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Left to Themselves: Foster Youths in L.A., a Before-and-After Story 

Nobody can undo the damage to kids like John, raised from infancy by the foster-care industry

Tuesday, Sep 8 2009
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With $1.7 billion in taxpayer money spent on children’s protective services in L.A. alone, and $8.2 billion in federal funds that go directly to child welfare, the nation is having a very hard time creating an environment in which the 500,000 kids currently in the U.S. system come out undamaged or able to compete with their parented peers.

My father, an expert Assyriologist who deciphers cunieform tablets, has come across the term Ni’etaga, which in Sumerian roughly means “left to themselves.” He believes it is used to describe the male offspring of prostitutes, who in ancient times became wards of the state, labored in work gangs and spent their lives drifting — often dying young.

There has been progress in protecting orphans and children from abuse and neglect. But government wards today, surrounded by “family” in the form of social workers, therapists, schoolteachers and foster parents, are often not so different from those described in ancient times.

click to flip through (6) Illustration by Brian Stauffer
  • Illustration by Brian Stauffer
 

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“No child should grow up in the child-welfare system,” says Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn, a woman who, some say, knows better than anyone in California how true that statement is. She spent 30 years “on the line” as a social worker trying to protect kids from parents, bad group homes and the streets. “Those that do, have very negative outcomes. The ‘why’ is that children need to belong. They need positive adults in their lives that are committed and say, “I don’t care what you do, I will stand by you.’”

Despite health, natural intelligence and a good heart, John is incapable of holding down a job, thinking clearly about the future — or finding peace of mind. He is rudderless, adrift. He’s convinced himself that transplanting himself to Montana is the answer. His story is common in a world where kids are parented by the state.

John and I met more than two years before he bolted for Big Sky Country, through his then–foster mother, Kendall. Kendall had read a freelance story I wrote for L.A. Weekly about a group home in South L.A. The protagonist was a 16-year-old boy named Chris Lango, who met John and became his friend when both boys were thrown together at the South L.A. foster facility.

After seeing the article, Kendall, who had just taken John in, invited me to her brick duplex in Koreatown. Over spaghetti and garlic bread, John talked about normal teenage topics: girls and basketball. He was 16. The only detail that belied the cheer of the dinner scene was that he would not let his gaze linger on me long enough to give away any feelings.

I visited him when he moved to an isolated Van Nuys group home. We walked through tall, dry grass in Fryman Canyon, and among the dogs at Runyon Canyon. One day, in the cramped South L.A. home where his new baby’s teenage mother lived with her family, John handed me his infant son.

He called me when his case was “terminated” by DCFS — a frightening moment termed, without irony, “emancipation” in the foster-care field. He’d already been kicked out by his frustrated foster mother, Kendall, but the system had still supported him until age 18. Now all the money spent on foster parents and foster homes ended. He was just a kid, and a troubled one at that, pushed onto the streets.

We job-hunted in Inglewood until he landed a gig at a chicken-wing restaurant. I talked his boss into giving John a second chance after he skipped work, and I castigated him when he ditched again and was fired. I saw how puffy his eyes were when he was homeless. And shortly before the night he left for Montana, he turned down a meal I offered him at the farmers market after having spent the day standing in line for food stamps.

The adults in his world often found themselves shocked, sometimes elated, but mostly unable to change a troubled life in the making. It all started in Lawndale, when John was 18 months old.

 

“We were way out there, if you know what I mean,” his dad, Ray Kyzer, candidly says of himself and his wife, Donna Oatley, explaining how it was the day the DCFS came knocking in April 1992. The couple were living in a Lawndale complex whose neighbors were sick of their outrageous behavior: shooting PCP, snorting meth and chronically neglecting their small daughter, Doundie, and their even younger sons, Chris and John.

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