John Kyzer had to escape L.A. The 18-year-old’s plan was to catch the midnight Greyhound for Montana. He had no bag, no hat for the March cold, no nothing.
Where is your stuff? I asked. John stood at the mouth of the subway station at Hollywood and Western, tall, blond and thin under a puffy coat and jeans many sizes too big.
“I was going to get some clothes, but shit got messed up and I never got a ride,” he said with a shrug. His icy-blue eyes scanned Hollywood Boulevard’s 11 p.m. seediness.
We sat down on a bus bench. Across Hollywood, indigent youths huddled in the light of a Starbucks. Farther up Western you could see the dark buildings, long abandoned, where a dozen or more street kids live. John knew the corner well, from a stint at a group home, a failed foster placement and listless hours spent with the troubled youths who make the boulevard their home. John too was troubled.
“I gotta do this now,” he said.
All right, I said and marched him over to the Ralphs grocery store in the same strip mall as the Starbucks. We drifted through harshly lit aisles buying essentials: water, toothpaste and a toothbrush, and luxuries: noxious Full Throttle energy drinks, a box of Entenmann’s assorted doughnuts and a bag of pretzels.
At that moment, buying him nutritionless food was the best I could do.
For John, leaving Los Angeles for Montana meant more than escape. It meant leaving his 6-month-old son, Adrian, and, moreover, an acknowledgment that the system had defeated him.
Los Angeles is home to the largest foster-care agency in the U.S. The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) cares for 15,000 foster kids with its annual budget of $1.7 billion, a staggering $11,300 per kid. The department’s 7,000 employees have some of the most difficult jobs imaginable, and many fight valiantly to try to fix the system and the lives of children caught in it. But with John, on a brisk night on a corner frequented by former foster youths now homeless, you notice only the system’s failings. He has been brought to this place and time by grownups who, when given the chance, failed to do right by a boy who had never known real parents, by a maddening institution that discourages those adults who are trying to do what’s right.
As a baby, John, just 18 months old, and his bewildered young siblings, Chris, 4, and Doundie, 6, were thrust into the care of a woman who had converted her Long Beach home into a foster kids’ barracks. Like many, but not all, caregivers in the foster-child system, she was maximizing her profits from a system that pays people to be parents. When he finally got to grade school, John struggled with the dawning knowledge that somewhere out there, his real parents — two people he could not identify in a police lineup if he had to — were drug addicts incapacitated by heroin, meth and PCP.
One of the most important adults in his life, always, was his social worker — but many of them are desensitized to unloved, abandoned kids. It was not until almost 14 years after the government stepped in, when John was 15 and his brother and sister were older and on their own, that a caring foster mom, not in it for the money, finally took him in. But over Christmas 2007, the stressed-out woman, needing expert help from DCFS to handle the tall, rowdy, distrusting teenager, ran up against a DCFS social worker who didn’t want to work the few extra hours that would have cut into her own holiday.
Foster mom Dylan Kendall couldn’t handle John alone — and, in fact, with the vast resources of DCFS, she never should have been expected to. Filled with sorrow but left with no choice, she ordered John out of her home — and, like thousands of foster kids in L.A. raised by the government, he soon became homeless.
After that, his young life quickly went to hell. He turned 18, the age at which foster kids are “terminated” — considered emancipated from government care. When he tried to get into Job Corps and the Army he was denied because he had accrued an eye-popping $1,270 in fines from Metro for skipping Red Line fares to see his baby son, Adrian, in South Central Los Angeles. Until he cleared up that record, stemming from his lack of a mere $30 in fares, the Job Corps, military and other agencies would not give him a chance. But without a chance, John couldn’t raise $1,270 to clear his record.
The vast majority of Southern Californians have no idea that foster children are systematically ejected from their homes — whether a longtime foster family they love or a dysfunctional group home — and onto the street at 18, when most teens are getting ready for college or squeezing their parents for summer spending money. The reality facing John is often described in statistics: One-fourth of foster kids will be incarcerated, one-fifth will become homeless, one-third will suffer major depression, and only 2 percent will ever graduate from college.