By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
For a time, John held the precarious illusion that Willis was his mother. Six years after authorities saved him from his real parents, Kyzer and Oatley, the couple finally saw fit to visit the Long Beach foster home, just east of the 710 freeway. They stayed only briefly.
John, then nearly 8, recalls wrapping his arms around the legs of a stranger — his father — whom he would not see again for eight more years. “He just kept walking. That was it. No ‘I love you, bye, see you later,’ nothing,” John says.
John realized then that Willis was not his real mother. As he sits in Doundie’s living room in Montana, he says, “We called her ‘mom’ for a long time, until we started noticing things — then we ...” John pauses. “Stopped,” Doundie adds.
Court documents obtained by L.A. Weekly show problems in the Long Beach home where the three small children grew to be teens. “She [Willis] hit John in the nose ... I saw his shirt ... blood ... and blood in the bathroom sink,” reported a foster child, one of several unrelated children who moved in and out of that home.
Patrick Lew, then the social worker for the three Kyzer children, took the statement in 2005 during an investigation into charges that in 2004 Willis struck John, smoked marijuana and was often drunk. One youth from the home reported, “She hit John all the time.” Four days later, Lew received a phone message from the youth, in which he retracted his claim. “The message had definite pauses in his retraction statement, and the social worker [Lew] could hear a voice in the background prompting him with the retraction words. The voice sounded like that of Ms. Ernestine Willis.”
In Doundie’s Montana home, John recounts what I later find in Lew’s report: that Willis had hit him with the pointed heels of her shoes, extension cords, belts and hangers. One memory is distinct: “She had this big gold-with-chocolate diamond ring,” John says, holding up his fist.
“I remember the ring,” Doundie says.
Numerous calls to Willis by the Weekly went unanswered. Lew’s 2005 report of what happened in 2004 was deemed “inconclusive” by DCFS — the system could not determine who was telling the truth. Willis was ordered to attend parenting classes and addiction counseling, and to undergo alcohol and drug testing. But the little family of parentless children was splitting apart. Doundie was 19 and had fled to Montana, Chris was 16 and running wilder and wilder in the streets, and John was 14 and still with Willis. Chris would soon end up in prison on an 11-year sentence for armed robbery. Willis would kick John out after she alleged his friends stole from her, leaving him at the mercy of the swirling current of the juvenile-justice system. In foster-care parlance, John never found “permanency”: a single, lasting, loving link to an adult.
Before meeting John at Hollywood and Western the night he left for Montana, I had tracked him down in front of the dingy apartment complex just off Western Avenue and Sixth Street, where he was staying. Scared and 18, he was flopping on a ratty couch in a one-bedroom Koreatown apartment with two teenagers, a woman in her 40s whom the kids called Aunt Frances, and her two toddlers.
Here, again, was an adult using John. In exchange for a roof over his head, John delivered Aunt Frances weed — purchased with a medical-marijuana card that the perfectly healthy teen had easily obtained purely for abuse.
“I can’t keep on doing this,” John told me. I don’t want to be a drug dealer.
He didn’t want to end up in jail, like his older brother.
In January 2006, Chris Kyzer, 18, had walked into a 99-cent store and bashed the cashier with a gun. In his haste, he shot himself in the leg. He confessed to the crime, and is serving 11 years at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe.
As John and I walked in the residential neighborhood outside his “squat” with Aunt Frances in March, he remembered the day police came for Chris. “None of this would be happening,” he said, “if me, my brother and sister stayed as a family.”
With Doundie’s wrenching decision to leave the boys and bolt to Montana at age 17, both John and Chris’ cases were transferred in 2006 to the last in a series of social workers, Kathleen Ealey-Tutt. Soon after Chris’ 2006 arrest, John let some friends into Willis’ house — he admits, so they could rob it. He was convicted on felony burglary charges and permanently removed from the Willis home.
Long Beach was the only place this rootless kid knew, but, incredibly, Ealey-Tutt moved him into the Way-In Group Home on Hollywood Boulevard — a lion’s den for wayward teens and transient young adults.
The Way-In also runs a drop-in center for homeless or prehomeless youth within a mile radius of the tough and gritty intersection of Hollywood and Western, still nasty despite City Hall’s attempts to dress it up. Now John, a troubled suburban kid, was surrounded by loitering, rough, urban street kids, and being cared for by low-paid, unattentive staff.
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