John Kass

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.

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.