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Kevin Lives on Our Couch:"Aged out" of foster care, L.A. teens are put on the street, expected to be instant adults 

Thursday, Jan 31 2013
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John and Linda Campbell couldn't have known they'd be taking on another mouth to feed when the phone rang one night last August. On the other end of the line, the Whittier couple's 20-year-old son, Patrick, had a favor to ask: "I'm worried about Kevin. Can he come stay with us for a couple days?"

It had been a year since they'd met Kevin over dinner, the very weekend he'd been released from Los Angeles County's foster care system. He was hard to forget: well spoken, polite and large for his age, with small, dark eyes hiding beneath thick brows and a wispy mustache hovering above his upper lip. Besides offhand updates from their mop-haired son, they didn't hear from Kevin again — until the night he became part of their family.

The lease on his first-ever apartment was up, and Kevin was about to join thousands of other kids whom California "ages out" at the age of 18, shifting them from foster homes almost directly to the streets. After three years of harrowing moments in mostly unstable foster homes, Kevin had nowhere to go.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHERINE GREEN - Kevin: "My first foster father stole my birth certificate."
  • PHOTO BY CATHERINE GREEN
  • Kevin: "My first foster father stole my birth certificate."

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The Campbells had spent the evening at Whittier High School to see their youngest, 17-year-old Sarah, in her school's production of West Side Story. "We came back from the production and I went to meet Kevin at 11:30 at night with boxes and suitcases," Linda Campbell remembers. "Clothes, a handful of books, his computer — things that were really precious to him."

Kevin's mother abandoned him when he was 15. He landed in juvenile hall after police broke up a fight between them and, while inside, he actually asked to be taken into foster care.

Homelessness is widespread among these young people once they turn 18. Studies place the number between 11 percent and 36 percent, depending in part on the number of months since they "aged out" of the system — forced out of foster care.

Kevin is luckier than most kids trapped in the unnerving world of living without a responsible mother or father. In L.A. County, 1,500 teenagers are pushed out annually; 20 percent are arrested or incarcerated within one year. Yet among U.S. teens in general, the Urban Institute's 2009 survey shows, only 6 percent are ever arrested.

A smart young man with a knack for self-deprecation, who reads histories of Harvard Medical School for fun and plans to someday enroll in UCLA's medical researcher program, Kevin actually is on a much better path than his peers. Fewer than 1 percent of former foster kids will graduate from college — a devastating number. In stark contrast, as Pew Research Center reports, 33 percent of young Americans 25 to 29 today hold a bachelor's degree or better.

But even bright kids like Kevin can be derailed. The Campbells took it upon themselves to see their son's friend through to his dreams.

Both are teachers — John a substitute at schools around Whittier, Linda a resource specialist at La Mirada Heights Christian schools. The Campbells are used to the chaos of classrooms and the revolving door of their home as friends of Patrick, Sarah and Danny, their oldest, pass through.

But they weren't altogether prepared for the difficulties of getting a foster kid on his feet after the trauma that strikes when they turn 18, a time that federal and local governments euphemistically call "emancipation."

An above-average student, Kevin stopped going to classes at Rio Hondo Community College after leaving foster care, failing several of them and losing his financial aid. He'd stopped showing up to work at a plastics factory 15 miles away, a trek he usually made by bike. Broke, his apartment was next to go. It was the final blow in a year that included getting dumped by his girlfriend, frequent visits to the hospital for gallstones and watching a friend succumb to suicide.

His friends Patrick and Cat tried to make sure he spent what little money he had on groceries instead of cigarettes or booze. Kevin applied to about 10 assistance programs, "But then nothing came about," Linda Campbell says.

"We've made a generation of throwaway kids," she sighs. "We just felt like, Kevin is brilliant, and whatever his story was, we weren't going to be the ones to throw him into the street."

Although Kevin is aged out of foster care, he still receives some support from the county's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). He has a TAP card — a countywide transit pass — and he's supposed to have an assigned "transitional" worker. However, the Campbells haven't been able to reach that worker.

California lawmakers have tried to make emancipation less jarring via Assembly Bill 12, which provides welfare help such as CalWORKs and Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) to foster kids beyond age 18, as well as payments to some of their guardians.

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