Left to Themselves: Foster Youths in L.A., a Before-and-After Story
John Kyzer had to escape L.A. The 18-year-old’s plan was to catch the midnight Greyhound for Montana. He had no bag, no hat for the March cold, no nothing.
Where is your stuff? I asked. John stood at the mouth of the subway station at Hollywood and Western, tall, blond and thin under a puffy coat and jeans many sizes too big.
“I was going to get some clothes, but shit got messed up and I never got a ride,” he said with a shrug. His icy-blue eyes scanned Hollywood Boulevard’s 11 p.m. seediness.
We sat down on a bus bench. Across Hollywood, indigent youths huddled in the light of a Starbucks. Farther up Western you could see the dark buildings, long abandoned, where a dozen or more street kids live. John knew the corner well, from a stint at a group home, a failed foster placement and listless hours spent with the troubled youths who make the boulevard their home. John too was troubled.
“I gotta do this now,” he said.
All right, I said and marched him over to the Ralphs grocery store in the same strip mall as the Starbucks. We drifted through harshly lit aisles buying essentials: water, toothpaste and a toothbrush, and luxuries: noxious Full Throttle energy drinks, a box of Entenmann’s assorted doughnuts and a bag of pretzels.
At that moment, buying him nutritionless food was the best I could do.
For John, leaving Los Angeles for Montana meant more than escape. It meant leaving his 6-month-old son, Adrian, and, moreover, an acknowledgment that the system had defeated him.
Los Angeles is home to the largest foster-care agency in the U.S. The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) cares for 15,000 foster kids with its annual budget of $1.7 billion, a staggering $11,300 per kid. The department’s 7,000 employees have some of the most difficult jobs imaginable, and many fight valiantly to try to fix the system and the lives of children caught in it. But with John, on a brisk night on a corner frequented by former foster youths now homeless, you notice only the system’s failings. He has been brought to this place and time by grownups who, when given the chance, failed to do right by a boy who had never known real parents, by a maddening institution that discourages those adults who are trying to do what’s right.
As a baby, John, just 18 months old, and his bewildered young siblings, Chris, 4, and Doundie, 6, were thrust into the care of a woman who had converted her Long Beach home into a foster kids’ barracks. Like many, but not all, caregivers in the foster-child system, she was maximizing her profits from a system that pays people to be parents. When he finally got to grade school, John struggled with the dawning knowledge that somewhere out there, his real parents — two people he could not identify in a police lineup if he had to — were drug addicts incapacitated by heroin, meth and PCP.
One of the most important adults in his life, always, was his social worker — but many of them are desensitized to unloved, abandoned kids. It was not until almost 14 years after the government stepped in, when John was 15 and his brother and sister were older and on their own, that a caring foster mom, not in it for the money, finally took him in. But over Christmas 2007, the stressed-out woman, needing expert help from DCFS to handle the tall, rowdy, distrusting teenager, ran up against a DCFS social worker who didn’t want to work the few extra hours that would have cut into her own holiday.
Foster mom Dylan Kendall couldn’t handle John alone — and, in fact, with the vast resources of DCFS, she never should have been expected to. Filled with sorrow but left with no choice, she ordered John out of her home — and, like thousands of foster kids in L.A. raised by the government, he soon became homeless.
After that, his young life quickly went to hell. He turned 18, the age at which foster kids are “terminated” — considered emancipated from government care. When he tried to get into Job Corps and the Army he was denied because he had accrued an eye-popping $1,270 in fines from Metro for skipping Red Line fares to see his baby son, Adrian, in South Central Los Angeles. Until he cleared up that record, stemming from his lack of a mere $30 in fares, the Job Corps, military and other agencies would not give him a chance. But without a chance, John couldn’t raise $1,270 to clear his record.
The vast majority of Southern Californians have no idea that foster children are systematically ejected from their homes — whether a longtime foster family they love or a dysfunctional group home — and onto the street at 18, when most teens are getting ready for college or squeezing their parents for summer spending money. The reality facing John is often described in statistics: One-fourth of foster kids will be incarcerated, one-fifth will become homeless, one-third will suffer major depression, and only 2 percent will ever graduate from college.
