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September 11, 2005 - San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Editorial: NO REFUGE

How California Is Failing Its Foster Children

A Chronicle Editorial Board Special Report

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Sade entered the foster-care system at age 13. Before then, she had been shuffled between a mother whose drug addiction made it difficult to care for her and a grandmother with neither the space nor the money to take on a child full time. Those may have been the more stable years of her life. Today, four years and seven homes later, Sade (pronounced SHAW-day) has become accustomed to substandard living conditions and even physical assaults. She has seen a succession of adults come into her life, offer a glimpse of hope, only to leave again.

"No one ever stays," she said.

Not the social workers, who would only appear when it was time to move her again, then never return her calls. Not the attorney, who was supposed to represent her, but whom she never even met.

Not the group home owners or staff members, who didn't seem to care.

Not her mother or her father.

And not the state or the county, both of which became her official guardians once she was brought into the foster-care system.

"I can't trust," she told a Chronicle editorial writer during their first meeting.

Sade has every reason to be distrustful. In a system where courts, counselors, educators and social workers operate independently from one another, Sade -- like thousands of other young Californians in foster care -- fell through the cracks. She went from one group home to the next, with no sense of how long she would be there or to whom to turn if she needed help.

In the state's broken foster-care system, this scenario has practically become a cliche.

Despite her statement, it doesn't take long for her to prove that she's not the robot she claims the foster care has turned her into.

On this second meeting, there is a big smile on her face as she greets a writer at the Hayward BART station near where she lives.

Slowly, she goes beyond the stories and offers a little more of herself.

"Want me to read you a poem I wrote?" she asks.

She reaches for a tattered notebook in her small, black backpack.

For those of y'all who'll listen
To tell, I got a story
About three girls' oppression
And dehumanizing attempt at glory.

Not all are ready for the truth
So those that don't want to hear it can just ignore me
But for those who do listen
Don't just stand up
Grab somebody and hold them for me.

The poem, she says, is called "Pro lyfe," meaning "prostitute life." Sade should know something about the topic -- she had been living with teenage prostitutes for the majority of her time in the system.

One of her roommates, she says, used to sneak tricks into their room while Sade pretended to sleep.

She didn't know why she was placed in group homes with girls who were considered the most troubled and at risk. She was never in trouble with the law. Her only crime was being born to a mother who couldn't care for her, and a father who never tried.

Apparently, no one cared enough to see that this group home was the wrong placement for her.

So she sought refuge through writing. She wrote in her journal while she lay in bed, and sometimes during church services. No one knew she was a poet until she decided to let them in on her secret.

"We were at a conference," said Tiffany Johnson, communication coordinator for the California Youth Connection, a nonprofit, foster-youth advocacy organization led by current and former foster youth. "She was very shy, but at the conference she was compelled by all the other people just like her who shared their stories. All of a sudden, she just went on stage and began reciting one of her poems. Everyone was amazed."

Her powerful presence and poignant words may have grabbed everyone's attention at the conference, but in the foster-care system, Sade never felt she had a voice at all.

Her grandmother had no choice but to give her up.

In California, relatives of foster-care youth are not reimbursed when they take the children in. As a result, Sade's grandmother, like many other relatives of foster children, could no longer care for her.

"When a grandmother or an aunt or any relative takes in one of these kids, it's seen as their moral obligation to do so," said Assemblywoman Karen Bass, D-Baldwin Vista (Los Angeles County), who is sponsoring a bill on foster-care reform. "But if you have a grandmother on a fixed income with no support from the state to raise this child, what does she do?"

On the federal level, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, are co-sponsors of the "Kinship Caregiver Support Act," which aims to provide monetary and emotional support for the more than 6 million children being raised nationwide by grandparents or other relatives.

After leaving her grandmother's house, Sade was forced to live in a homeless shelter with her mom and older sister until, one day, her mother never came back to the shelter. Sade found out later that her mother had gone back to drugs.

Ideally, foster care would have provided a short-term refuge for the sisters. Instead, it provided years of confusion, frustration and uncertainty.

"I remember them taking me and my sister, but not telling us where we were going," she said. "Then we were put in this house where there were already seven other foster kids. Did I feel anyone cared about us? No. You just do what you do."

Sade's older sister, Nikkia, remembers the house being like a prison.

"We were locked in the house all the time," she said during a phone interview. "We couldn't go outside. We couldn't talk on the phone. We couldn't watch TV."

Sade didn't see her assigned social worker until it was time to leave. After a month, the worker said it was time to be reunified with her mother.

