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

Linda and John Campbell: "We just felt like, Kevin is brilliant," Linda says.
Linda and John Campbell: "We just felt like, Kevin is brilliant," Linda says.
PHOTO BY CATHERINE GREEN

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.

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.

 

Harvey Kawasaki, division chief of youth development services at DCFS, asks: "How many 18-year-olds do any of us know who could truly be on their own?"

If Kevin applies for aid and goes back into the system, he will be given a new social worker, regain court supervision of his case and receive around $800 for rent each month, Kawasaki says.

A week or so into their new arrangement, John Campbell confronted Kevin — why wouldn't he try to get all that help? "He'd just had enough, I think," John says.

The Campbells soon found that Los Angeles, with all its riches, has few places for those fresh out of foster care. The Salvation Army was booked. Bridge of Faith in Whittier, run by a former foster child, houses only women. Dream Center in L.A. wasn't prepared to take aged-out foster kids.

Other programs were too restrictive, or refused because Kevin was on antidepressants — too high-risk. "Weeks were clicking by," Linda says, "and everywhere we went, there were closed doors."

Then Linda found a possible solution on a flier tucked away in one of Kevin's folders. The two-year program at First Place for Youth in L.A. promised comprehensive support for former wards, including life-skills training and, most appealing, apartments for those selected to participate.

Stacy Peters, a First Place program specialist, says that when she met Kevin, "I looked at him and I said, 'You better go back to school. Do not waste your time. You're too smart for this.' " Weeks later, she can't help but smile when she talks about working with him: "We all love him up here."

Kevin signed up for the agency's Step It Up preparatory boot camp, which kids must complete before being considered for the full program and apartment. For three weeks, he and 11 other former foster kids went over budget basics, building credit, résumé tips and tools for identifying "circles of support" in their lives.

On graduation day, each kid was expected to speak. Kevin didn't dwell on the details of how exactly the father in his first foster home stole from him, or what prompted "one of my coked-out foster brothers" in his second setup to attack him.

Instead, the self-described "philomath — a lover of learning" talked about the day Peters showed them a clip of actor Will Smith talking about how his father made him build a brick wall — it took nearly 18 months.

"I believe [his father] was trying to show him that that which seems impossible is simply not," Kevin says. "I want to put my life on track again. ... I want to build my brick wall."

But Kevin wasn't among the few chosen for the program, another setback in a string of disappointments. His first "foster father," he tells L.A. Weekly, was "not a good foster parent. Yeah, he stole from me — my birth certificate and my Social Security card," he alleges. "Then he took off to Mexico."

Kevin learned that this particular guardian — an adult who is paid public funds to house, watch over and feed foster children — had implicated another foster kid in attempted robbery. Kevin didn't tell DCFS. "Where I come from, you don't ever complain," he says. "There's a Spanish saying" — Kevin is fluent, with grandparents in Mexico — "that the fish dies by his mouth."

His next stop was a prearranged "rest bed," a backup to foster homes. "I tried to stay there," he says. The woman who ran it "drove me to school. Like, no one ever drove me to school. And she would bring me snacks. She was really nice, but one of the other kids she had was a little gangbanger."

One night, Kevin got up to turn down the TV, and his "foster brother" hit him. "I woke up in a pool of blood, and I couldn't talk. Like, I thought I was saying things right, but no one could understand me."

He spent the night at Children's Hospital L.A. before going to DCFS downtown — he calls it "the tower" — to find a new home.

Kevin bounced around rest beds before ending up at a house in South Central. Something reminded him of the place where he'd been beaten unconscious by the gangbanger. "I got there really late," Kevin says. "The guy was already asleep but ... he was dressed kind of similar to the guy who beat me up."

It was a disastrous new placement by DCFS for a traumatized kid, sticking him in a rough neighborhood. "I took off that night," he says. Two days later, Kevin turned himself in to DCFS. He was driven to what was to be his last foster home, in La Puente, where things went fairly well.

 

Kevin says he was given two weeks' notice by DCFS that he would be kicked out because of his 18th birthday.

Still, looking back on the difficult year to follow, he says, "I prefer my own counsel, and being by myself. I just don't really like relying on other people."

At the Campbells' townhome, he abides by the rules, calling to say he'll be late when he's out with friends and keeping his space tidy. Inside, there's little evidence he's staying there at all. His belongings are kept out of sight. His bed is the living room couch. Someone has spread out a white blanket, smoothed down in anticipation of visitors. Kevin's a guest here himself.

He's in good hands — John drives him to appointments and the library, while Linda is ready with a listening ear and keeps the refrigerator stocked. "They told me I could stay," Kevin says. He sounds ashamed to accept their help. "I didn't ask."

He never names the biggest failure in his upbringing, his mother. "One day, I asked him what he wanted to drink in the morning," Linda says. "And he goes, 'Mrs. Campbell, when I grew up, my mother never even had milk in the refrigerator for us.'

"Yet she went and ran into a car and came up with $15,000 cash to pay that," Linda Campbell says. Her eyes are pleading as she asks, baffled, "How do you do that and never give your children milk?"

Kevin doesn't say whether his mother was on the list of people he called in desperation after being "emancipated." At the time, he turned to his mother's former boyfriend, a man he calls his stepfather. He stayed with the man for a short time but, thanks to his job at the plastics factory, soon got his first apartment. He was making progress.

But the coalescence of trouble at school, physical health problems, disintegrating relationships and overwhelming grief in the wake of his friend's suicide dragged him down into a dark place.

"When he lived on his own and he became homeless again, I think he lost a lot of faith," says Stacy Peters. After Kevin missed a few of the class meetings due to the flu, "He came in early, he made it up, he did his work — usually, when people miss class I dock them," Peters says. "But Kevin was different."

He's a regular at the library, nearly fluent in Japanese, and is advanced in C++, Python and JavaScript programming. He has studied Latin, and plays drums and guitar, though he insists he's no good.

Kevin has learned all this on his own. "Lone wolf," he says with a smirk.

While many foster kids pushed out of the system are doomed to low wages and menial labor, Kevin is taking steps to one day become a medical researcher. He will begin classes at Los Angeles City College on Feb. 4 — retaking math he failed during his downward spiral at Rio Hondo. He's saved money for books by working construction. "I don't think there was ever a doubt in my mind that I wouldn't make it," he says.

"He might try for some on-campus work, too — you know, he worked as a math tutor at Rio," John Campbell says, pride edging into his low, gravelly voice.

Months after the "couple days" that Kevin was supposed to stay, the Campbells spent the holidays with their temporary son.

John says that Kevin "takes up space at our house, but we're used to that. It's not good for him, though — he needs to branch out. But he's feeling good about going back to school." He thinks Kevin will thrive.

Kevin's story is far from the worst-case scenario among L.A.'s thousands of former foster kids. Instead he's trapped in limbo, relying on others while learning to stand on his own. As foreign as the concept of family support might be to him, the Campbells are in it for the long haul. "We told Kevin, 'We're gonna see you to the finish,' " Linda says. "Whatever that is."

Reach the writer at catherine.s.green@gmail.com.

Kevin: "My first foster father stole my birth certificate."
PHOTO BY CATHERINE GREEN

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