Page 7 of 8
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.
He came to realize this when even the Job Corps, set up to help young men like him get honest work, rejected him over his Metro tickets. “We have a zero-tolerance policy,” says Job Corps admissions counselor Thap Lam in an interview months after John came through his office. Lam had seen 10,000 young men much like John during his career, but he was retiring with 15 files left “open” — cases of young men who never got into a program that could have set them straight.
On Christmas Eve of 2008, a year after she refused to upset her Christmas break by filling out the paperwork to provide immediate wraparound help to foster mom Kendall, Ealey-Tutt filed her last report on John. It would terminate him from a life in government care.
The Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles says that of the 1,600 to 1,800 young people who walk out of DCFS every year at age 18, half are high school dropouts, and a quarter will become homeless or be incarcerated. Now the only thing between John and the street was his baby’s mother, Karina, and her tight-knit multigenerational Mexican-American family, living deep in South L.A., which had taken John in.
Last February, I helped John move from Karina’s home to a room shared with day laborers and drifters in South L.A. It cost $250 a month, within his tiny budget. As we drove in my car, John was brimming with hope. For two months, he’d held down the job we had found together at Wing Stop in Inglewood. Karina was proud. Her family was proud. He was leaving their home so he could learn to stand on his own two feet and be a better father to Adrian.
But he would not even spend one night at his new home. Instead, he saw his old friends from the system. He skipped work three times and was fired. He would soon be on a Greyhound heading for Montana, abandoning his son.