couple of those earlier homes for breaking rules: curfew violations, drug infractions, the typical types of things that ensnare people with a diminished capacity to control impulses and make good decisions for themselves.

Even after moving to Cherry Grove Street, Kourtney continued to hang out with people who took advantage of her. Perhaps as a result, she was arrested for prostitution. The police officers on the beat knew her, but mostly as a person who smiled at them when they spoke to her.

Who should have been protecting Kourtney the night she was murdered? A group home is not an institution or a prison, so the staff has little power to enforce rules violations other than to take away privileges and eventually shuttle off troublemakers to other group homes. The residents are adults, free to spend their days as they please. Kourtney talked of getting a job or taking art classes at the community college, but those ambitions never came to pass.

And so it was that Kourtney Dawson lived in one of Durham's toughest neighborhoods, a place riddled with drugs, gangs and people who prey on the mentally handicapped. As far as most of society was concerned, she was forgotten – the same as thousands of other North Carolinians and Americans like her – people without any other place to go, without a family member able to care for them, without a state and a nation that understands, values and protects our handicapped adults.

And so it was that she died, hit by a stray bullet fired by a repeat criminal.

Remember Kourtney, and you will remember the many people in her same situation – pushed to the margins of society, sometimes more in harm’s way than safe, often forgotten except by loved ones and caretakers. These are the people who are often difficult to get to know, sometimes hard to communicate with, occasionally too awkward to handle social interactions. But they can work and read and love and sing and laugh and fear and cry just like all of us.

How do we make this right? We keep the memory of Kourtney alive – until we learn to value our mentally handicapped brothers and sisters as worthy of better than we currently give them.

Greg Jenkins is a family member of Kourtney Dawson. He lives in Durham.

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