With $1.7 billion in taxpayer money spent on children’s protective services in L.A. alone, and $8.2 billion in federal funds that go directly to child welfare, the nation is having a very hard time creating an environment in which the 500,000 kids currently in the U.S. system come out undamaged or able to compete with their parented peers.
My father, an expert Assyriologist who deciphers cunieform tablets, has come across the term Ni’etaga, which in Sumerian roughly means “left to themselves.” He believes it is used to describe the male offspring of prostitutes, who in ancient times became wards of the state, labored in work gangs and spent their lives drifting — often dying young.
There has been progress in protecting orphans and children from abuse and neglect. But government wards today, surrounded by “family” in the form of social workers, therapists, schoolteachers and foster parents, are often not so different from those described in ancient times.
“No child should grow up in the child-welfare system,” says Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn, a woman who, some say, knows better than anyone in California how true that statement is. She spent 30 years “on the line” as a social worker trying to protect kids from parents, bad group homes and the streets. “Those that do, have very negative outcomes. The ‘why’ is that children need to belong. They need positive adults in their lives that are committed and say, “I don’t care what you do, I will stand by you.’”
Despite health, natural intelligence and a good heart, John is incapable of holding down a job, thinking clearly about the future — or finding peace of mind. He is rudderless, adrift. He’s convinced himself that transplanting himself to Montana is the answer. His story is common in a world where kids are parented by the state.
John and I met more than two years before he bolted for Big Sky Country, through his then–foster mother, Kendall. Kendall had read a freelance story I wrote for L.A. Weekly about a group home in South L.A. The protagonist was a 16-year-old boy named Chris Lango, who met John and became his friend when both boys were thrown together at the South L.A. foster facility.
After seeing the article, Kendall, who had just taken John in, invited me to her brick duplex in Koreatown. Over spaghetti and garlic bread, John talked about normal teenage topics: girls and basketball. He was 16. The only detail that belied the cheer of the dinner scene was that he would not let his gaze linger on me long enough to give away any feelings.
I visited him when he moved to an isolated Van Nuys group home. We walked through tall, dry grass in Fryman Canyon, and among the dogs at Runyon Canyon. One day, in the cramped South L.A. home where his new baby’s teenage mother lived with her family, John handed me his infant son.
He called me when his case was “terminated” by DCFS — a frightening moment termed, without irony, “emancipation” in the foster-care field. He’d already been kicked out by his frustrated foster mother, Kendall, but the system had still supported him until age 18. Now all the money spent on foster parents and foster homes ended. He was just a kid, and a troubled one at that, pushed onto the streets.
We job-hunted in Inglewood until he landed a gig at a chicken-wing restaurant. I talked his boss into giving John a second chance after he skipped work, and I castigated him when he ditched again and was fired. I saw how puffy his eyes were when he was homeless. And shortly before the night he left for Montana, he turned down a meal I offered him at the farmers market after having spent the day standing in line for food stamps.
The adults in his world often found themselves shocked, sometimes elated, but mostly unable to change a troubled life in the making. It all started in Lawndale, when John was 18 months old.
“We were way out there, if you know what I mean,” his dad, Ray Kyzer, candidly says of himself and his wife, Donna Oatley, explaining how it was the day the DCFS came knocking in April 1992. The couple were living in a Lawndale complex whose neighbors were sick of their outrageous behavior: shooting PCP, snorting meth and chronically neglecting their small daughter, Doundie, and their even younger sons, Chris and John.
“The thing was, the neighbors would see the kids unsupervised,” Kyzer, now 53, admits from his home in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. “They [the police] came and busted the door and saw our house was a mess. Our life was a mess.”
The police report is far crisper and grittier than Kyzer’s worn memory: “When the front door of apartment D-1 opened, we immediately detected a horrendous odor emitting from the interior of the apartment. Then we observed a white female, who was later identified as Donna Oatley, to be standing in the door with a small child who was later identified as ... John Kyzer in her arms. We noted that John was filthy dirty, accompanied by a strong stench, as if he had not been bathed in some time. None of the minors appeared to have bathed in some time, and minor John had dirt caked on his face, neck and extremities, possibly including excrement.”