"I thought it would be better than being in the system," said Sade.

But it was worse. With her mom relapsing yet again, there were frequent arguments and physical abuse.

"I called the social worker to come get me. I thought, 'At least in the system, they can't hit me or tell me to leave because they're being paid to have me there,' " she said.

Nikkia couldn't understand why her sister would choose strangers over their own mother.

"I didn't want to tell her she was stupid for choosing foster care, but I thought it," she said.

From that moment on, Sade would be lost in California's convoluted system -- until May 31, 2006, her 18th birthday and the day she "ages out" of the system.

Sade sat in an assessment center for five hours answering various questions about her health, after which she was assigned to a level-13 group home -- the highest level reserved for the most troubled kids.

"This was my first group home. Why would they place me in a level so high, with prostitutes? What had I done to be grouped with them?" she asked.

"They just didn't care about where I was coming from or who I was."

On her first day, Sade walked into a filthy room where sheets were hung to cover the windows and garbage and dirty clothes were strewn across the floor.

"There were about six girls, just all yelling and swearing at each other," she said.

"I was basically invisible when I walked into that group home."

But not for long.

That first night, Sade said the other girls surrounded her like vultures, asking her questions about who she was and why she was there.

But Sade refused to answer, opting instead to face the wall and stare at the mold that had accumulated in the corner.

"They weren't there to get to know me," she said. "They were scoping out my stuff to see what I had. After that, they started stealing from me."

Sade said they stole clothes and money and rifled her belongings.

"The most disrespectful thing anyone could do to me was steal my stuff," she said.

Numerous fights between other housemates and thefts went on for weeks, then months. Sade called her social worker repeatedly to let her know she wanted to be transferred.

But the social worker never returned her calls.

"I couldn't take it anymore, so I went AWOL," she said. "I went downstairs one day early in the morning because the smell was so bad upstairs. One of the staff workers cussed me out for coming downstairs. That was it for me."

Sade had heard about a homeless shelter for teens in Sacramento, so she hopped on a Greyhound bus with the $100 she had saved and headed north. She spent two nights there, but because she was officially assigned to Alameda County, the workers at the shelter told her she couldn't stay.

She had no money left to get back on a bus, and nowhere to go.

"I called the county office and they told me that my case was transferred to another social worker," she said. "She actually called me back and picked me up."

The new social worker placed Sade in a new group home in Richmond, where she lasted for only one week. More than half of the girls were prostitutes and all were fiercely territorial.

On her first day, Sade got in a physical fight with one of the other girls whom she had caught trying to steal one of her favorite sweatshirts. Once again, she called her social worker to request a transfer.

"I just wanted to go somewhere where I could go home and not be beaten or stolen from," she said. "I wasn't going to stop until I found that place."

Sade was now 14 years old and in her third group home, where she stayed for seven months before being moved again. By her fifth group home, she had dropped out of school.

"Everyone in the system who dealt with me knew I was failing. Nobody tried to help me in school, they just kicked me out," she said.

"There was nobody saying 'Try harder' or 'You can do it.' There was only my voice, and when that's the only thing you hear, it gets pretty hard."

It wasn't until her sixth and final group home that things finally started turning around. Her mom began calling her more, though Sade never thought of going back to live with her. Her social worker was more involved with her. The girls in the new group home were less combative, and even bordered on being friendly at times. She went back to school.

"The woman who owned the group home actually cared," she said. "She wouldn't let us go out or to school looking ragged. If we did stuff that was against the rules, we would get punished."

Sade's grades went from F's to C's. She even got a job, working as a child-care intern at a day-care center in Oakland.

"I was 15 and I was starting to feel independent," she said. "I brought my first paycheck to a bank and opened a savings account. I took out $10 to buy my lunch, and that's when I knew I could do things for myself."

But Sade was still void of emotional support. She learned her mother had cancer -- she never found out what type because her mother refused to talk about it -- and her father was near death from years of heart complications.

There was no one to turn to.

Fast approaching 16, Sade was just two years short of "aging out" of the system. At 18, she would be completely cut off from all county services -- no housing, allowance, counseling, medical assistance or educational support, what little there was of it.

She heard about a transitional program called the Bay Area Youth Center, where they would prepare her for independent living. She could transfer to an apartment and learn how to cook and budget her money. With the trauma of her mom's cancer and her father's illness, she saw it as the best way out.

"I'd rather be alone than surrounded by people and not have any emotional support," she said.

In November 2004 she packed up, as she had grown so accustomed to doing.

