Pushing Foster Children Off the Plank

Kayla Gordon was emancipated from foster care during California's budget crisis. It wasn't easy.

Kayla Gordon was irritated, but she answered all the questions anyway, parsing out pieces of her life for the woman across the table. There didn’t seem to be much of an age difference between them, but the woman wouldn’t say how old she was. After all, Kayla was there to answer the questions, not ask them. The woman behind the computer was writing everything down.

Kayla was nineteen, nearly twenty, and her childhood in California’s troubled foster care system had been horrific — molestation, beatings, betrayal. Now, she was applying for admission to a program designed to help teens too old for foster care. She and the woman sat in a private room in a small office in a squat building near Concord BART.

The woman across the table worked her way through all 33 pages of Kayla’s application, delving deep into her past. What were the circumstances around you entering the foster care system? Kayla herself wasn’t so sure. She knows she entered foster care as a newborn, but isn’t sure if she was taken away or if her mother gave her up voluntarily. Social workers snapped most of her baby pictures; instead of going into a family album, they were put in her case file.

How many foster care placements have you experienced? Kayla couldn’t answer that one either, incapable of counting up her exact number of foster families, group homes, stints in juvenile hall, or time spent in limbo. She’d never seen her file from Southern California, where she was born. Her best guess puts the number around forty, but it could be as high as fifty.

What was your final foster care placement? It had been a supervised living arrangement in Antioch where she shared an apartment with a roommate. There was a 10 p.m. curfew and an adult living nearby. It was a housing model that lets teens under the age of eighteen practice living on their own. But Kayla’s eighteenth birthday would mean she’d be forced to move once again.

That’s because eighteen is the age at which most Californians in foster care leave the system. With only a few exceptions, that’s the rule in every state, even though studies agree that young adults are now becoming self-sufficient much later than they used to. On top of that, jobs are scarce; in 2009, 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were either unemployed or out of the workforce, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. A 2009 Pew Research survey found that the recession prompted one in every eight 22- to 29-year-olds to move back in with their parents. But young adults who grew up in foster care typically lack that option.

One social worker calls expelling teens from foster care at age eighteen “pushing them off the plank,” and foster care advocates have called that moment the “transition cliff.” Kayla certainly remembers dreading that day. “I was scared when I was seventeen,” she said. “You don’t know what was going to happen.”

As her eighteenth birthday approached, nothing was panning out. Her biological family hadn’t ever been part of her life — she had only recently learned anything about them. She and her mother had never even spoken, and her father was serving time in prison. Kayla knew she’d have to move out of her apartment, but she didn’t have anywhere to go. She was hoping something would change.

When nothing did, she packed what she could in her car and, after eighteen years of state support, Kayla was suddenly on her own. She had nowhere to go, and now can’t remember where she slept that night. She can’t remember many things. “For some reason, my mind blocks out the really, really painful stuff,” she said.

Over the next six months, she moved around a lot. For a while, she rented a room in Antioch, but got kicked out. She spent a couple months with the family of her boyfriend at the time, but ultimately couldn’t stay.

So when the woman across the table asked what Kayla hoped to gain from the program to which she was applying, Kayla had no trouble answering that question. “Stability,” she said.

The formal term for exiting foster care as an adult is “emancipation.” The word carries connotations of freedom and liberation, and in most contexts, it’s steeped in positivity and a sense of triumph. But for an eighteen-year-old with no permanent home or family to rely upon, emancipation can feel like having the rug pulled out from under you. The more common term for it in the foster care community is “aging out.” The services and support that foster care provided are abruptly gone.

Nationwide, 25,000 teens age out of foster care each year, and Californians represent about 20 percent of that number. Within two years of emancipation, a 2007 report by the Pew Charitable Trust found, one in five will be homeless and one in four will be incarcerated.

