Story by Rebeka Woods
Photos by Rebecca Vasquez
Kids are dragged away screaming from caustic home environments everyday.
The portrayal by the media is of the foster care system only telling of tragic stories, but this is not always the case.
These are not parents who forgot to give their kids milk for breakfast one day. They are parents and other family members who are often abusive, neglectful, or care more about their drugs than they do their children. All the stories you hear are of tears, heartache and pain.
But not all is what it seems.
I was put into foster care at 9 years old and yes it was scary at first but I soon learned to be grateful. My first foster mother, Melissa Hermes , was a fourth grade teacher at Westside Park Elementary. Hermes had no children of her own, but my sister and I shared her extended family. Five months later Hermes had to move to Texas and we were placed with another family in a permanent home.
I credit my success to the loving support of both Jose and Yolanda Ramirez. It turned out that their tough love was exactly what I needed. My big mouth was getting me into a lot of trouble cursing, screaming and not doing anything I was supposed to. Needless to say I am much better now but my rebellion grew in my childhood up until I was 19 years old. I can’t really explain why I was that way. I had it much easier than other foster kids.
Nancy Melucci, the head of the Psychology department at Long Beach City College, used to work as a therapist and was able to work with the foster kids who had the hardest time. Those that were deemed most likely to drop out of high school. Most of them went through multiple homes, eventually ending up in the group home that Melucci worked for.
Group homes are some of the most difficult places for children to live in. There may be up to 100 individuals in a home depending on the size and as you can imagine this leaves very little time to give to a single person. In addition to this there have been many cases of children becoming what is referred to as “lost in the system” said social worker Joe Ramirez. Ramirez feels very strongly about fixing the system because of this issue. “I care about fixing the system. Caring for the kids is a by-product of fixing the system”.
Ramirez explained that white babies are by and large more likely to be adopted than any other race and they are more likely to be allowed adoption by a white couple than that of a minority couple. Ramirez wants that changed. Melucci herself saw everyday the walls placed in front of foster youth, especially the closer they came to adulthood. These walls were more often than not placed there by the system.
Although there are multitudinous opportunities out there for current and former foster youth, many have seen too many tough times to care. Anyone would be frightened getting taken away from people they love even if the people they love are not the best. Anthony Hayes works for EOPS (Extended Opportunity Programs and Services) which is a program at LBCC created with foster youth and low income students in mind. EOPS seeks to help those with “less potential for success” explains Hayes. “Programs were started in all the California community colleges and similar programs were started in the Cal-states.”
Where I am from in the high desert, I was not told about these services by my social workers or Victor Valley Community College, the school I was going to attend when I lived down there. They do have it, however it is not as widely known as it should be. EOPS has social worker “interns helping with student life . . . they provide initial outreach and provide us with the names of students they’ve contacted so far.”
Claudia Garcia Marroquin who has a master’s degree in social work and a doctorate in education is manager of Foster and Kinship Care Program at LBCC. The FKCP is a program that was not offered at Victor Valley College and is very helpful in assisting foster parents and kinship parents. “We provide [parents] with different techniques, different parenting styles” Marroquin said. “You see life changing moments for individuals.” Things like this are created specifically for at risk youth and that is a great thing that LBCC is trying to do.
Without these programs would it be possible for current and former foster youth to be successful in college? Absolutely. I consider myself a success story and I am not currently involved in any of these programs. Just like everything else though it depends on the person’s situation. Some struggle more with money. Most foster families are middle class and college is not cheap.
It is a struggle to pay for it among youth growing up in stable environments. I would say that my sister and I both grew up in a stable home. Our guardians are our parents, we call them “mom and dad”. We never ran away or started using heroin. We did not go to wild high school parties and we did not become teen moms. That is success in foster care. If you don’t do any of that then you are successful. In a regular home it’s great and if the kids don’t get addicted to drugs or alcohol or have crazy unprotected sex, but when you are a foster kid and you manage to avoid these things then you beat the odds and you do not get to become another statistic.
I was a bit of a nerd in high school. I always read and wanted to know more about Harry Potter, not what the best strain of marijuana was, or which drink would give me the best buzz. Now in college I like to drink occasionally but it does not consume my life. I’m a caffeine addict more than anything. The point is I lived 19 years in foster care/guardianship and in my household the worst thing I did was not be at my cousin’s school when I was supposed to so my sister could pick us up.
In addition I did not need to be slapped to learn my lesson and I wasn’t. Instead I got to learn letters A through Z of the Merriam-Websters dictionary. However I am lucky because I was only in two homes while other kids I knew from support groups had been in up to 20. These kids do not know love and they have little support especially when leaving the system and entering college. I do not live with my family, but I know that they care for me and want me to do my best.
My mom always told me I would do well in journalism and that really helps me whenever I get too stressed and consider quitting. Lack of support is a major problem for foster youth and that is something that Marroquin wants to change. She would like to see better support and transitional services for them. Virginia DuRivage, director of student life met with Tamra Hom and Anthony Hayes to discuss possible solutions to the problems. Teaching foster and kinship parents how to be more supportive was one small step that they believe could have exponential affects. Then there are the Guardian Scholars, a newly found program at LBCC but one that is almost in every California community college. It is also available at some universities including Cal-State Dominguez Hills.
Tamara Hom, counselor of Guardian Scholars said that the group helps with “life support needs . . . if they need additional services like paying for transportation.” They are currently working on getting bus passes for their students. Contrary to EOPS which serves foster youth that meet the financial requirements, Guardian Scholars has no formal requirements other than making sure you show documentation that you were in foster care even it was for a day. Both programs supply students with “backpacks, pens, pencils, USB drives”, Hom said. This semester they also gave them $50 cards to the bookstore.
There are so many stories you will hear and I’m sure there are so many that you have already heard that paint foster youth as criminals. Being in the system can be seen as a tragic situation, but more often than not, it can save a life. It’s the reason I am where I am now.