When her social worker brought her to the new apartment in Hayward, she thought it was a joke.

"I said, 'Are you sure this is where I'm going to live?' " she laughed, pointing toward her complex with its pool, Jacuzzi and exercise room.

On the exterior, its sienna and sandy tones exude a Santa Fe-meets-suburban-luxury charm. Within walking distance are a grocery store and several coffee shops and restaurants.

She walks to the BART station, where she catches the Oakland train to her job as a youth-led evaluator for the California Youth Connection.

She goes to various group homes -- similar to the ones she felt trapped in for so many years -- conducting surveys and monitoring their growth.

"When I was in these homes, I would listen to these girls and I would think, 'I wish I could help you, but how can I help when I'm down here with you?' I had to climb out," she said.

And she's still climbing.

"Sade has gained so much knowledge and found internal support for herself to not become a negative force in society. She inspires the other youth with her conviction," said Timothy Evans, Sade's supervisor at the California Youth Connection.

Sade has a look of determination when she says where she's going: Spellman College in Atlanta, Ga. She hasn't been accepted yet, but she has been studying for her SATs and won't even consider what will happen if she doesn't make it.

The historically black liberal arts college for women, she says, would provide enough distance for a new beginning. In addition, she says the school has a great sociology program, which is what she wants to major in. Afterward, she hopes to come back to California and work on reforming the state's foster-care system.

This, Sade says, is the most stable and happiest she has ever been -- and at the same time, she says she's "terrified."

"In a year, I'm officially out of the system. That's it," she says. "It's like all of a sudden you're 18 and they expect you to be an adult, but the system doesn't teach you to be an adult.

"It's one thing to be sad about being in the system but still have a roof over your head. It's another to be sad and homeless and unemployed. That's what the stats say I will become."

Sade speeds up her words and begins to walk faster, almost strutting. She is almost back at the BART station where she met the writer two hours earlier. She closes her eyes and begins to move rhythmically to her words.

She be sellin' her body
How I know 'cuz' she used to cry every night

In her bed right beside me.
She be sellin' her body
I know 'cuz' she used to tell me her scandalous stories

In her bed, right beside me.
She said she got a tattoo her back that says "ride me"
And I don't know why, but for some reason she felt
She could confide in me.

She turns to the writer and hands her the tattered notebook and the journal she kept throughout the different group homes. These, she says, will help her understand what it was like in the system.

She places her BART ticket in the slot and disappears -- one foster kid out of 80,000 whose chances of becoming homeless, unemployed, pregnant and on public assistance grows greater with every day the system remains broken.

"This system doesn't raise children, it raises robots," she said. "You have to stop yourself from feeling, from trusting, getting hurt, or angry. You have to move from place to place and feel nothing. That's what a robot does."

But Sade is not a robot. And while she may have lost all trust in the system and those in it, she has learned to depend on and have faith in herself.

In California's foster-care system, she had no choice.

Foster-Care Children Facts

  • Nearly a third will become homeless at some time within the first year after they leave the system at age 18.
  • 65 percent of California youth graduating from foster care in fiscal year 2000-01 were in need of affordable housing.
  • Fewer than 10 percent enroll in college and only 1 percent actually graduate.
  • 50 percent will become unemployed.
  • Emancipated youth earn an average of $6,000 per year -- well below the national poverty level of $7,890.
  • 25 percent will become incarcerated within the first two years after they leave the system.
  • One-third will be on public assistance shortly after aging out.
  • 67 percent of emancipated females from California's child welfare system had at least one birth within five years of leaving the system.

Source: Children's Law Center of Los Angeles

I'm a Robot
By Sade

I'm a robot, I'm a robot
You can't come in
'Cuz' I got the do' locked.
Been moved around too much
That's why I got the do' locked.

Momma been left,
Daddy just ain't givin' a damn.
So where else could I go?
Except to live with Uncle Sam?

Screw a village,
I was raped by the government
Corrupted minds, manipulated crime
What happened to God's covenant?

How the hell
Can the system try to be my mother
When they can't stop people
From 'jackin' planes with box cutters?

When I was 14,
I was worth a monthly 5 G's.
They got cashed out,
Yet you can't see me in no Nikes.

And an allowance
You get less than likely
So hell to the yea, I stole
When I thought they looked pricey

Group home usin'
Sheets for curtains
While the owner got his Navigator
Parked on the curve, and

Her kids came by sometimes
Always fitted
While we got our group home van
And ain't ever no gas in it.

Note to readers: Sade's last name was withheld because of her age and status as a foster-care youth.

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