Social worker still mourns loss of 12-year-old

Not every child can be saved.

Not every kid who grows up broken can be steered away from bad choices by caring adults toward some new life, one with a purpose.

John Kass2

But Valerie Groth, a veteran Chicago Public Schools social worker at New Sullivan Elementary School on the South Side, believed she had found that boy.

She just knew she could save him, because this was a boy who was determined to save himself.

So she envisioned it, the scrawny 12-year-old who bounced happy and laughing into her office, that boy from a violent South Chicago neighborhood called The Bush, the boy growing, going to college, getting a job, raising a family, getting away.

Groth isn’t some rookie believing she can work miracles with every child. She’s been a social worker in tough neighborhoods, helping broken children, for seven years. She has a caseload of some 900 kids.

Not all can be helped. They grow up in difficult circumstances at home and try to survive the hunger games on the street. Many don’t make it. But this one could, because this boy had life in him. People liked him. More importantly, he liked himself.

And he had visions of his own about the future, with a career and a family. He even made a vision board, filling it with quotes about climbing the corporate ladder, and how all good things start with a single step. One quote said simply, “You can see clearly now.”

He could see his future, and so could she.

“Ryan was just one of a kind. He just had a great spirit. He was happy-go-lucky, always smiling — just really goofy, always trying to put a smile on everyone else’s face,” said Groth. “The funny thing is that he had a tough life, so he had every reason to be upset. And I never saw that.”

Then she stopped talking. The petite young woman was shrinking, considering, remembering. We were sitting in an Armenian restaurant. Behind her was the window. She hardly touched her food. The afternoon sun lit her face, and her lip trembled.

She called him Ryan, the name he wanted her to use, and the name his family used. But in The Bush, the kids called him “Peanut.” His given name is Niazi, but it was misspelled by the morgue when he died and misspelled later in this column when I began writing about forgotten victims. Niazi was forgotten, and misspelled.

A bullet pierced his brain on May 19, 2012, as he was running home. The shot caught him right outside his house.

His killing didn’t make big news, hardly any news at all. And it didn’t prompt great political speeches, and televised tears and official fists shaking in rage because there was no currency in his death for the politicians.

The NATO summit was opening. All Chicago wanted to know was: What will the mayor and police chief say? What will the protesters do?

The murder of Niazi Ryan Banks, 12, remains unsolved.

There’s a cost to remembering the death of this child. But there is a cost to forgetting, too, and Groth doesn’t want to forget him.

“It doesn’t make anything better, but it was just disgusting to me that nothing seemed to be done about it,” she said. “It was not on the news stations. And I wanted to see that. I felt like he needed that.

“He was a little kid. I felt like if it was a pretty white girl from the North Side, of course it would be all over the place.

“But just because …” Groth started to break. “He was such a good kid. And he deserved (news coverage). It’s not fair. He was a person too.”

She lives in the South Loop, near where the NATO summit was held, so to avoid the congestion and protests she spent that weekend at a suburban hotel. She got the call Sunday morning. Later, she was told that she screamed.

But she had work to do, to properly bury this boy from a troubled home. There was a funeral to plan, cemeteries and churches to contact, and grief counseling for the students, many of whom are forgotten too.

“That was really, really hard for me,” she said. “Your primary emotion is sadness, and then the rest of it was just like anger. Horrible anger and bitterness.”

The young social worker said she didn’t want this column to be all about her.

I told her it would and it wouldn’t.

There are also the 900 who depend on her.

“You’re hungry, you feel neglected, you witness violence, you live in a really cold house,” she said of those children in tough neighborhoods. “You don’t have a parent that’s willing to help you with your homework or study for a test.”

And there are others who bear similar scars. How many teachers have lost a child they tried to help? How many social workers, how many neighborhood volunteers?

And then there are the cops, and the paramedics who cradle children as they die, or find an infant cold in a basement. When they come home, their husbands or wives ask, “How was your day?” and they say nothing.

They’re part of Chicago’s forgotten too, like Groth, and like Niazi Ryan Banks, the boy with that vision board.

Many people in this town are thick with scars, and we don’t notice. But if you try, as Ryan said, you can see clearly now.

(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also hosts a radio show on WLS-AM. His e-mail address is: [email protected], and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)

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