Monday, January 01, 2007

Angel says stigma of foster care is worse than stigma of incarceration

Fourth of the Series: Throwaway Kids
In search of Brian: LA street kids expose California’s youth injustice system as county officials try to bring runaway kids back into the fold

Piasecki, Joe. Pasadena Weekly, July, 13, 2006.



Word on the street is that Brian Chytka, the 22-year-old homeless former foster youth whose story started off this series, has left Hollywood for San Francisco. There he is suffering from a staph infection and other potentially life-threatening health problems brought on by increased heroin use since speaking with the Weekly some two months ago.

“You’re going to find him on the Castro. You’ll see the kids sitting down panhandling. Ask for ‘Slappy,’ tell ‘em what’s going on, and they’ll hook you up,” said Nickel, a homeless youth in his early twenties who, because he has violated terms of his probation, wished to be identified only by his street name.

For those whose lives may involve panhandling, drug use and the occasional hustle, going by a street name lets your friends know what you’re up to while keeping your government name — as many homeless youth call what’s on their birth certificates — out of the ears of law enforcement. Slappy is Chytka’s street name, which Nickel told me Saturday only because Chytka had spoken about this reporter to him.

Only two weeks after that interview, new troubles started for Chytka, who earlier had described turning 18 at a state mental health facility where he had been placed by a county probation officer for reasons he did not state. On May 7, Chytka was arrested by Los Angeles police and charged with a misdemeanor for being under the influence of alcohol or drugs but was soon released, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Inmate Information Center and Deputy Ignacio Mora.

Nickel’s friend Angel, who also expressed worry about Chytka’s condition, is 17 and has lived on the streets for three years. At age 10 she began running away from foster care group homes and wound up spending nine months in a Sacramento-area juvenile hall.

Like Chytka and many of the other homeless youth who haunt Hollywood Boulevard, the day she entered the juvenile justice system was likely also the day she lost her chance for free housing and other benefits that foster youth are entitled to receive after they turn 18.

“A young person who may come into conflict with the law, he does six months, he gets out and doesn’t have health benefits or money for housing or money for school. You can’t get student loans or public housing — you’re just denied, which is absolutely absurd,” said Jakada Imani, program director for Books not Bars, a project of the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Cheated by the system
After reading Chytka’s story, an employee of the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, DCFS, who wished to remain anonymous called this newspaper to take exception to our portrayal of Chytka as a casualty of the county’s foster care system.

Although Chytka was in foster care, said the caller, he left the system under probation from the juvenile justice system, effectively cut off from the benefits that are normally available to emancipated foster youth.

Such a cruel twist of fate for already troubled youth has been the norm for many foster kids who are arrested for drug use and other crimes, even if such treatment might go against federal law, said Youth Law Center director Carole Shauffer.

Based on research for this story, Shauffer said she is determining whether to file a lawsuit against the state for not extending job training, education funding and transitional housing to foster youth after they leave juvenile halls.

While regulations until recently prohibited many correctional facilities from receiving federal funding to extend such services to kids in their care, she believes formerly jailed youth should be considered re-eligible after they are released.

“Even though that’s what they do [cut kids off from foster care services], I’m not sure that it’s legal,” said Shauffer. “Nobody understands this well.”

Imani estimates that between 40 and 50 percent of kids in juvenile halls and California Youth Authority prisons have come directly out of foster homes.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Probation Department has yet to fully implement legislation signed into law more than a year ago that would prevent foster youth in trouble with the law from losing their benefits, according to the Web site for the Judicial Council of California.

Spokespeople for that department did not return calls by press time, but according to a May 12 memo sent by the state Department of Social Services to county welfare directors and chief probation officers, foster youth can now retain dual status between the criminal justice and foster care systems to keep their access to services provided under the federal Welfare and Institutions Code.

Prior to the passage of Assembly Bill 129, authored by San Jose Democrat Rebecca Cohn and signed into law in September 2004, concurrent jurisdiction was prohibited, according to the document. Now, if all the right paperwork is filled out, some probation youth can receive foster care services, it reads.

But this may be too late for Chytka.

“Slappy needs medical attention,” said Nickel, who has been living on the streets since he was kicked out of his home at age 16. “He was at the hospital — disappeared for a couple of days, [I] thought he was in jail, and he just showed up. And he had this cane with him; he was all fucked up. Everyone’s like, ‘Slappy, go back to the hospital,’ and he’s like, ‘No, they took me off my methadone and I’m sick.’ So he’s out panhandling and shit and doing his other little hustles because the doctor’s a dick and took him off his methadone.”

