Monday, August 14, 2006

Bittersweet beauties prepare to emancipate from foster care

Foster Care Cinderellas Spend a Fairy-Tale Night
Young women about to be emancipated cap a life-skills camp at Pepperdine University as the belles of a ball at the L.A. County Museum of Natural History.
By John L. Mitchell, Times Staff WriterAugust 14, 2006

There's a fairy tale of sorts in the story of how a group of girls from a foster care program in Compton blossomed into beautiful debutantes at a Cinderella Ball.

The tale begins with 29 teenage girls and young women who gathered over the course of three weeks last month at the Pepperdine University campus in Malibu. They were there to be schooled in the basics of life, to learn how to confront their worst fears about their childhood and to map their emancipation from the foster care system.

The story climaxes with a ball, a coming-out party for 11 of the older girls, young debutantes who, for one night, dressed in white gowns and waltzed with tuxedoed escorts across the marbled floors of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

"Cinderella is more than a tale of a girl who lost a shoe and found a prince," said Kenadie Cobbin, director of the HerShe Group, the mentoring organization behind the camp and ball. "She is the journey of a girl who is treated like an outsider, but dares to follow her dreams, and in the end achieves them."

Although the denouement of the story has yet to be written, the beginning is frighteningly familiar.

Almost all of the girls in the program were taken from their families during some crisis and shuffled among relatives, foster families and group homes — from school to school and neighborhood to neighborhood — until, for many, the future seemed as bleak as the past.

"The clock strikes 12 when they turn 18, and they're very fearful of what that does," Cobbin said. "They have to be adults, and they've never really had a chance to be children."

Connie, for one, is not very enthusiastic about reaching the milestone. "I'm just not ready," the 17-year-old said softly. "I don't have dreams. I usually have nightmares about my past. I really don't talk much, period."

In Los Angeles County, 18-year-olds are not automatically turned out on the street with a token bus fare and a hefty garbage bag in which to pack their belongings. Of the 21,000 foster care children living outside their parents' homes, the Department of Children and Family Services has placed more than one-third in transitional care, which allows young adults to delay emancipation until the age of 21.

Nonetheless, studies indicate that pregnancy, homelessness and incarceration remain problems for the estimated 1,200 who age out of the system each year. Cobbin's goal is to smooth the bumps in the road.

Before the Cinderella camp opened in mid-July, the Los Angeles chapter of the Links Inc., an African American civic and charitable organization, held a formal tea for the girls at a member's home in Hancock Park.

That meant the girls were acquainted by the time they checked into campus dorms, but trust didn't come easily. At the beginning of their stay at Pepperdine, there was little interest in sharing their stories. What's more, their appearance — tattoos, boyish clothes, garish jewelry — was a barrier.

"Is that a tongue ring in your mouth?" retired Judge Veronica McBeth, a strong backer of the program, asked one of the soon-to-be debutantes walking across the campus. "You know it'll be hard to get a job with that in there."

The judge didn't comment on the 16-year-old girl's nine tattoos, including one with the numbers "5150" on the back of her neck: state Welfare and Institutions Code shorthand for someone with a mental disorder, a danger to themselves or others.

"That's the only one I really regret getting," said Keanakay, who admitted that she didn't immediately feel comfortable among the other girls and the women who were trying to help them.

"It was the most I've been around women my whole life," she said. "This is my introduction to womanhood."

There was an uneasy tension when the girls first arrived.

"Some of them would not go to bed and they wouldn't try to be quiet," said Tann Moore, a counselor. "If you asked for quiet, you'd get one of those eye-rolls, neck-rolls or hard-breath reaction."

But attitudes slowly began to change as the girls shared some of their experiences. Angel, 17, lives with a foster mother who has threatened to throw her out. She doesn't talk much about the pain she carries, but she loves to write, keeps a daily journal and dreams of becoming a journalist some day.

She wrote about her bittersweet feelings in a poem: I'm grateful for my brother who doesn't know much of what I'm going through.I don't worry about it.Sometimes I ask: Am I supposed to be thankful for the love that is not here?Her love, her memory, her hugs, her destiny. She looks down on me.I say thanks mommy for making me strong. You are not here, but I still hung on. I'm thankful for mother's day…. I hate father's day. I'm thankful for Angel.

The camp was split between two sessions with two age groups, one for the younger girls ages 12 to 16, and the other for those closer to transitioning out of foster care.

