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

Page 5 of 8

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.

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

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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.

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!”

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