Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Tracing the bloody legacy of street families

All God’s Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families, By Rene Denfeld, PublicAffairs, 306 pp., $26

Throughout her abbreviated life, Jessica Kate Williams was an innocent spat on by the random unfairness of the world.

Fetal alcohol syndrome left her possessing a 4-year-old's mind in a 20-something body. Overwhelmed by schoolwork, she grasped, even with her childish perception, that she was different. A popular boy asked her to the senior prom, then stood her up. She sat on her couch, dressed up, waiting, all night. "Finally, she went to take off the fancy gown. Her mother could see how crushed she felt," writes Rene Denfeld.

Her loving, adoptive parents watch helplessly as Williams drifts onto the streets of Portland, Ore., unable to comprehend their dangerous rules. Her murder -- not just its fact but its primitive savagery -- should not have happened. But in "All God's Children," there is a foreboding, tragic inevitability to it, Denfeld argues, because of our collective inattention to the mushrooming problem of street "families."

Perhaps 1.5 million street kids coagulate into families. These are not the involuntary homeless forced into outdoor living and panhandling by bad breaks; the family members Denfeld interviews claim they came to the street by choice.

Family culture mingles mundane street activities such as begging with a far more brutal mix of fantasy lives, conduct codes borrowed from prison, and pagan religion in "a criminal subculture that has grown with little notice."

James Daniel Nelson, a racist, remorseless murderer paroled in 2003 who starts a family in Portland, is the villain of the piece. But this grim, fascinating book's emotional core crystallizes in two other people: Williams and Danielle Marie Cox , a bright college student from a family of professionals who barters away privilege for membership in Nelson's family, and who participates in the stomping, stabbing, and burning to death of Williams.

Cox is the great mystery, a keen and compassionate young woman who volunteered with autistic children. But her father died when she was young, triggering an on-and-off psychic unraveling that culminates in her dropping out of college and hooking up with Nelson's family.

Besides the personal loss, Denfeld attributes Cox's choice to a lust for thrills and the family's accepting embrace.

Williams's agonizingly described murder is the literary equivalent of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Horrifying as it is to read, the detail is justified.

You might think that no one would argue with Denfeld's thesis about the pathology of street families. Yet she writes of some advocates for the homeless who, after Williams's ghastly death, "seemed more concerned with protecting the image of homeless youth than addressing the reality of street family violence, though the street families prey on genuinely homeless youths time and again." Elsewhere, there are anecdotes of homeless shelter workers excusing violence and failing to call police when a street kid is threatened or when they spot a felon kid on the lam.

Even "The Passion of the Christ" ends with the redemption of resurrection. That Williams's killers are caught dangles the hope that this story, too, will at least ensure that another child will be spared Williams's fate.

But Denfeld isn't trucking in hope.

"When they are paroled," she writes of the murderers, "many of these young criminals will take their old school credits -- and prison experiences -- back to the streets, where they will become the street fathers and mothers of new families, just as James Nelson did. The street family culture will continue, becoming ever more violent and criminal."

Contact Rich Barlow at