The foul smell came from the bathroom, where the toilet had been left to overflow for two weeks, turning the carpet sticky underfoot. They were addicts. They had abandoned all responsibility. Oatley’s explanation to the cops was that the landlord wouldn’t be paying back the deposit anyway.
Like a house in premodern times, their home contained no refrigerator and no food. Six-year-old Doundie would later complain to DCFS of eating “too many hot dogs.” The living room was piled high with garbage. Kyzer’s arm was covered with fresh track marks. The police took Oatley into custody for an earlier warrant and the children were whisked into the temporary care of their maternal grandmother.
This was 1992, when the Department of Children and Family Services was swollen with 50,000 children, more than three times today’s number, largely because the streets in L.A.’s low-income neighborhoods were flowing with crack and jammed with crack heads. Crime was at a historic high and “parents” were among the major offenders. DCFS was yanking kids out of houses fast, fearing bad press about dead babies.
Jacquelyn McCroskey of USC’s School of Social Work explains that supervisors pressured social workers to make the case for removing kids because, often, “there were no other options.”
Former DCFS director David Sanders pushed to preserve families when possible. In 2004, Sanders launched Point of Engagement in the Compton office of DCFS, in which parents, their children and a third party, from a church or social-services group, met to discuss how best to care for a specific child before being forced to make the momentous decision of taking away a child. The new approach was a radical change.
In Compton, the results have been dramatic, with 232 children removed from their parental homes the year after it was launched, compared to 487 the year before. Moreover, before, about 20 percent of these kids were eventually returned to their parents. Under Sanders’ reforms, 67 percent of kids are returned home within a year. This has made Compton’s DCFS office, long known as a highly unsuccessful operation, the leader in keeping families together in Los Angeles County, McCroskey found in a recent study.
Kyzer and Oatley’s filthy Lawndale apartment left authorities no choice but to immediately remove their three imperiled children. Although today other options are explored in an effort to keep families together, this wrecked couple almost certainly would not qualify.
Doundie, 6; Chris, 4; and John, 18 months, were pitched into a system that tore them up as people, and which eventually helped to drive both boys, who showed promise as kids, into jail in their teens and young-adult years.
“The system that was designed to protect and serve abused children became a nightmare,” McCroskey writes in her study.
“I was kind of scared because it was this thing, ‘Oh, my God, I’m gonna have a black mom,’ ” Doundie Kyzer says about the day she and her two brothers (all three are white) arrived at the foster home where, unbeknownst to them, they would stay for 14 years. “I didn’t know what to think.”
Doundie, now 23, sits next to John in the cramped home she rents with her husband in tiny Superior, Montana. She moved there because that’s where her birth mother is originally from, and she hoped the safe, small-town culture would give her the intangible sense of “family” she’d never had. It’s spring 2009, and John has caught up to her in Superior.
Doundie’s eyes, a clear blue like John’s, flicker from somber to excited when she talks about the change that veteran foster mom Ernestine Willis’ Long Beach house represented. There were toys and a swimming pool. “Then we got all excited of course,” Doundie says.
But what they wouldn’t understand and come to resent until later was that Willis was making money, and lots of it — as do the vast majority of foster parents. Of the $4,700 in monthly income Willis was earning in 1995, $3,500 came from DCFS for the three Kyzers and two other foster children, according to court documents obtained by the Weekly.
Today, foster parents are paid a “basic rate” of $446 a month for babies and toddlers up to age 4, $485 for ages 5 to 8 — all the way up to $627 for teenagers older than 15, all to cover food, clothes and other normal living expenses. For kids with a “D-rating,” for mental illnesses and disabilities, a foster parent can get another $600 to $800 per month based on a child’s age and whether the child takes prescription drugs. A medicated teen can mean nearly $1,200 a month in income — some of it profit. Opportunities for profit are one of the pressing problems in the foster-care system.
Daphna Ziman, founder of Children Uniting Nations — a well-regarded agency that trains adult mentors — who has adopted two foster children, says that many parents take in kids for the right reasons. But many are in it for little more than the money. “Every child inherently has the right to shelter, nutrition, education and a permanent family. Those are children’s human rights. When you are substituting foster care for welfare you are overlooking a child’s human rights.”
