Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"Throwaway Kids" in LA County

Throwaway kids: Thousands of area foster children leave county care for a dangerous and desperate life on the streets
By Joe Piasecki

Except for the tape holding his ripped black boots together and a needle wound on his right arm that looks red and infected, you wouldn’t know Brian Chytka is in deep trouble.

The 22-year-old is surrounded by those he calls family. There’s a street-smart skater, a young punk-rocker in jeans who laughs like all of this is somehow funny, and a girl with military-short hair and a lip ring who looks healthy but knows she will die a heroin addict. She won’t eat the food I offer her because she feels sick from going a day without a fix.

Heroin is also Chytka’s drug of choice. It was his dad’s, too.

Like thousands of former Los Angeles County foster youth who have left state care homeless, penniless, ready-made targets for drug dealers and sexual predators, Chytka lives wild on the streets. Anonymous victims of broken homes and of tragic neglect as wards of our overtaxed and impersonal foster care bureaucracy, they have become LA’s throwaway kids.

Every day in Hollywood, youth who have recently become homeless visit My Friend’s Place, one of only a few charities offering drug and psychological counseling, showers, food, even haircuts to people under 25. It was near here that I found Chytka, one of only a few young people actually willing to tell their stories, and his friends carrying their food around in a plastic bag one afternoon in May.

Half of the kids who go to My Friend’s Place have been in foster care — more than 700, according to David Brinkman, the center’s executive director. All too commonly, he said, “Foster parents drop their kids off at our door into homelessness.”

Brinkman’s figures for those troubled youth who find their way to Hollywood are actually deceivingly low when it comes to telling the fates of former youth countywide, according to the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles. The group says nearly one-third of foster youth — and there are more than 25,000 of them right now, according to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) — become homeless within two years of leaving the system. Another group, the Covenant House of California, guesses that as many as half of local foster youth become homeless in six months.

LA is not alone in failing to keep its children from a life on the streets at 18. Nationwide, according to foster youth advocates Casey Family Programs, as many as half of former foster youth will become homeless sometime after leaving care.

If nothing changes, 75,000 American kids will become homeless after leaving foster care over the next 15 years, Casey President William Bell warned members of the state Assembly last month.

Those now living on the streets and others who, thanks to a few dedicated people inside and outside the system working on their behalf, are beating the odds and putting their once-broken lives back together have troubling stories to share. Many were abused at home, bounced in and out of foster homes, struggled in school, made few if any lasting relationships and learned little about caring for themselves.

JJ, who turns 21 in June, spent the past three years sleeping under freeway bridges, in abandoned homes and in Pasadena’s Central Park. She became homeless at 18 when, tired of being moved from group home to group home, she successfully fought to be emancipated from the system.

“Being out on the street, not knowing what I was going to see on the next corner, having people literally push a crack pipe in my face — I couldn’t handle it,” said JJ, who entered foster care after using drugs and suffering sexual abuse at home.

JJ and the other youth in this story are identified only by their first names because they are either under 18 or fear that people knowing their pasts would affect their ability to find mainstream jobs and housing. Chytka demanded that his name be used.

Twenty-year-old Jonathan isn’t homeless, but his eligibility for free county-sponsored housing in Burbank runs out in a month, and so far he’s got nowhere to go. In and out of 15 different foster homes since he was 5, including one in which his foster parent didn’t speak English, Jonathan says no one noticed he couldn’t read until high school.

According to Casey Family Programs, 46 percent of American foster children leave the system without a high school diploma.

“The state has a long way to go before it can be declared a good parent to kids in our foster care system,” said Assemblywoman Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s Select Committee on Foster Care. Pushing a package of legislation that would extend housing, health care and other benefits to foster youth until they are as old as 24, the committee is hoping to go a long way very quickly.

800 down — 9,200 to goThat society has somehow failed the kids in its care who grow up to be homeless is clear. Finding out why this is happening and, more importantly, how to fix it takes some commitment.

Money trickles down from Washington, but comes with restrictions. States make rules, too, and also disburse funds to counties. Counties, in order to deliver housing, health, education and other services to current and former foster youth and administrate these funds, have set up complex bureaucracies of departments within departments. They, in turn, subcontract to social services nonprofits, which, of course, have to meet government requirements.

And then there are the kids themselves — 90,000 in California alone, each one with a different story and a different set of needs.

