By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Group-home attendants earn $8.22 an hour, a rate that makes a job at In-N-Out seem appealing. Foster teenager Lango, who lived with John at a group home in South L.A., says kids know they can’t expect much from the adults employed at group homes. While the workers were pleasant in South L.A., Lango says, “I knew it was a business as soon as I got there.”
Group homes are, in fact, a business, just as single-family foster-child barracks like Willis’ are a business.
So in 2005 and 2006, former DCFS director Sanders attempted to provide something like family for kids being raised by underpaid timecard punchers at group homes. He renegotiated how DCFS can spend the federal aid it receives, freeing up millions of dollars to create programs including his pioneering “Youth Permanency Units.” These units are made up of social workers who take on just 15 kids each — a much smaller caseload than normal — but all of the kids have particularly serious histories of troubled “placements.” Each social worker then conducts an all-out search for an adult who agrees to stick with a teen after “emancipation” at age 18.
In the Pomona and Metro North offices run by DCFS, where the program was piloted, the number of youths living in group homes dropped significantly last year — from 84 kids to 60 kids in Pomona group homes, and from 131 children to just 21 children in Metro North’s group homes.
As the ossified DCFS braced for the sweeping change Sanders was pushing, John’s luck was about to take a rare, positive turn. A single, red-haired former ceramist bursting with idealist naiveté named Dylan Kendall walked into the Way-In on Hollywood Boulevard. “I met John in July of 2006, when he was a 15-year-old resident of the Salvation Army Way-In and a student in the theater program delivered by my agency: Hollywood Arts,” Kendall wrote in a meticulous chronicle of her saga with John. “I was very impressed by John and saw in him great promise with a little help. I considered fostering him.”
That winter, after John had numerous run-ins with the Way-In staff, Ealey-Tutt gave the teen two options: Learn firefighting skills at a remote county boot camp, or attend Phoenix Academy, a residential treatment program in Lake View Terrace, deep in the San Fernando Valley. John chose Phoenix Academy.
Instead of making things easy for the first adult ever to reach out to John, DCFS fought Kendall all along the way. “It seems insane to me,” she recalls. “I got opposition from the very beginning.” One big obstacle was veteran social worker Ealey-Tutt. “It all started with Kathleen [Ealey-Tutt] not returning my calls. Not even returning phone calls!”
Kendall’s phone log marks periods of up to a month in which Ealey-Tutt failed to return her calls. Understandably, Kendall had a lot of basic, pressing questions about how to be a foster mother, which needed addressing before she could decide whether she was really going to take on a teenage boy.
Ploehn remembers starting as a social worker in 1979 with a caseload of 119 children. Today, that average is far better, at 24 kids per social worker — not so many that it becomes impossible for someone like Ealey-Tutt to return phone calls. Kendall was offering John a way out of a crazy system, but his social worker was not responding.
John was left in limbo for months at Phoenix Academy, where the staff medicated him nightly for insomnia, with 100 milligrams of the antidepressant Trazodone.
Only through intense persistence — including complaining to Ealey-Tutt’s supervisors — was Kendall finally cleared as his foster mom. Although battle-weary and disgusted, she promptly moved John into her Koreatown duplex, and placed him in an LAUSD charter high school, Leadership Academy, in Koreatown.
But John was now an angry, unpredictable teen. By November 2007, he had been put on probation twice at Leadership Academy. He lasted six months there. But he did find the one thing he was desperate to have: somebody to love, a girl named Karina from South L.A., with long, black hair and an easy smile.
“I focused all of my everything around her because she told me she loved me and that is what I needed to hear,” John says. “You know. So I clinged onto her. I attached to her.” The thought that he would spend any time away from Karina, away from the school yard where he waited for her each day, could send John into a rage.
Kendall wrote in an e-mail to me at the time, “He hit the cabinet wall (broke the door), yelling. I told him to be quiet because of the neighbors. He went outside and yelled, ‘Fuck the neighbors.’ ” Kendall then told me, “These kids need men. I wasn’t kidding when I asked you to talk to him about condoms again. Talk about it over and over until he gets it.”