For a time, John held the precarious illusion that Willis was his mother. Six years after authorities saved him from his real parents, Kyzer and Oatley, the couple finally saw fit to visit the Long Beach foster home, just east of the 710 freeway. They stayed only briefly.
John, then nearly 8, recalls wrapping his arms around the legs of a stranger — his father — whom he would not see again for eight more years. “He just kept walking. That was it. No ‘I love you, bye, see you later,’ nothing,” John says.
John realized then that Willis was not his real mother. As he sits in Doundie’s living room in Montana, he says, “We called her ‘mom’ for a long time, until we started noticing things — then we ...” John pauses. “Stopped,” Doundie adds.
Court documents obtained by L.A. Weekly show problems in the Long Beach home where the three small children grew to be teens. “She [Willis] hit John in the nose ... I saw his shirt ... blood ... and blood in the bathroom sink,” reported a foster child, one of several unrelated children who moved in and out of that home.
Patrick Lew, then the social worker for the three Kyzer children, took the statement in 2005 during an investigation into charges that in 2004 Willis struck John, smoked marijuana and was often drunk. One youth from the home reported, “She hit John all the time.” Four days later, Lew received a phone message from the youth, in which he retracted his claim. “The message had definite pauses in his retraction statement, and the social worker [Lew] could hear a voice in the background prompting him with the retraction words. The voice sounded like that of Ms. Ernestine Willis.”
In Doundie’s Montana home, John recounts what I later find in Lew’s report: that Willis had hit him with the pointed heels of her shoes, extension cords, belts and hangers. One memory is distinct: “She had this big gold-with-chocolate diamond ring,” John says, holding up his fist.
“I remember the ring,” Doundie says.
Numerous calls to Willis by the Weekly went unanswered. Lew’s 2005 report of what happened in 2004 was deemed “inconclusive” by DCFS — the system could not determine who was telling the truth. Willis was ordered to attend parenting classes and addiction counseling, and to undergo alcohol and drug testing. But the little family of parentless children was splitting apart. Doundie was 19 and had fled to Montana, Chris was 16 and running wilder and wilder in the streets, and John was 14 and still with Willis. Chris would soon end up in prison on an 11-year sentence for armed robbery. Willis would kick John out after she alleged his friends stole from her, leaving him at the mercy of the swirling current of the juvenile-justice system. In foster-care parlance, John never found “permanency”: a single, lasting, loving link to an adult.
Before meeting John at Hollywood and Western the night he left for Montana, I had tracked him down in front of the dingy apartment complex just off Western Avenue and Sixth Street, where he was staying. Scared and 18, he was flopping on a ratty couch in a one-bedroom Koreatown apartment with two teenagers, a woman in her 40s whom the kids called Aunt Frances, and her two toddlers.
Here, again, was an adult using John. In exchange for a roof over his head, John delivered Aunt Frances weed — purchased with a medical-marijuana card that the perfectly healthy teen had easily obtained purely for abuse.
“I can’t keep on doing this,” John told me. I don’t want to be a drug dealer.
He didn’t want to end up in jail, like his older brother.
In January 2006, Chris Kyzer, 18, had walked into a 99-cent store and bashed the cashier with a gun. In his haste, he shot himself in the leg. He confessed to the crime, and is serving 11 years at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe.
As John and I walked in the residential neighborhood outside his “squat” with Aunt Frances in March, he remembered the day police came for Chris. “None of this would be happening,” he said, “if me, my brother and sister stayed as a family.”
With Doundie’s wrenching decision to leave the boys and bolt to Montana at age 17, both John and Chris’ cases were transferred in 2006 to the last in a series of social workers, Kathleen Ealey-Tutt. Soon after Chris’ 2006 arrest, John let some friends into Willis’ house — he admits, so they could rob it. He was convicted on felony burglary charges and permanently removed from the Willis home.
Long Beach was the only place this rootless kid knew, but, incredibly, Ealey-Tutt moved him into the Way-In Group Home on Hollywood Boulevard — a lion’s den for wayward teens and transient young adults.