Many move back in with their birth parents, often to find that a formerly abusive situation hasn’t changed. Others couch-surf. Some end up on the street. Because so many former foster youth have to focus on finding stable housing, their education often suffers. A 2003 study by the Casey Family Program found that just about half graduate from high school. And only 1 to 5 percent ever earn college degrees.

A bill now before the state legislature would give teens in foster care the choice to remain in the system until they turn 21. In January, AB 12 passed unanimously in the Assembly, and it is currently before the Senate Appropriations Committee. If it becomes law, California will receive federal support to help young adults who choose to remain in foster care. Kayla said she would have done this to support her studies, despite how she fared within the foster care system.

But in the meantime, young adults like Kayla have few places to turn. Other programs have dramatically improved the odds for them, but budget cuts have limited their reach. So teenagers leaving foster care today have fewer options than Kayla did just a couple of years ago, and service providers are seeing the fear and anxiety brought on by these additional uncertainties. Kayla remembers what turning eighteen was like for her. “Everyone’s looking at you like you’re an adult,” she recalled. “But you’re not.”

Kayla buries her childhood memories for a reason. On a cool summer night, she sat on a bench outside a strip-mall restaurant and broached the subject with hesitation. Lighting a cigarette, she stared hard at the concrete in front of her. Slowly at first, she started telling stories she’d rather forget.

The details were often blurry. She recalled a foster home in Southern California where she lived some time between the ages of four and six. Her foster parents had biological children of their own as well as foster kids. The foster kids would sometimes be sent to the garage to eat by themselves. It was punishment for taking the biological kids’ toys, crying too much, or just getting on her foster parents’ nerves somehow. “If we didn’t eat it fast enough, they would take our food,” she said.

She fondly recalled one family she stayed with when she was older. There were two parents, two biological kids, and two foster kids. “I loved that foster home, loved it,” she said. They went to church, took trips to the water park, and lived close to Knott’s Berry Farm. But when the couple got divorced, she had to leave. Kayla said she cried.

The Express could not confirm exact details, but Kayla’s account of her teenage years has been verified as reliable by several sources. Most of the placements ran together — a month here, a week there, six months somewhere else. Playing soccer at a group home. Getting migraines so bad she needed a CAT scan. Only years later would she learn that the medical condition runs in her family.

Kayla also remembered abuse. When she was five, a teenage boy molested her while he was babysitting. She told her social worker, but the adult didn’t believe her.

At six or seven, Kayla was back at a group home. She was prescribed ADHD medication, but wouldn’t always take the pills. Kayla is still angry about the diagnosis. Looking out toward the parking lot, she watched a little boy running laps around his family as they walked to their car. “I don’t know any little kid that isn’t hyperactive,” she said.

Kayla once confided in a therapist, revealing that her foster parents at the time beat her. “Instead of her reporting it, she told my foster dad,” Kayla said. “I went home and got beat again.” She never went back to that therapist, and she spent four years with that family. When they moved to Northern California, they brought her along. Kayla remembered how her foster father would buy clothes for his daughters at nice stores and then outfit her with Goodwill castoffs. He had their names tattooed on his body, but not hers.

Because Kayla felt like she didn’t get enough attention, she says she acted out at school. At thirteen, she lived with a foster mother who was in her sixties and in poor health. The woman rarely left the house, and let Kayla do as she pleased. Kayla said she started stealing, experimenting with drugs, and hanging out with the wrong crowd. When her foster mother got fed up, she simply kicked Kayla out.

After that, Kayla said her social worker called her “un-adoptable, un-fosterable.”

In April, Kayla sat on a couch looking through old photos at the place she currently calls home. “I don’t know who this is; I don’t know if that’s my grandpa or what,” she said. “But that’s my mom.”

In the photo, her mother smiles brightly. She has dark curly hair, a heart-shaped face, and an olive complexion from her Italian, Spanish, and West Indian ancestry. Kayla’s caramel-colored skin is darker than her mother’s, but she has the same beautiful features. In the snapshot, her mother sits in a place Kayla doesn’t know beside a man she doesn’t recognize.