LA County’s foster care program is not only the largest in the United States, it’s larger than the programs managed by many states. But here there are fewer than 800 beds available for kids leaving foster care with nowhere to go, and all but 244 of those are operated by local nonprofits that receive some of these funds, according to DCFS Emancipation Services Director Rhelda Shabazz.

“We probably need about 10,000 beds. That would guarantee every youth who wanted it could have one,” said Shabazz.

The problem? Not enough money, she said.Of the $18 million in federal funds her department received this year, only 30 percent, roughly $5.4 million, can be spent on temporary “transitional” housing and rental assistance for kids growing up and leaving the system.

The rest goes toward education grants and programs that teach kids to drive, cook for themselves or understand credit and banking practices. County social services workers called independent living coordinators work with foster youth to plan services delivery several years before emancipation, and services remain available to kids until they turn 21, even when they leave the system voluntarily and come back later for help, said Shabazz.

But when it comes to housing, there are other resources available.This year, said state Department of Social Services spokesman Michael Westin, $8.1 million in state funding is available to counties that will provide matching funds to expand transitional housing programs. Like most other counties, LA has not put up matching funds.

Removing that requirement is just one of several goals of the Assembly Select Committee on Foster Care. A package of legislation currently wending its way through the Legislature specifically targets keeping foster youth off the streets when they leave the system. The bills have found support from both parties and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The bills would make independent living services programs mandatory for all foster youth and give them the option to stay in the system until they turn 21. Other services, like transitional housing and education grants, would remain an option to emancipated foster youth for an additional three years, until they turn 24. To better supervise services delivery, the bills would establish a state Child Welfare Council and Undersecretary of Foster Care.

“We definitely need to make some improvements with the population of youth emancipating out of care,” said Bass. “The reality is kids in all areas of the world are not ready to be financially independent at 18.”For Pasadena Democratic Assemblywoman Carol Liu, also a member of the task force, the time to act is now.

“It’s important we try to resolve these problems upfront while we still have control over these kids. It’s a no-brainer to try to provide for these kids. Otherwise they wind up in our system being incarcerated or homeless,” said Liu, who several years ago authored the Foster Care Bill of Rights, which guaranteed all foster youth the right to obtain services, file complaints and have access to attorneys and the courts.

According to the Children’s Law Center, 20 percent of ex-foster youth in the United States will serve time behind bars within two years of leaving care.

“It’s a system that does need looking at, because if we don’t put the money upfront, you’re going to pay for it someplace down the line. We don’t want to waste more lives with something we certainly can fix,” she said.

Big plans
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, a push to create more transitional housing and other services for youth is underway as part of the Bring LA Home campaign, the $100-million plan to end homelessness in the county that was designed by a blue-ribbon panel of community leaders.

Released in April, the plan calls for specific services and new housing for homeless youth, and has convened a task force to deliver that plan in July.“

We need a comprehensive, countywide approach for service planning and delivery for youth,” reads the report, which cites a study in the late 1990s that found more than 60 percent of Hollywood street youth had a history of foster care.

Housing these kids, said Brinkman, is the essential first step in really helping them and should be a starting point for services.

“When you have a youth you’ve been working with for eight hours … and put them on the streets at night full of pedophiles and gang-bangers and pimps looking to take advantage of this population, the next time you see them they’re back in crisis again,” he said.

Natalie Profant Komuro, director of policy and planning for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, helped craft the Bring LA Home report and is optimistic that change is coming — despite facing a lack of funding handicapping her understaffed department.

“What I think is very exciting about the timing of this is the unprecedented resources available to help,” she said.

Much of those resources come from nonprofits. Last year in Pasadena, the Hillsides center for troubled youth used grant money to purchase an apartment building that now houses 28 emancipated foster youth who have entered the system as victims of abuse.

The Hillsides Youth Moving On facility is the first affordable housing project of its kind in LA County and is unique in that it’s not just for youth. Many of the apartments in the complex are rented at market rate in order to fund the down payment for a second building.

Jeanette Mann, a member of the Pasadena City College Board of Trustees and a parishioner at All Saints Church in Pasadena, runs a program out of the church that sends donations and volunteers to organizations including My Friend’s Place, Hillsides and the Old Pasadena-based Sycamores, which helps foster youth get adopted or find permanent and loving foster homes that are monitored by the agency.