The Way-In also runs a drop-in center for homeless or prehomeless youth within a mile radius of the tough and gritty intersection of Hollywood and Western, still nasty despite City Hall’s attempts to dress it up. Now John, a troubled suburban kid, was surrounded by loitering, rough, urban street kids, and being cared for by low-paid, unattentive staff.
Group-home attendants earn $8.22 an hour, a rate that makes a job at In-N-Out seem appealing. Foster teenager Lango, who lived with John at a group home in South L.A., says kids know they can’t expect much from the adults employed at group homes. While the workers were pleasant in South L.A., Lango says, “I knew it was a business as soon as I got there.”
Group homes are, in fact, a business, just as single-family foster-child barracks like Willis’ are a business.
So in 2005 and 2006, former DCFS director Sanders attempted to provide something like family for kids being raised by underpaid timecard punchers at group homes. He renegotiated how DCFS can spend the federal aid it receives, freeing up millions of dollars to create programs including his pioneering “Youth Permanency Units.” These units are made up of social workers who take on just 15 kids each — a much smaller caseload than normal — but all of the kids have particularly serious histories of troubled “placements.” Each social worker then conducts an all-out search for an adult who agrees to stick with a teen after “emancipation” at age 18.
In the Pomona and Metro North offices run by DCFS, where the program was piloted, the number of youths living in group homes dropped significantly last year — from 84 kids to 60 kids in Pomona group homes, and from 131 children to just 21 children in Metro North’s group homes.
As the ossified DCFS braced for the sweeping change Sanders was pushing, John’s luck was about to take a rare, positive turn. A single, red-haired former ceramist bursting with idealist naiveté named Dylan Kendall walked into the Way-In on Hollywood Boulevard. “I met John in July of 2006, when he was a 15-year-old resident of the Salvation Army Way-In and a student in the theater program delivered by my agency: Hollywood Arts,” Kendall wrote in a meticulous chronicle of her saga with John. “I was very impressed by John and saw in him great promise with a little help. I considered fostering him.”
That winter, after John had numerous run-ins with the Way-In staff, Ealey-Tutt gave the teen two options: Learn firefighting skills at a remote county boot camp, or attend Phoenix Academy, a residential treatment program in Lake View Terrace, deep in the San Fernando Valley. John chose Phoenix Academy.
Instead of making things easy for the first adult ever to reach out to John, DCFS fought Kendall all along the way. “It seems insane to me,” she recalls. “I got opposition from the very beginning.” One big obstacle was veteran social worker Ealey-Tutt. “It all started with Kathleen [Ealey-Tutt] not returning my calls. Not even returning phone calls!”
Kendall’s phone log marks periods of up to a month in which Ealey-Tutt failed to return her calls. Understandably, Kendall had a lot of basic, pressing questions about how to be a foster mother, which needed addressing before she could decide whether she was really going to take on a teenage boy.
Ploehn remembers starting as a social worker in 1979 with a caseload of 119 children. Today, that average is far better, at 24 kids per social worker — not so many that it becomes impossible for someone like Ealey-Tutt to return phone calls. Kendall was offering John a way out of a crazy system, but his social worker was not responding.
John was left in limbo for months at Phoenix Academy, where the staff medicated him nightly for insomnia, with 100 milligrams of the antidepressant Trazodone.
Only through intense persistence — including complaining to Ealey-Tutt’s supervisors — was Kendall finally cleared as his foster mom. Although battle-weary and disgusted, she promptly moved John into her Koreatown duplex, and placed him in an LAUSD charter high school, Leadership Academy, in Koreatown.
But John was now an angry, unpredictable teen. By November 2007, he had been put on probation twice at Leadership Academy. He lasted six months there. But he did find the one thing he was desperate to have: somebody to love, a girl named Karina from South L.A., with long, black hair and an easy smile.
“I focused all of my everything around her because she told me she loved me and that is what I needed to hear,” John says. “You know. So I clinged onto her. I attached to her.” The thought that he would spend any time away from Karina, away from the school yard where he waited for her each day, could send John into a rage.