Kayla grew up with only questions about her family, no answers. It wasn’t until her early teens that she learned anything about them. A social worker helped her find her younger sisters and put her in touch with her great aunts. “I always felt a void in my life, like something was missing,” she said. “That feeling has never gone away.”

Her great aunt gave her a small stack of family photos that date back before she was born. One shows Kayla as a onesie-wearing infant in the arms of her mother and grandmother. But Kayla doesn’t remember this. One of her earliest memories is from a group home in the Southern California city of Orange that housed hundreds of foster kids. “We were all waiting for something,” she recalled.

Kayla has a warm smile that she mostly reserves for friends. She’s a full-figured five-foot-eight, and a silver piercing called a Monroe — after Marilyn’s signature mole — gleams above her lip. Her iPod is packed with slow “lovey dovey music,” and she posts her poetry on MySpace. She smokes Newports, a habit she said she picked up at age twelve.

She put the family photo down and came across a few from her time at the Chris Adams Girls Center in Martinez. At the time, she was thirteen, and in the photos she wore a lei, held a rose, and stood, smiling stiffly, in front of a hand-painted backdrop. She lived at that treatment facility for troubled teenage girls — it’s now closed — until she was fifteen. She was there because the foster care system had no other place for her.

Every day, she would put on blue pants and a pink T-shirt stamped with “Chris Adams Girls Center.” No one could leave the facility unless they were with family, so Kayla was stuck. “I never spent a night away from there,” she said. It’s where she learned how to crochet and play chess.

Kayla picked up another photo that meant a lot to her. The image itself was unremarkable — a shot of people walking across a parking lot. But it was taken at Sea World in San Diego, where she went with her foster parents and foster sister at the time. “It was my first family vacation,” Kayla recalled. She was fifteen at the time.

On that same trip, she also met her birth sisters for the first time. They’re younger than she is, and she has photo booth shots with each of them. In the strips of photos, they’re grinning, goofing off, and acting sexy with pursed lips. Family matters to Kayla, and even though they’re hundreds of miles away, she said she’s committed to keeping her sisters close.

Kayla got into trouble in her early teens, but while she was in juvenile hall and at Chris Adams, she earned credits toward her diploma. And even though she’s not sure she can list all the schools she attended, Kayla graduated from Lincoln High School in San Leandro when she was just sixteen. That was the year she resolved to make a change in her life. “I turned sixteen years old, and I realized I’m never going back to jail again,” she said.

By that age, she had met a handful of people who would help guide her through the tough times.

Kate Teague remembered the first time she met Kayla. The sixteen-year-old was planted in a chair at the Bay Area Youth Center‘s office in Hayward. Teague worked there as a youth development specialist. It wasn’t one of Kayla’s best days, and she had a sour expression on her face. Kayla had recently moved into Generation House, a group home connected to the center.

Thinking back to that day, Teague laughed. She called Kayla a talker and said they got to know each other quickly. When something would happen at the group home — a fight, or some other emergency — Teague was on call. Kayla came to learn that Teague was someone she could count on. “Every time I called Kate, Kate would be available,” Kayla said. When Teague took another job, and Kayla left Generation House, they stayed in touch, talking at least once a week.

Teague, 34, respects Kayla’s appetite for information. “She wants to hear about all the potential options in the world out there,” Teague said. “And then she’ll choose what she wants to take part in.”

Around the same time, Don Graves became another person Kayla could call on when she needed advice or help. Graves coordinates services and programs for kids and teens in foster care in Contra Costa County. He describes Kayla at sixteen as a smart, articulate go-getter who was also headstrong and stubborn.

Graves, 40, has worked with foster youth for eighteen years. He has hundreds of stories, and his office is practically wallpapered with pictures of the young men and women he’s served. In one photo, a group stands in the marble hallways of the state capital after meeting with their representatives. Another shows a serious teen in a black bow tie who was shot and killed before he turned 21. Then there’s a Polaroid of a grinning young man with a group of friends. He made a bad decision one night and was sentenced to sixteen years for a home invasion robbery, his first offense. “I was the only one in court for him,” Graves said.

