BEING A TEENAGER IS NEVER EASY. Compound that with living on the rough side of Los Angeles and attending school in the country’s second largest and seemingly most disorganized school district. Now add in that your mother was murdered.
You are 16. When you talk to girls, you have to say you live in a “group home.” When you go home, you have to hold your own with kids just as angry at the world as you. You are supposed to get good grades. You are supposed to graduate. But do you really give a shit?
The Mexican-American one — the one with a faint Mohawk rising in his short hair — says his mom’s boyfriend beat her to death. The tall, thin black one’s died in a car wreck off the 110 freeway. Another kid, also black, won’t talk about how his mom died. In all these stories, they share a pain, a rage and angst that make them, somehow, brothers.
For six young men in South Los Angeles, home has three bedrooms, with single-size beds pushed to the walls. They use the same washer and dryer. They eat the same eggs and French fries on Sunday morning. They play the same video-game console, calling each other “bitches” and “pussies” and all manner of abusive language.
The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) funds foster homes, group homes and adoptions for more than 25,000 children in Los Angeles County. The home where the boys live is one of 233 group homes caring for 2,848 children in the county. The LAUSD’s foster-care program puts the population of foster-care and group-home students at roughly 8,000, while DCFS says it’s more like 13,000.
While the homes are meant to be no less than 900 feet apart, South Los Angeles is filled with them. In this home, on 81st Street and Normandie Avenue, the problems are much greater than trouble at school or what to do about their futures: A quarter were criminally neglected, a fifth were beaten, according to the DCFS. Like Wilfredo, whose mother gave up on everything, including the 17-year-old, when her mother died.
For these boys, every moment is contentious.
“It’s hard enough to grow up in Los Angeles,” says Victor Clemens, a weekend counselor at the home on 81st Street. “Talk about Iran and Beirut. This is it.”
Clemens, in his mid-30s, describes a sinister neighborhood, the same one where he grew up. The “ethics of the street,” as he calls them, don’t make a distinction between orphans and gangbangers.
“Ana, how far do you think these boys can walk before they gonna get harassed?” he asks Ana McNeil-Lofton, a veteran counselor with 15 years at the home. She is an older black woman with small, tight graying dreadlocks. She grows pensive and describes the neighborhood, like a referee delineating the out-of-bounds markers.
“Shoot, Rachid can’t even go across 83rd and Hoover,” she says of the muscular 14-year-old black boy whose mother is in jail on gun charges. “And Nick, Nick, he can’t go past Western,” she says of the tall black boy, 16, who would be testing Rachid’s resolve within the hour.
The boys are in one of the back bedrooms. So McNeil-Lofton can talk frankly, without the boys harassing her, calling her nicknames or throwing stuff in her hair. “You gotta get they trust,” she says. “Gotta make ’em feel welcome. Assure them that you there for them. But then they just take they anger out on you anyways.”
McNeil-Lofton splits her time between the boys’ and a girls’ home in the same neighborhood and has cultivated relationships rare in the foster-care system. Norma Sturgis, the director of LAUSD’s foster-care program, says that the biggest problem these kids face is a revolving door of caregivers. “The fact that there is no real point person is a huge problem,” she says. “There is no one responsible for their educational success.” And without a constant adult as a role model, Sturgis says, the culture of the home can take over.
Both the DCFS, on the county level, and the state-run Community Care Licensing division conduct audits of group homes to make sure the kids have therapy, clean facilities and qualified caregivers. Many of the workers in homes like the one on 81st Street have a social-service background. But the DCFS has taken pains to wean Los Angeles County off group homes, which it considers one of the lowest rungs on a ladder of options.
“GOOD KIDS CAN BECOME WORSE,” Sturgis says. “If they talk about Harvard or come home with good grades, they often end up getting bullied and ridiculed.”
“Dang. Shit. Motherfucker!” are the sounds from the back of the house. McNeil-Lofton shakes her head. The bullying and assertion of status is constant. Five of the boys are sitting on two immaculately made beds. McNeil-Lofton and Clemens make sure that the white walls and green carpet are clean. That the boys’ few possessions are stacked neatly, like in prison.
But tightly tucked bed sheets obscure the tempest inside these boys. The basketball game they are playing on their PlayStation 2 is just a pretense. “You run up, you gonna get done up,” Rachid says at the screen. His words — an invitation to fight — are intended for Wilfredo, the boy whose mother kicked him out when life became too much for her.
“What you gonna do ’bout it, bitch?” Wilfredo shoots back. Chris, 190 pounds, 6 feet tall and a natural leader, grabs Rachid and pushes him down onto the bed. He holds Rachid’s head down under his bicep and slaps him softly. Chris leans in, almost cooing, into the younger boy’s ear. Rachid doesn’t fight. He submits. Chris lets him up.
The small room — two boys sitting on each bed — becomes quiet. The sound on the television is muted. A frenetic clicking comes from the control paddles. And then, as the tension subsides, the boys talk about the one thing they all have in common: not having a mother.
When Chris was 12, his mother, a drunk who drank with gangbangers “but never banged,” was found in between two cars near a liquor store on Whittier Boulevard. She had been beaten to death. Chris suspects her then-boyfriend, a member of the Mexican Mafia, who was missing a finger. “They chopped that shit off,” Chris says. After her death, the boyfriend disappeared.
“I don’t even know what I’d do if I saw that n*****,” says Chris, who is Mexican-American. “I’d beat his ass.” He says that “After my mom died, my uncle didn’t want to have nothing to do with me. I was crazy, you know, a crazy kid.”
Chris moved in with his uncle, flipped off a cop. The authorities and his uncle agreed that Chris had problems and he was sent to a mental hospital. The state fed him pills and reinserted him into his uncle’s home. Fed up, Chris’ uncle begged DCFS to take the 13-year-old off his hands. His first stop was a now-defunct group home named after the owner’s dead dog, where Chris says kids smoked “blunts and drank Bacardi.” Counselors would let neighborhood thugs jump the fence and beat the residents, according to Chris and Rachid.
“The food was bad and they didn’t give us no allowance either,” Rachid adds. But now Chris and his five housemates have landed here. “I know exactly how my mama died,” Nick says. He is black and has a scarf on his head; big glass earrings modeled on diamonds shine in his ears. “She crashed on the freeway.”
“Who asked you?” Rachid says meekly. Nick stands and says, “What you say, n*****?” His fists are clenched at his sides. Rachid backs up to the wall. “You can’t hit me. That’s like hitting your family.” Rachid’s eyes are looking straight down, presumably at the green carpet or the edge of the bed just over Robinson’s shoulder.
“Fuck you, bitch,” Nick spits back. His chin is at Rachid’s forehead.
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“Cut that shit out, man,” Chris says.
“Well, how ’bout them Packers,” says Jason, the tall boy who has been sitting on the edge of the bed closest to the television.
His joke works. The subject is changed.
Later, Chris says, “I didn’t choose to live with these motherfuckers.” But, he is quick to admit, they are all he has.