Despite the advantages that come with being in foster care, Angel said it has been easier for her to be known as a lawbreaker than a foster kid.

“I used to tell a lot of people I was in foster care and, you know, they would distance themselves from you. I tell people I’m on probation; they’re cool. It’s like foster care is something totally different, like they don’t know how to handle it. And it’s kinda sad, because it’s not our fault at all that we’re in foster care, not our fault at all. My mom blamed me all the time that I was in foster care. But I wasn’t the one beating me up,” she said.

Perhaps those words say something about the mindset of the 450 foster kids who as of July 5 have run away from foster care placements, according to records provided by the office of LA County Supervisor Don Knabe.

Most runaways, reads a memo by DCFS Director David Sanders to LA County supervisors, are girls ages 14-17, 56 percent of whom are Hispanic.

Nearly 80 percent ran away from foster or group homes, compared to 20 percent who disappeared from relatives’ homes, where more and more county foster kids are being placed under Sanders’ leadership.

Praised by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich for implementing effective reforms within the foster care system, Sanders decided Wednesday that he will leave his job at the end of this month to take an executive position with the Seattle-based foster youth advocacy group Casey Family Programs, a spokesman for Antonovich said.

But to find out why so many youth run from foster care and determine how to keep more kids from running, county supervisors convened the Runaway Foster Youth Task Force in December after receiving reports that nearly 1,000 kids had disappeared from care.

At that time, however, the number of runaways being reported was double the actual number because, until formation of the task force, many kids who repeatedly ran away only to return in a few days were being counted multiple times, said DCFS spokesman Stu Riskin.

Why kids are running away in the first place is another, more difficult question.

“It’s typical for some to run out overnight or for the weekend; some we never see come back,” said Charles Rich, director of La Verne’s David and Margaret Home, which houses dozens of girls in the foster care system.

“Some kids have been through such a difficult time in their lives that they aren’t ready to make a commitment to any program,” said Rich, who explained there’s nothing care providers can do to stop most kids from running away.

“If a child 14 or over got up and walked out the front door, nobody could physically restrain them. That’s the way the law is: You have to talk them into coming back,” said Los Angeles County Dependency Court Supervising Judge Margaret Henry.

In order to keep kids out of the criminal justice system, judges tend to issue warrants for runaways only in extreme circumstances, according to Henry.

“So many kids have mental health issues because of abandonment or sexual abuse they have suffered and go out on the streets to self medicate. We need them to be a good sport long enough to get them counseling, medication or whatever they need to make them feel safe again,” she said.

‘Still kids’
Antwone Fisher, a former homeless foster youth whose life story was the subject of the feature film “Antwone Fisher” directed by Denzel Washington, knows how hard it is for foster and probation youth who leave the system with no one in their lives to turn to for help.

“I was so afraid because I knew I didn’t have anybody to fall back on. I felt like there weren’t any good people in the world,” he said of the time he spent living on the streets of Cleveland in the 1970s.

In late March, Fisher spoke to dozens of foster students who were preparing for a high school graduation ceremony hosted by Casey Family Programs and DCFS that would also mark their leaving care.

Though programs that offer money for education and transitional housing are today keeping many youth from a life on the streets, the deck is still stacked against foster kids leaving care, said Fisher.

“Most people don’t trust teenagers. They think they’re volatile, which they are, because they’re unfinished people, just getting started. They look like adults sometimes, and you think they ought to know right from wrong and that there’s hope and services, but they’re still kids,” he said.

Chato, a 17-year-old former juvenile hall inmate, looks very much like a kid, but he’s been taking care of himself on the streets of Hollywood for the two years since his mother told him to leave their Santa Monica home. On Sunday night he slept outside the Pantages Theatre.

Although he was sent to juvenile hall for selling drugs and admitted to stealing food to survive immediately after his release, Chato said he no longer steals or even uses contraband, and wants to avoid trouble. In his wallet, which contained only a few dollars, he carried a picture of his young son now cared for by a teenage mother. He said he wants a job so he can someday be with his son.

“Not all squatters are high all the time, and I’m living proof of it. But we’ll be sitting at the bus stop and people are afraid to take their money out. We’re not going to hurt you. Let them know some of us are nice,” he said.

For now, despite the danger, living on the streets ironically gives him a sense of belonging.
“I’m one of many,” he said. “You feel a sense of security when you’re around people of your status. They’re not going to judge me, and when they run in packs, and deep, you know they’re going to watch your back.”

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