Graves knows that life hasn’t been simple or easy for the kids and teens he works with. He said he tries to focus on the positive and treats them all as individuals. Graves is a father himself, and he sympathizes.

He remembers a time in the not-so-distant past when teens left foster care carrying their belongings in green plastic garbage bags. Now, emancipating teens in Contra Costa County get a piece of luggage full of first-apartment essentials like envelopes, stamps, pots and pans, a tool kit, a flashlight, an alarm clock, and cleaning supplies. The Assistance League of Diablo Valley donates the bags. Graves coordinates the Independent Living Skills Program, which offers 15- to 21-year-olds workshops on finding an apartment, applying for a job, and managing finances — skills other teens might learn from their family. The funding comes from the federal and state government, and the county runs the program.

But budget cuts have hurt these programs, just as they have so many social services statewide. Two years ago, the Independent Living Skills Program provided classes or activities four nights a week and every other weekend. Now they’re only offered twice a week.

Budget cuts eliminated another program that gave small stipends to 18- to 21-year-olds. The money helped former foster youth make ends meet when they didn’t get all their hours at work or came up short on rent or utilities. The stipend money — from $50 to $500 — also could be used for job-interview attire or fixing a car needed to get to work or school. This safety net was eliminated last year, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut $80 million from the Child Welfare Services budget.

Cutbacks also are being felt in a nine-year-old state-funded program called the Transitional Housing Program for Emancipated Foster/Probation Youth. It’s open to 18- to 24-year-olds who can participate in the program for up to two years. Most enter early, when they’re eighteen to twenty years old, and the kind of help they receive depends on where they live; most transitional housing providers place young adults in low-cost apartments where they live on their own or with a roommate. But because of budget limitations, this option is open to fewer than 10 percent of those who are eligible, and cutbacks have made it even less accessible. Last year, 1,700 young adults had such housing, but as of April that figure had fallen to 1,400.

As more and more of their peers are moving back in with mom and dad to ride out the recession, opportunities are disappearing for former foster kids who lack parents on whom to rely. Graves recently looked at the waiting list for one of the transitional housing providers in Contra Costa County. Its 36 placements were taken, and more than 90 were in line behind them. Looking at the names on the waiting list, he saw some who are still in foster care — case workers encourage them to sign up early — but most have aged out. One was couch surfing or sleeping in a car, and another was in a homeless shelter. Others stayed with relatives on a temporary basis, or continued to live with foster families even though the funding for them was gone.

“Our youths’ lives don’t stop because there’s a wait list,” Graves said.

Kayla is social, and that’s part of what brought her to Bible study at the Chris Adams Girls Center. The group leader was Terri Jennings, a firm, affectionate middle-aged lay minister. They met when Kayla was thirteen, and during the two years Kayla lived at Chris Adams, they became close. Jennings has two children who are about ten years older than Kayla, but Kayla made such an impression that Jennings considered becoming a foster parent.

Then another woman, a juvenile hall counselor, quit her job to become Kayla’s foster parent, and Kayla and Jennings lost touch. It was that counselor who took Kayla on her first family vacation, but the arrangement ended badly, and Kayla blames herself for screwing it up. Without going into detail, she simply said that at that point in her life she wasn’t able to accept the idea that someone genuinely wanted to help her.

That was Kayla’s last placement with a foster family. She lived in group homes next, one in Hayward and one in Fremont, and spent her final six months in the shared apartment in Antioch.

Barbara Colton, 61, was Kayla’s social worker from the time she was sixteen to eighteen. She said Kayla had trouble following rules — she didn’t necessarily do anything bad, but she was a “wild child” with her own ideas.