They also take in foster youth who, for whatever reason, run away or get kicked out of group homes for aggressive or criminal behavior and would otherwise end up in juvenile detention.

Lots of groups and agencies are doing good work, but they need volunteers, so we recruit volunteers,” said Mann of All Saints’ Foster Care Project, which boasts a database of some 380 volunteers. Many donate to the project’s Birthday Club, which sends cards and presents to hundreds of foster kids whose birthdays would otherwise go unmarked.

But it wasn’t too long ago that nonprofit resources weren’t as plentiful, and federal funding restrictions were so tight that local governments had their hands tied when it came to spending on youth aging out of foster care. That’s when Patricia Curry, who runs a Pasadena insurance business and has served on the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families for more than a decade, started her youth advocacy.

In the early ‘90s, foster youth weren’t on anybody’s radar, she explained.

“People just really weren’t aware, the amount of [independent living services] dollars was very small, and there was no transitional housing. The kids would emancipate with a big old sack on their back, pick up a Hefty bag and just walk out onto the streets,” she said.

Since that time, awareness has increased, so much that a group from the nonprofit community has formed Pasadena Transitional Partners to discuss foster care issues and untangle the web of government resources for kids who come into their care.

One of the group’s members, Susan Abignale of Casey Family Programs, helps run a drop-in resource center on Green Street, one of nine such centers that have opened in the county over the past decade.Casey’s Alumni Center in Pasadena focuses on finding housing, education and employment for kids, and often helps them reconnect with the foster care system to receive any benefits for which they might be eligible.

Meanwhile, the Mental Health Services Act (2004’s Proposition 63) has allowed county officials to allocate some $14 million to foster care and transitional housing programs, money that Curry said will soon allow service workers to treat and house more street youth with mental health needs.

While kids fall to the street for a variety of reasons, many are traumatized by horrific acts of abuse and are forced to deal with untreated medical problems. As for the homeless plan, “it is what it is,” said Komura, “but there isn’t any money now saying we can launch this campaign.”

What’s needed, she said, is a locally driven plan not just to house kids, but to use those resources to bring more stability into their lives to allow them to find their feet.

‘A failure of the state’
Jonathan, the 20-year-old whose time in transitional housing is about to run out, said instability is the biggest hurdle he’s faced as a foster child.

“Right after my high school graduation was pretty much the day I got kicked out of my foster home. The guy I was living with didn’t want me there since they were going to stop paying him. Luckily the social worker was able to find me a place after a couple of days,” he said.

Now an intern at the Casey Alumni Center in Pasadena, Jonathan counts himself lucky to have a job and a high school diploma, though he’s had to put college on hold to sort out the basics of his life, like paying for food, transportation and a new place to stay.

Casey Community Programs Supervisor Marvin Carter has found that finding stability, more so than more resources, is the key to success after foster care.

“When you get that first apartment, that first job, the challenge is not getting it, it’s keeping it,” said Carter of those he works with. “If I had to generalize, the problem when you talk about transition-age youth is keeping things. It runs parallel to their overall life, moving from place to place. Going to work on time, calling in when you’re not feeling well, the things that show we’re taking responsibility we take for granted because we’ve had it ingrained in us since we were kids. I don’t know if they didn’t have it, but it’s the stability and consistency of [the message], having a consistent person giving that message.”

And even if there were enough of it for everybody in Jonathan’s shoes, transitional housing is still only an option for two years, and you can only learn so much about caring for yourself in a county-funded independent living classroom.

For whatever reason, many foster youth aren’t benefiting from the federally funded life-skills independent living programs that go along with it, according to Human Rights Watch’s Los Angeles Office, which recently conducted a study of homeless foster children in San Francisco and Hollywood.

What they’re telling me is that they aren’t getting the preparation and support they need to enter into adulthood, regardless of what part of the state they’re from or when they left the system,” said Human Rights Watch Children’s Advocate Elizabeth Calvin, who presented a preliminary report to the Assembly Select Committee of Foster Care on May 8.

In her report, Calvin details complaints by several youth that group homes ironically went too far in treating them like a child before they were forced to leave. One said he wasn’t allowed to ride the bus or get a job. Another said she had to wait to take a class on how to do such normal things.

Others told Calvin they had no idea medical coverage, school tuition assistance and transitional housing were even available, or that they left transitional housing to become homeless.

