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“The thing was, the neighbors would see the kids unsupervised,” Kyzer, now 53, admits from his home in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. “They [the police] came and busted the door and saw our house was a mess. Our life was a mess.”
The police report is far crisper and grittier than Kyzer’s worn memory: “When the front door of apartment D-1 opened, we immediately detected a horrendous odor emitting from the interior of the apartment. Then we observed a white female, who was later identified as Donna Oatley, to be standing in the door with a small child who was later identified as ... John Kyzer in her arms. We noted that John was filthy dirty, accompanied by a strong stench, as if he had not been bathed in some time. None of the minors appeared to have bathed in some time, and minor John had dirt caked on his face, neck and extremities, possibly including excrement.”
The foul smell came from the bathroom, where the toilet had been left to overflow for two weeks, turning the carpet sticky underfoot. They were addicts. They had abandoned all responsibility. Oatley’s explanation to the cops was that the landlord wouldn’t be paying back the deposit anyway.
Like a house in premodern times, their home contained no refrigerator and no food. Six-year-old Doundie would later complain to DCFS of eating “too many hot dogs.” The living room was piled high with garbage. Kyzer’s arm was covered with fresh track marks. The police took Oatley into custody for an earlier warrant and the children were whisked into the temporary care of their maternal grandmother.
This was 1992, when the Department of Children and Family Services was swollen with 50,000 children, more than three times today’s number, largely because the streets in L.A.’s low-income neighborhoods were flowing with crack and jammed with crack heads. Crime was at a historic high and “parents” were among the major offenders. DCFS was yanking kids out of houses fast, fearing bad press about dead babies.
Jacquelyn McCroskey of USC’s School of Social Work explains that supervisors pressured social workers to make the case for removing kids because, often, “there were no other options.”
Former DCFS director David Sanders pushed to preserve families when possible. In 2004, Sanders launched Point of Engagement in the Compton office of DCFS, in which parents, their children and a third party, from a church or social-services group, met to discuss how best to care for a specific child before being forced to make the momentous decision of taking away a child. The new approach was a radical change.
In Compton, the results have been dramatic, with 232 children removed from their parental homes the year after it was launched, compared to 487 the year before. Moreover, before, about 20 percent of these kids were eventually returned to their parents. Under Sanders’ reforms, 67 percent of kids are returned home within a year. This has made Compton’s DCFS office, long known as a highly unsuccessful operation, the leader in keeping families together in Los Angeles County, McCroskey found in a recent study.
Kyzer and Oatley’s filthy Lawndale apartment left authorities no choice but to immediately remove their three imperiled children. Although today other options are explored in an effort to keep families together, this wrecked couple almost certainly would not qualify.
Doundie, 6; Chris, 4; and John, 18 months, were pitched into a system that tore them up as people, and which eventually helped to drive both boys, who showed promise as kids, into jail in their teens and young-adult years.
“The system that was designed to protect and serve abused children became a nightmare,” McCroskey writes in her study.
“I was kind of scared because it was this thing, ‘Oh, my God, I’m gonna have a black mom,’ ” Doundie Kyzer says about the day she and her two brothers (all three are white) arrived at the foster home where, unbeknownst to them, they would stay for 14 years. “I didn’t know what to think.”
Doundie, now 23, sits next to John in the cramped home she rents with her husband in tiny Superior, Montana. She moved there because that’s where her birth mother is originally from, and she hoped the safe, small-town culture would give her the intangible sense of “family” she’d never had. It’s spring 2009, and John has caught up to her in Superior.
Doundie’s eyes, a clear blue like John’s, flicker from somber to excited when she talks about the change that veteran foster mom Ernestine Willis’ Long Beach house represented. There were toys and a swimming pool. “Then we got all excited of course,” Doundie says.