Teague recalled that when Kayla emancipated in January 2008, things were very chaotic. She said the date Kayla had to be out of the apartment kept changing. But Colton remembered it another way. She said the date wasn’t the problem; Kayla was. The young woman was in denial about her deadline, even as her birthday approached. After all, she had to move out of her Antioch apartment by the evening before she turned eighteen.

After Kayla finally left, she spent four months bouncing from place to place. The rented room didn’t work out, and neither did staying with her boyfriend’s family.

In May 2008, through the Transitional Housing Program, Kayla secured an apartment run by Catholic Charities in Pittsburg. She stayed there until February 2009, and then she got her own place, a studio in the same town for $585 a month.

Kayla managed to stay in school through all of this, taking classes at a community college. Because she grew up in foster care, she received federally funded grants that help former foster youth get a college education. Those helped pay the bills, but sometimes weren’t sufficient. She also had a job in telemarketing, but she worked on commission, and often didn’t earn enough to make ends meet. To stay afloat, she sometimes borrowed money from Teague.

Still, she loved having her own space. She could burn candles and leave her clothes on the floor when she felt like it. “There’s nothing like living on your own, having your own space, having your own freedom,” she said.

At the same time, having her own place also meant establishing boundaries, and Kayla had a hard time saying no. “Everybody wants to come over and kick it and spend the night,” she said.

A chance encounter with a mutual acquaintance on BART last summer brought Jennings back into Kayla’s life. Jennings, 57, has been a college counselor for twelve years and a juvenile hall chaplain for 25 years. “My vocation is helping young people succeed,” she said.

Jennings wanted to see Kayla succeed, and was in a position to help.

One October evening, Don Graves was working late at his office. He was focused on a new program designed to serve as an alternative to transitional housing without the reliance on public funding. James Wogan, who coordinates services for homeless and foster youth in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, had devised an ambitious plan to ask community members to open up their homes to vulnerable teens, and Graves liked the sound of his idea. Soon, the two men and their colleagues were working out the details.

As Graves discussed the program on that evening, Kayla, wearing a black sweater, black boots, and red jeans, leaned in his doorway. “That’s a good program,” she said, picking up on the conversation. “Do you have a lot of volunteers?”

She had come to see Graves because her housing situation had changed. Terri Jennings had invited her to live in her home, rent-free, and Kayla had accepted.

She had considered it for more than a month. Taking Jennings’ offer would mean giving up living on her own. But it would also mean saving money and living with people who cared. In early October, she had moved in with Jennings.

Kayla had found a situation similar to what Graves hoped to set up for others, but she wasn’t entirely comfortable accepting help. She wondered why anyone would let her move in without paying rent, and she was relieved when she realized there already was a program that would let her stay there and compensate Jennings. The transitional housing provider First Place for Youth provides funding for young adults who want the option of living with a mentor. Jennings said it wasn’t necessary, but supported Kayla’s decision to apply.

That’s how Kayla found herself in an office in Concord last fall, back in the foster care bureaucracy of her own volition, this time being interviewed by a First Place employee about the circumstances of her rootless childhood. The interview didn’t go well. Kayla was agitated going in, and the questions seemed repetitive. It covered her history in foster care, as well as her education, drug use, and criminal background. There were questions about whether the people in her life supported her, and she had to sign waivers giving First Place permission to find out more. Kayla couldn’t wait for it to be over. When it was, she left the office and lit a cigarette.

The answers she gave were the kind of information that was in her foster care file. And when she was growing up, Kayla said the people who read it didn’t want her.

“I’m tired of being passed around like a file,” she said. “What is written on paper is not who you are.”

On a gray spring evening, Kayla walked into a mint green locker room to prepare for her weekly water aerobics class. She and Jennings both signed up to spend more time with one another.

Kayla got there first and changed into her black one-piece bathing suit with red and white polka dots, but she couldn’t find her cap. Jennings had bought her two, but Kayla had lost both of them. She put on Jennings’ instead.