They’re really describing experiences of not having been given basic tools on how to be an adult, very basic things like how to cook, budget money, rent an apartment, protect themselves from people trying to take advantage of them,” said Calvin. “From the perspective of Human Rights Watch, this is a failure of the state because these children are dependent on the state for more than just food and shelter; they’re dependent for their development.”‘

And you can quote me’
Actually, said Shabazz, the state is doing much to make sure kids don’t fall through the cracks. Sometimes the hard part is getting the kids on board.

“Unfortunately, it seems there are youth that have not received services, but I believe that’s the exception, not the rule. Again, it’s voluntary. Youth are offered services and many of them choose to take them,” she said. “We’re doing a lot of outreach.”

County officials are currently sponsoring a survey of foster youth and are holding discussion-based forums to see what kids really think about what’s available to them. In order to encourage more foster youth to participate, they’re offering a $50 gift card to those who fill one out.

And some foster youth really excel in these programs. More than 100 gathered downtown last week at the Walt Disney Concert Hall to celebrate not only their high school graduation but also their scholarships for college.

Sometimes people have the wrong impression about who foster kids are and what it means to be in the foster care system. People think the kids have done something, but they’re there by circumstance and can achieve as much as any other kid,” said Polly Williams, president of United Friends of the Children.

United Friends, founded in 1979 by Nancy Riordan, wife of former LA Mayor Dick Riordan, finds scholarships for foster youth in its program, offers an array of life-skills training and operates its own transitional housing program.

Fewer than one in five foster youth will go to college, and many don’t graduate, said Williams.

Patrice, a former foster child who worked with United Friends and graduated from UC Berkeley earlier this year, is one of those proud few. Separated from her siblings at a young age, she hopes to find them some day to offer support.

“Mentors in my life were guiding me and pushing me along,” said Patrice. “Counselors, about anything about life … that’s one of the things foster kids need and what helped me get through this.”

All of this, however, seems terribly unimportant to a group of a half-dozen African-American current and former foster youth who visited My Friend’s Place just a few weeks ago. In that group were sisters Danielle, 17, and Chan’tell, 15, who said they resent being placed in foster care and just want to be left alone.

“Right now I’m kind of AWOL,” said Danielle, originally from Baldwin Hills. “I ran away because they made me mad. They took me to some old lady’s house. I didn’t know her.

“If a 17-year-old girl says she wants to be free, you should let her go, because if you keep trying to take her back to a foster care she’s gonna leave. If I can’t be with my family, I’d rather be alone. I don’t want to be with somebody else trying to tell me what to do, and they’re not my family,” said Danielle, who plans to get a job when she turns 18 so she can adopt her younger sister.

Taking a cue from Danielle, Chan’tell explains that she’s all about family and the system is not; that the freedom of the streets is more appealing than foster care because the people she cares about are here.

“They just need to leave us be because we’re all family and we don’t want to be split up, and there’s no way you can split up family, anyway,” she said. “Honestly, out here we take care of each other better than any foster parent could take care of us.”

Brinkman explained that three out of five kids My Friend’s Place serves have what the social services community has come to call street families. These six boys and girls as well as Chytka’s group are street families, made up of youth in similar circumstances who tend to trust only each other.

And why not be wary, especially about a system as complex as each child is unique?

“It’s hard to know how much of it is normal adolescent rebellion compounded with a complicated history and issues of abuse and neglect. It’s never just one reason,” said Lesley Heimov, policy director for the Monterey Park-based Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group appointed by the Los Angeles Superior Court to represent most youth in the foster care system.

Some, like Danielle, ditch the system because they no longer trust it, most likely from having bad experiences or inadequate care, said Heimov.

“I distinctly remember a foster home where the people in the house did more drugs than the people in the house that I came from, and that’s including the foster kids,” said Pasadena’s JJ of her Tarzana foster home five years ago.

Others, like Chytka, just haven’t been given the tools to keep themselves out of trouble. And despite the positive changes that have occurred in preparing foster youth for adulthood, change has been so recent that the generation leaving care now hasn’t been entirely caught up.

“The biggest challenge is establishing rapport as adults,” said Brinkman of working with street youth at My Friend’s Place. “Constantly they have been failed by the adults in their lives, and they are very wary of adults, period.”

As if to illustrate his point, Danielle asked me to send a message to the Department of Children and Family Services: “Let the foster care system know that they can kiss my black a** — and you can quote me on that.”