In 1994, I was 17 and out of places to go. Let me clarify: All “emancipation” means is you are no longer receiving financial support, so there is actually no difference between emancipation and “aging-out.”
At Edelman’s Children’s Court in Monterey Park, California, the judge called our name. The judge asked my mother if she contested my desire to emancipate. I hoped for a mother eager to prove she’d somehow overcome the facts of our lives—things like poverty and mental illness. A mom who allowed herself to want me, to fight for me.
* * *
California has the largest state foster care population in the U.S., estimated at 62,097 in 2015, making what happens in California’s child welfare system of national significance. On January 1, 2012, California became the 15th state to extend foster care past the age of 18. Young adults in California previously set to “age out” of the system at the age of 18 are given the option to remain in-care until the age of 21. While it’s ludicrous to think that any person will awaken on their 18th birthday and magically become adults, I’m wary as to whether or not we are aiding foster youth’s transition to adulthood or simply shifting the fiscal burden to adult support systems. I’m wary that this extension is a dance macabre, fallacious numbers that tell a compelling story—we were successful with foster youth!—when in fact, we’ve just failed them as adults.
In order to be eligible for extended foster care, the social worker or probation officer administers what’s called a “Readiness Assessment.” They begin a foster youth’s preparation to transition to independence anywhere from 90 days to six months before emancipation. I call this time The Time of The Readiness. When I was coming up, The Time of The Readiness hit at 17 and a half. It felt interstellar—on this arbitrary date, I was suddenly An Adult.
The Time of The Readiness needed to begin a great deal sooner than 17 and a half, however. The type of scrutiny foster youth undergo while in the system—curfews, rules around language, level systems, points awarded for cleaning and cooking and attending classes—are all designed to help shape your behaviors, which is helpful, but not exhaustive or holistic. None of this prepares the dependent for actually taking care of themselves. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I spoke with a service provider, Tasha Hunter, at United Friends of Children, one of the supportive housing complexes available in Los Angeles, and she said, “they would rather sleep on the floor or the couch because that is what they are used to.”
This sort of thing can be worked through in foster care, but in Los Angeles County, there’s currently only 261 transitional housing beds for approximately 2,800 non-minor dependents. Those who are not able to get into transitional housing get a check for $776 a month. But since $776 is insufficient to rent an apartment on your own in Los Angeles, those who receive this stipend often go back to live with unsafe relatives or friends, or live in substandard housing. If the living arrangement no longer works out, this leaves the non-minor dependent with nowhere to go, and the amount of money they receive keeps them living in poverty.
* * *
One day, last spring, my partner brought home a baby sparrow. Home is Atwater Village, a neighborhood along the L.A. River between Echo Park and Glendale, where young families settle and a posse of desperate people sometimes comes to steal the copper piping and wiring from abandoned homes. Cloaked by night, they scuttle under Toyota trucks for the catalytic converters and hopefully finger coin slots of pay phones for forgotten change. Home is another side of Los Angeles, where people squat in the public storage units and the cool kids sniff glue or huff Camera Lens cleaner or suck the nitrous out of the whipped cream cans at the CVS.
The bird was mostly naked, bearing a little fuzz; his eyes were just open. My partner, who is a deputy for the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department, found the fallen sparrow inside the women’s jail downtown. The other deputies had put the bird in a box and tried to hand-feed it bread. I tell my partner the bird won’t live, even as I become frantic, getting a warm towel, telling her to make a nest out of white paper towels and a wooden bowl. I am Dr. Google.
* * *
For someone in foster care, The Time of The Readiness is a charged time. After being heavily governed your whole life—told when to eat, when to sleep, when to come home—you’re suddenly set free to make your own choices. You look in the mirror to see if you are older, more wise, more mature. A girl looks at you funny in the halls of the group home. You don’t ask her, “You got a staring problem?” You keep walking. Because that’s what grown-ups do. There is no other stop after foster care if you screw up—except for the emergency homeless shelter.