When Jennings came from her office on the other side of campus, she wanted to know why Kayla had taken her swim cap and what she had done with her own. Kayla said she didn’t know, but she’d just permed her hair, and she wasn’t going in the water without a cap.

The two women glared at each other. Jennings was exasperated; Kayla was stubborn. As Kayla readied herself to leave, Jennings gave in. She jammed a baseball hat on her own head to keep her salt-and-pepper hair out of the water.

“And 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go!” The instructor stood on the pool’s blue-tiled edge and mimed the movements she wanted the class to repeat. Kayla and Jennings followed along — criss-crossed legs, cross-country arms, and thunder kicks. The heavy clouds meant rain was on its way, and the wind was picking up, blowing the green and white pennants that hung over the pool.

They stayed close in the water, but not right beside each other. When Kayla kept her distance, Jennings let her.

At Jennings’ house, there’s a framed portrait of Kayla with Jennings and her husband on the mantle. The Jennings are seated, and Kayla stands behind them, her hands resting on their shoulders. Everyone is dressed up, smiling. Their home is full of framed photos of memories and achievements. Now Kayla is part of that. Jennings said she thinks of her like a daughter.

As for Kayla, she’s working on building relationships with Jennings as well as her biological family. Teague said Kayla has come a long way in the past few years — that the young woman recognizes how hard it is for her to trust people. Kayla didn’t speak to her mother until she was eighteen, and their relationship is difficult because her mother still struggles with drug addiction and homelessness. But her dad has pulled his life together after spending most of it in and out of prison. He’s off probation, and he and Kayla exchange text messages. When Kayla has kids someday, she wants her parents to be part of their lives.

One of her sisters is about to age out of foster care, and Kayla said her sister can’t wait. Kayla, sounding older and wiser than her twenty years, said, “When you’re young — you’re a teenager — you want to leave the nest.” There’s the appeal of coming home late and being finished with the foster care system. Looking back, Kayla remembered how much help she received, and she told her sister not to burn her bridges.

“It’s very difficult to take care of yourself,” Kayla said. She knows. She watched many friends from foster care become statistics. For a couple months, every time she went out with Teague, they ran into someone living on the street who Kayla knew from a group home. It happened in Martinez, Oakland, and then San Francisco. Kayla has seen people around her fail: she is determined to succeed.

She has decided, for now, against the First Place for Youth program. She missed the next step in the application process — a class — and found out she would have to start the whole application process all over again, beginning with the interview, which didn’t appeal to her. She doesn’t really need the help now anyways, she said. Her grades have improved since she moved in with the Jennings family, but she doesn’t know how long the situation will last.

Growing up in foster care made Kayla independent and determined. “No matter what I go through, I realize that I can’t give up,” she said. “Nobody’s been there for me like I’ve been there for myself.”

Kayla watched her peers rush into adulthood without permanency, a buzz word used in the foster care lexicon for the conditions kids need to find stability and succeed. Kayla defines it as “someone to lend a helping hand. That doesn’t necessarily need to be money.”

Colton, her former social worker, believes in Kayla. Kayla is one of only two former foster kids who have Colton’s phone number. Colton has left social work, but they still stay in touch. Colton calls Kayla a late bloomer.

“It’s kind of hard to have goals and aspirations and dreams when you have nobody to look up to,” Kayla said.

Now, she does. The people around her have master’s degrees and doctorates, and someday, Kayla aspires to be a child and family lawyer. “I really like children, and I really believe in the idea of family,” she said.

Kayla still struggles every day, and she says she’s still figuring out who she is, but she knows she has a lot to be proud of. “Compared to the majority of my peers, I’m doing pretty damn good,” she said.

Still, Kayla wonders when she will finally feel grown up. She always looked older than she really is, and that hasn’t always helped her. “Everybody believed me when I told them I was grown.”

51.1 ° F
54.5 °
46.3 °
92 %
90 %
56 °
61 °
60 °
55 °
54 °