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Eduardo Chavez logs and bags evidence, including nearly $1,200 in cash during a warrant search of the home of a suspect. / Jack Gruber, USA TODAY

Crime reporters often get brief looks at the innards of troubled lives.

Not long ago, I observed from the doorway as DEA agents executed a search warrant on a suspected heroin dealer's drab, one-bedroom duplex in a scruffy Albuquerque neighborhood.

A search is an intimate thing. The agents opened every drawer, peering into the vegetable bin in the refrigerator, under the cushions of the couch and quite literally into the dirty laundry as I looked on.

I scribbled what I saw into a notebook:

"Tile floors, dark blue walls, worn out orange sofas, Fruity Pebbles, Cinnamon Toast Crunch above fridge, Oreos, Doritos, potato chips. Child's report card on fridge. Magnet advertising defense attorney. Last Supper painting in alcove in dining area. Baby bottle on table. Finger paints. Upstairs loft area, no furniture but broken full-length mirror. No bathroom door. Homemade black curtains hung on shower rod to cover door. Huge flat screen TV, XBox. Bedroom painted purple but the paint doesn't reach all the way to the ceiling. Cross over bed. Children sleeping on an air mattress on the floor. King mattress on the floor. "

The words are meant to jog my memory when I sit down to write a newspaper article. I try not to judge. But my notes show I'm judging even as I scratch out a simple list of stuff.

The suspect, 33, lives in the apartment with his girlfriend, 17, her 18-month-old son and his 10-year-old daughter.

Fruity Pebbles. Why don't they have healthy food for the kids? Finger paints. Where are the other toys and books? A flat-screen and an Xbox. Why doesn't he have a proper bed for the children?

I wonder about the 17-year-old. How did she decide that life would be better if she lived with a 33-year-old married man, who is addicted to drugs, instead of with her parents? The 17-year-olds I know went on trips this summer with their fretting parents to visit potential colleges.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation for Children and Families compiles the Kids Count Data Book based on factors such as literacy, health, teen birthrate, poverty and education.

New Mexico ranked dead last in 2013 for overall child well-being. Nearly a third of children under 18 live in poverty, and 36% live in single parent homes.

"A child's chances of thriving depend not just on the individual, familial and community characteristics, but also on the state in which he or she is born and raised," the foundation writes.

The odds in this duplex are not good.

The DEA agents milling outside the house look menacing, armed with long guns and kitted up in bulletproof vests and helmets, but they are quietly discussing what to do with the children. The 17-year-old looks so young that she is twice mistaken for the 10-year-old.

They could arrest her - the house is full of drugs. They won't.

Instead, the lead agent sits down with the girl in a quiet corner and begins to gently ask her questions. It's clear he doesn't see a criminal. He sees a child who needs someone to take care of her.

"Where are your parents?" he asks.

She tells her story matter-of-factly, without tears. She doesn't know her dad. Her mom lives down the street with a boyfriend.

What about your brothers and sisters? he asks. Where is the oldest? She doesn't know where he is. Her favorite brother, she says, is in jail in Las Cruces.

It is clear her options are limited. What looks to me, peering in from the doorway, to be a bad choice, may actually have been the very best choice she could make.

Leinwand Leger covers breaking news, crime and disasters for USA TODAY.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Voices: A window into troubled lives

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