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Terminated at 18 

Bureaucrats call it “emancipation,” but for foster kids there’s no worse birthday

Wednesday, Jan 9 2008
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ONE DAY A FEW WEEKS BACK, 190 kids were adopted out of L.A.’s foster-care system. The event is a feel-good photo op, with volunteer attorneys and judges formalizing paperwork that has been months in coming. Young and older children cling to their new parents, laughing and smiling.

Among those new parents is Mary McGowan, a black woman who lives in South L.A. and is about to adopt her fourth and fifth children. But that’s not her greatest challenge. McGowan has been offering her home as a foster-child barracks, if you will, since 1985, and she can talk with authority about the sadness behind this adoption day’s jovial atmosphere.

There are nearly 40,000 foster kids living under the auspices of the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) — and this year 1,400 of them will walk out of foster care forever.

click to enlarge Real "emancipation": Mary McGowan holds adoption papers for her new daughter, Miracle. (Photo by Rena Kosnett)
  • Real "emancipation": Mary McGowan holds adoption papers for her new daughter, Miracle. (Photo by Rena Kosnett)

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At the age of 18, most will have their cases “terminated,” and they will be forced out of homes where they have lived. Bureaucrats call it “emancipation.” The kids call it something else.

“You got a pretty girl,” McGowan says in a Southern accent from her years in rural Tennessee. But after emancipation, “some man come dress her up nice — and she’s a prostitute. DCFS oughta keep ’em till they 25, not just turn ’em out to the wolves. It’s just like that fairy tale, you know, ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ ”

In the years before “termination” — a strange term for a kid’s 18th birthday — the children are prepped for the outside world by counselors and social workers. But most of these teens will not make it on the unforgiving street, which is why many academic researchers and legislative reformers have called for an extension in foster care past age 18.

That’s just talk for now. Throughout the country, 24,000 young people are put on the streets every year, and in places like Los Angeles, the wolves are waiting. According to data from the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles, every year about 350 foster-care alumni hit the streets — adding to the thousands already out there.

“If you don’t do good at school,” says Chris, a 17-year-old living in a group home sponsored by DCFS, college isn’t an option, and “you ain’t got nowhere to go. The street is going to be there.”

According to the Children’s Law Center, by age 24, about one-quarter of Chris’ peers from foster care will experience homelessness, one in five will land in jail, and more than half will be unemployed.

Daphna Ziman, the founder of Children Uniting Nations, an organization that recruits and trains volunteer mentors, says, “Kids are removed from their home through no fault of their own. They are moved into a broken system. Moved from school to school and home to home. We are creating a sociopath attitude in these kids prior to emancipation.”

Victoria Stevens, a Los Angeles psychologist who has studied the effects of the foster-care system on younger children, explains that if a child is in a stable environment, his or her brain development is affected accordingly. In a stable setting, connections between the neurons in the brain grow at a healthy pace, allowing for higher-level mental processes — like learning abstract mathematical or scientific concepts.

“In cases of disrupted and insecure attachment, the lower brain processes become dominant and higher-order cognitive skills and social skills can become impaired,” Stevens says. Many foster-care kids have trouble reading, and struggle with other basic skills, because their “attention span is hijacked by emotions.”

Not only do such kids fall far behind, but a study co-authored by Peter Pecora, senior director of research services for Casey Family Programs in Seattle, concluded that foster-care alumni had twice the rate of post-traumatic-stress symptoms as compared to U.S. war veterans. “Sixty-five percent [of foster youth] have experienced seven or more school changes,” says Pecora. “The average person does two.”

While 70 percent of foster youths termed out at age 18 say they want to go to college, that’s not really in the cards. In a seminal study on foster-care policy, Mark E. Courtney and Amy Dworsky of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago compared foster-care children to those not in foster care. Some 62 percent of young people not raised in foster care were attending a college, but just 4 percent of “emancipated” youths were in college.

Tony LoRe, president of L.A.’s Youth Mentoring Connection, knows this all too well. His organization matches mentors with youths over 18 from all kinds of disadvantaged backgrounds. Speaking gravely of the high rate of personal disasters that strike these teens, LoRe says, “Some become homeless pretty quick, and others, we just lose track of. They vanish.”

MARISSA JACQUEZ SITS IN A DIM apartment in Pasadena, playing with her cell phone. The 20-year-old lives in transitional housing funded through DCFS. Shortly before she turned 18, her social worker handed her a bunch of homeless-shelter brochures. “That just scared me,” Jacquez says in a soft, even voice. “I wasn’t trying to live in a homeless shelter.”

She was “termed out” at 18, but hit it off with Jasmine White, a staff member at one of the group homes who let her move in for six months to get her bearings after emancipation. Without her, Jacquez says, she doesn’t know where she’d be.

The sudden end of economic and emotional support at age 18 stands in dramatic contrast to how the rest of America’s young people live. Children in America get continual economic help from their families — right into middle age. According to the Pew Research Center, based in Washington, D.C., more than half of American adults age 40 and under receive an average of $3,410 annually from their parents.

Foster-care graduates often don’t get a dime from relatives, and that includes Jacquez. She doesn’t know her father, and she says that her grandmother was too drunk to care for her after her mom succumbed to drug use. Jacquez ran away from one group home after another, but finally, she says, “all that rebellion just went away.”

Her black hair is pulled back tight, and she’s wearing gleaming white sneakers: She still looks like a kid. “It hit me when I turned 18 . . . I thought about my mom, and I wasn’t trying to end up like her.”

DCFS, in conjunction with private agencies, provides classes to prepare youths who are set to “emancipate.” The classes, some for adolescents as young as 14, attempt to teach life skills that most children learn from their families. Para los Niños, a private agency, focuses on issues like how to interview for jobs, how to pay rent, and how to quit a job without derailing your career.

DCFS Director Patricia Ploehn says that of DCFS’s $1.5 billion budget, just $16 million is slated for the DCFS’s Youth Development Services division (YDS), which deals in longer-term issues, and of the more than 7,000 DCFS employees, only 124 work to prepare children in foster care to make it on their own once they turn 18.

But all that is voluntary on the part of the kids: Of 12,000 youths offered training and help to prepare for the outside world, only 8,000 accepted the assistance.

For the constantly growing number of foster-care grads on the streets, DCFS provides 383 beds, according to the head of the Youth Services Department, Rhelda Shabazz. One shelter, Temporary Housing Program Plus, has the least stringent in-house rules, so its paltry 39 beds are popular with these young adults. Shabazz says that DCFS intends to increase the number of beds there to 100 this year.

Beyond that, the county provides nine walk-in and call-in centers to help the terminated kids but it’s never enough. Ploehn says her department has halved the number of children in foster care since 1997, and her goal is to create long-lasting relationships between caregivers and foster youths in the hope that they don’t simply “age out.”

New legislation introduced by New York senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would keep the federal tap open to youths until age 21, and Congressman Jim McDermott of Washington plans to propose related reforms.

But the stark fact remains that in the next 12 months, 1,400 kids will be forced onto Los Angeles’ streets with very little help, already hurt by a broken family and a broken system.

J., 17, used to live in a foster home in Long Beach with his older brother and sister. Things went wrong and they had to move out. His sister left for Idaho, and his brother, shortly after turning 18, tried to rob a 99-cent store. It sounded almost inevitable, the way J. tells it: “His social worker just said he’s 18, and terminated his case.”

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