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
I did, but he didn’t listen.
The DCFS office on Vermont Avenue and 83rd Street is a cold glass-and-concrete hulk set amid the physical detritus of South Los Angeles. On a gray day in late December 2007, Kendall, John and I reported to the office for a “team decision meeting” (TDM), one of the hallmarks of new foster-care policy.
The meetings are intended to create a safe space where foster kids can plan their futures with social workers, family members, confidants and loved ones. In 2008, the department conducted 14,000 TDMs.
The meeting I attended included TDM facilitator Tony Figueroa; an adoption representative named Marcie Rubin; Ealey-Tutt; Ealey-Tutt’s supervisor, Jacquelyn Bowen; Kendall; and John. Kendall, always pale, looked near-transparent, the veins on her temples faint blue lines. Her eyes were red from crying. John was fidgety. Even though he saw life with Kendall as a good thing, he was ruining his chances. He was a 17-year-old filled with fury, and Kendall was on the verge of letting him wash out with the tide, considering ordering him out of her home.
Ealey-Tutt mentioned “wraparound” services, in which specialized DCFS workers can come into a private home to help foster parents. Kendall needed something simple, and she needed it immediately: somebody, preferably a male, with the ability to make John play by the rules — to go out and look for work.
Ealey-Tutt’s response was cold and matter-of-fact. As it was December 20, and close to Christmas, she felt she would not have time to fill out the paperwork necessary to provide outside help for Kendall. She’d do it in the new year.
In a report submitted to the DCFS by Ealey-Tutt in March 2008, she attests to having offered the services but claims, “Ms. Kendall refused, stating that she did not want any more ‘people’ in and out of her home.” Kendall is incredulous when told what Ealey-Tutt wrote. “I wanted the wraparound services all right.”
Although there were clearly many reasons John’s life with Kendall failed, by January 9, Kendall informed DCFS that John could no longer stay with her. The same day, John told Kendall that his girlfriend Karina was pregnant. This traumatic ouster from Kendall’s house was followed quickly by John’s ejection from yet another foster home.
He soon found himself back in a hub of trouble, the Way-In on Hollywood Boulevard. In May 2008, Erika Gomez, a DCFS investigator, submitted an in-house review of John’s case and found 69 “special incident” reports over two months: John was vanishing from the group home, destroying property, using drugs and refusing to follow rules.
At about the same time, John complained that Ealey-Tutt hadn’t given him bus passes, a taxpayer-paid benefit that DCFS is required to provide to foster children, for April and May. As a result, he soon started skipping the fare on the Red Line to see his son in South Central — a big mistake that would prove to be his undoing.
John had already broken into Hollywood High School, and was on probation. Then, last October, a Metro cop on the Red Line caught him riding for free. Incredibly, rather than take the teen to county juvenile lockup for the minor infraction, Metro checked John in at the violent, notorious Twin Towers adult facility downtown for three long, harrowing nights — a dangerous breach of a policy meant to protect children from adult felons, which was discovered by the Weekly in court records.
After John got out, he and I reported to a hearing at the Eastlake Courthouse for juveniles. CSW Ealey-Tutt made no appearance but told the court commissioner via telephone that DCFS was planning to “terminate” him: After all its years of “helping” John, the system was dumping him because he had turned 18 two weeks earlier. On the phone, Ealey-Tutt strongly implied to the court commissioner that my presence as a mentor was intended to trick the court into going easier on John.
Later, Ealey-Tutt wrote about that hearing: “John is trying to manipulate the system and has gone as far as to deceive the commissioner at Central Juvenile Hall by having Mr. Daniel Heimpel speak to his character.”
I spoke to John’s good character because I had seen it many times, in the decency with which he treated his girlfriend, and in his concern for his siblings. Kendall, still unofficially very involved in John’s life, had offered to go to the hearing. But Kendall says Ealey-Tutt had warned her that if she showed up, she would have her removed from the courtroom.
Despite Ealey-Tutt’s effort to prevent it, the commissioner wiped John’s record clean of criminal charges stemming from his burglary at Hollywood High but couldn’t clear the $1,270 in Metro fines — $250 to $312 per transgression — for cheating the subway out of a mere $30 in fares.
The Metro ticket fines became an unfixable obstacle that speaks to the monolithic intransigence in the system that deals with such youths. Both Kendall and I had sent requests to reduce the fines to Homeless Court — a program run by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office, which helps street people clear up minor infractions. But that could take months, and John, without money or housing, had run out of time.