Morning exercise began at 6 a.m. with yoga and stretching. The girls swatted flies while riding horses and broke nails as they went rock climbing. They bowled gutter balls at a local alley and sang karaoke off-key. There were picnics and campfires on the beach — experiences that many had never had in their lives.

In addition, mentors and role models visited the campus to teach life skills — how to balance a checkbook, fill out applications for jobs, college or apartments.

The girls kept journals and told stories of their abandonment, neglect and abuse. They discussed forgiveness.

"Forgiveness is really big," Cobbin said. "They have to forgive the two most important people in their lives. To be in foster care, your mother and your father have let you down: molestation, alcohol and drugs."

The younger girls in the group still have hope, still believe that their mother will get off drugs, straighten up and come back home, she said. "The older girls have gotten beyond that and have moved to 'I don't care.' "

Theresa Fair, a life-skills coach at the session, said she learned that maternal hatred can lead to self-hate."I used to hang with guys because they would stroke me and tell me I was cute," Fair recalled, relating her own experience to the girls. "But I had to be honest with myself. I had to learn to dance the dance with women. They became my mirrors and my shadows. I had to learn from them just who I was."

During one final session of the camp, Danielle, 17, said the most important lessons she learned came from the simple experience of being in the group."We learned not just how to bond; we learned how to trust each other," she said. "You can't be sisters and have that bond unless you have trust."

Each of the young debutantes walked away from the camp experience with something different:

• Tara, a 17-year-old in the system since she was 13 months old, said she has learned patience. • Porchia, 21, who has a 2-year-old son, doesn't want to follow the same drug-laden path as her mother.
• Tinesha, 17, vowed to complete high school and go to college to major in communication, an area she sees as a weakness.
• Tarilynn, 17, just figures it's OK to open up and let people know how you feel. "It's OK to love and not get hurt."
• And Eva, 20, says she just wants to "dance in the rain without getting wet."

As the date for the ball approached, rehearsals became more intense."Shoulder back! Stand straight! Smile! Don't forget to smile," implored choreographer Tyna Andrews Parish.

The women were supplied with gowns, and stylists volunteered to do their hair. A West Hollywood spa prepared their nails. Makeup artists were brought in to do their foundation, eye makeup — shadow, liner, mascara and contour—cheeks and the lips.

The tab for the camp and the July 29 gala came to $82,000, raised largely through private donations and fundraising events. Dr. Dre's record label, Aftermath Entertainment, donated a 2006 Chevrolet Suburban and helped raise $25,000 of the money from various rappers.

County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke arranged for the museum site.

On the night of the ball, nearly 300 guests packed the museum's North American mammal wing. The audience erupted in applause as the young women made their entrance, escorted by boys who also are supervised by the Compton office of the Department of Children and Family Services.

Betty Hall was more than pleased with her foster daughter, Kim, 17, a senior at Compton High who is on the cheerleading squad and has a 3.8 grade-point average.

"She is so beautiful," she said. Hall recalled how rough around the edges Kim and her sister were when she took them into her home. "I said I'd take her for a week and I ended up having them for five years," she said, watching Kim dance. "I told them, 'I'm keeping these two because I believe they can change.' They did."

No one seemed happier than Kimasha Houston, Eva's older sister."She is the life of the party," Houston said. "Just to see her happy and focused. She is a reflection of her inner beauty."

Eva has been in the foster care system since birth. She never knew her father, and her mother, who struggled with crack addiction, has been diagnosed with cancer. At 16, Eva ran away from a relative's home where she was hit with a belt buckle and called a crack baby. She graduated from high school, tasted college and now has a burning desire to be a social worker.

Eva doesn't like it if someone says she's blossoming like a flower. "I'd much rather be a tree," she said. "Trees stand still and I just want to stand still."

The ball ended with embraces, picture-taking and promises to keep in touch. The music switched to hip-hop and the girls broke out into their own dances. They are scheduled to meet next month with program mentors, who will keep track of their progress over the year. And they no doubt will recall the "Cinderella" theme that was played at the ball:

A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you're fast asleep.I
n dreams you will lose your heartaches.
Whatever you wish for, you keep.
Have faith in your dreams and some day
Your rainbows will come smiling through.
No matter how your heart is grieving
If you keep on believing
The dream that you wish will come true.