Kendall wrote in an e-mail to me at the time, “He hit the cabinet wall (broke the door), yelling. I told him to be quiet because of the neighbors. He went outside and yelled, ‘Fuck the neighbors.’ ” Kendall then told me, “These kids need men. I wasn’t kidding when I asked you to talk to him about condoms again. Talk about it over and over until he gets it.”
I did, but he didn’t listen.
The DCFS office on Vermont Avenue and 83rd Street is a cold glass-and-concrete hulk set amid the physical detritus of South Los Angeles. On a gray day in late December 2007, Kendall, John and I reported to the office for a “team decision meeting” (TDM), one of the hallmarks of new foster-care policy.
The meetings are intended to create a safe space where foster kids can plan their futures with social workers, family members, confidants and loved ones. In 2008, the department conducted 14,000 TDMs.
The meeting I attended included TDM facilitator Tony Figueroa; an adoption representative named Marcie Rubin; Ealey-Tutt; Ealey-Tutt’s supervisor, Jacquelyn Bowen; Kendall; and John. Kendall, always pale, looked near-transparent, the veins on her temples faint blue lines. Her eyes were red from crying. John was fidgety. Even though he saw life with Kendall as a good thing, he was ruining his chances. He was a 17-year-old filled with fury, and Kendall was on the verge of letting him wash out with the tide, considering ordering him out of her home.
Ealey-Tutt mentioned “wraparound” services, in which specialized DCFS workers can come into a private home to help foster parents. Kendall needed something simple, and she needed it immediately: somebody, preferably a male, with the ability to make John play by the rules — to go out and look for work.
Ealey-Tutt’s response was cold and matter-of-fact. As it was December 20, and close to Christmas, she felt she would not have time to fill out the paperwork necessary to provide outside help for Kendall. She’d do it in the new year.
In a report submitted to the DCFS by Ealey-Tutt in March 2008, she attests to having offered the services but claims, “Ms. Kendall refused, stating that she did not want any more ‘people’ in and out of her home.” Kendall is incredulous when told what Ealey-Tutt wrote. “I wanted the wraparound services all right.”
Although there were clearly many reasons John’s life with Kendall failed, by January 9, Kendall informed DCFS that John could no longer stay with her. The same day, John told Kendall that his girlfriend Karina was pregnant. This traumatic ouster from Kendall’s house was followed quickly by John’s ejection from yet another foster home.
He soon found himself back in a hub of trouble, the Way-In on Hollywood Boulevard. In May 2008, Erika Gomez, a DCFS investigator, submitted an in-house review of John’s case and found 69 “special incident” reports over two months: John was vanishing from the group home, destroying property, using drugs and refusing to follow rules.
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.
Superior, Montana, has two motels and a grocery store. The deep, cold, fast-moving Clark Fork River holds much excitement for young people, who seem to outnumber older adults there. At the town’s one bar, the talk is of selling old tools, hunting and working at the sawmill.
Doundie Kyzer and her husband, Dallas, live on one of a dozen poorly paved streets. In the alley behind them is a squat dark house where I recently visited John.
The continental heat beats on their corrugated-metal roof. Sun spills into Doundie’s living room. “As far as me and my son,” whom John left with Karina and her family in South L.A., he says, “it hurts like fuck. Every day, it hurts. Knowing that he is out there.
“I feel like I did what my dad did. That’s why it hurts me because I feel like I just left him. I feel like I abandoned him. And the whole time, I was saying if I ever had a kid I’d never do that. I hated my dad for a long time for doing that and I did the same thing.
“No matter what anybody tells me and whatever they say about it, I can’t change the fact that I left my kid. Everybody can say, ‘It’s not your fault. You had to get out of California.’
“But I had a job out there. I had a place to live. I had no excuse why, and I should have made sure everything was okay and I didn’t do that. I came out here because I needed to be out here and I was thinking about myself. Not him. That’s what hurts me.
“I did just leave my son. I can’t change it, I can’t hide it. I can’t do anything about it. I left my son.”
John starts to cry.
Addendum: As of press time, John Kyzer had moved on again, this time to the farming town of Ritzville, Washington, where he has been working at McDonald’s. His new girlfriend there is pregnant.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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