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However, those reforms required spending money up front to avoid steep societal costs later on. Many, including Shabazz, now fear a backsliding as budget money dries up. “I sit here and I seem all calm and composed,” she says. “But on the inside it is like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ ”
With such a shaky safety net, it’s beginning to dawn on some within the foster care–rights movement that the real power against budget cuts might be the kids themselves. Foster children have no powerful lobby in Sacramento, so some adults are working to turn these youths into a lobby of their own.
In Compton, that idea is being shepherded by Zaid Gayle, who runs Peace4Kids, a nonprofit that gives foster youths a place to find adult mentors and learn life skills like finding a place to live. The emphasis at Peace4Kids is on giving the youths the confidence to ignore the statistics.
Mickey McKinney, a former foster youth working with Peace4Kids, recently sat at a long table at the group’s Compton office with Gayle and foster youth George White. McKinney laughed hollowly about opportunities in Compton for foster teens who must somehow support themselves in a county with one of the worst unemployment rates in the U.S. “There isn’t one bed for foster kids after they ‘emancipate’ here in Compton,” McKinney says. “The nearest one is 11 miles away. There is nothing for them.”
White, a thin 17-year-old with dreadlocks and an easy smile, has decided to do something about the state cuts and their effect on kids. Speaking softly, he says he’s launching a Web site, projecthomebound.com, to spread the word that roughly 4,500 youths — including himself — will be “emancipated” from their group homes and foster families this year in California.
A quarter of them will experience homelessness. That’s what happened to White’s brother. But White refuses to be a victim. He’s working on his Web site, organizing a 4K awareness run and planning to ride 1,149 miles alone on his bicycle — a figure representing the number of newly “aged-out” youths who will call the streets home this year.
White’s campaign is called “All I Did Was Turn 18.”
“I am filled with gates of opportunity,” White says earnestly. “Foster care is the best thing that happened to me.”
White has had it better than many of his young peers in the troubled foster-care system. Rather than being pushed from home to home, he had stability, having been cared for by the same foster parents for 11 years. While his foster-care caseworker never told him how to prepare, emotionally or financially, for the day he turns 18, he got crucial help from Peace4Kids, and from Gayle and McKinney. Among other things, they advised him to fight for himself.
“You need to want to help yourself,” White says, believing that at the rate things are going, it will take the toughness and resilience of foster kids themselves to fix the ailing system.