At the shelter you get a bunk in a room full of bunk beds. In by 6 p.m. out by 6 a.m. You get county-issued blankets made of wool, which aren’t cleaned too often; dark grey masks the stains. There’s lice everywhere all the time. A shower if you’re lucky. You hear jail might be easier, because in jail, you get a shower and it’s not a daily hustle or grind. In jail, you know where you will be between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., when the emergency shelter opens again. But jail is jail. And you want to go to college.
* * *
Eurasian tree sparrow, Old World sparrows, Rock sparrow, Yellow-throated sparrow, White -winged sparrow, Sparrow weaver, Petronia. There are so many different kinds of sparrows. The one in the box in my bathroom was a house sparrow. They are some of our most common birds. Their constant presence makes them easy to overlook. After the sparrow entered our home, I seemed to see them everywhere. Their tendency to displace native birds causes some people to resent them. Seems a bit harsh—to resent a living thing for trying to do its living. I tried very hard to be gender neutral toward the bird. I suggested we call the bird by a name. It seemed no sillier than all the other options—it, this, that, shim.
Sneaker. My partner called the bird Sneaker.
One reason that youth who are eligible for supports through extended foster care tend to reject them is because they don’t want to be subject to any more rules or governing. They are eager to be out on their own. Currently, foster youth can be ejected from receiving supports or housing if they don’t comply with certain requirements—like if they are not in school or working or if they get married. They become no longer eligible if they don’t comply with the rules of their housing program, if they get in a fight. There are all kinds of deal-breakers.
Extended foster care needs to have a no eject, no reject policy. This could prevent non-minor dependents from graduating into homelessness. Their behavior did not make them eligible for the program in the first place; rather, the circumstances of their lives did.
Their mere existence does not make them any more of a liability than anyone else their age. These former foster youth need to be placed in a stable environment, not one that will kick them out as soon as they break a rule designed for someone much younger than them.
* * *
Sparrows will happily eat anything in small quantities. For days, I bend over the bird with a dropper full of wet cat food. I try to feed it water. I prepare baby bird formula and try my best to get it in the little sparrow beak. Sometimes the baby sparrow’s crop fills with the fluid of the baby formula and I’m afraid it will choke. I don’t know anything about birds and this clear lump filled with fluid on the side of Sneaker’s neck—like a blister—freaks me out. Sometimes I miss the bird’s beak and Sneaker’s chest gets covered with encrusted food.
* * *
The Readiness Making was a time of barred-up windows and plastic cutlery and hiding in closets and the locking up of cleaning supplies and smoking in game rooms, and I suddenly started to wear lots of makeup. It was that time. And maybe This Time was A Dark Hole because I literally learned nothing new at all. I was able to make it through every single day with very little information, except maybe who was stealing the fruit to make some sort of funky smelling hooch out of it, and what a fifi was. That was new news, but I hadn’t cracked open a book, or watched the news, or had a decent conversation.
It was not like my accelerated program on “the outs,” when guidance counselors urged me to reach my full potential. Get into Harvard, Yale, Brown. No, now it was all ILP—Independent Living Program—classes. You sit in the room and pull one thick paperback book off the shelves that lists all types of careers. The careers are actually jobs—not careers—and they are in alphabetical order and you pick one, and write a one-page paper about it.
Sometimes you could take up space on the paper by writing big or drawing a picture. I chose secretary. I learned I needed to be right-sized with my dreams and I needed more than anything to get out of there. In a recent report, most of the youth stopped attending high school or junior high school due to a foster placement change, yet stated that if they could go as far in school as they wanted, they would graduate from college.
If most foster youth enter the system at 15 and drop out in the 11th grade, that seems in itself a crucial piece of information. Those who do attend college are often enrolled in for-profit proprietary schools who market to them. I ached for all the debt they would accrue.
* * *
The second evening, my partner comes home and sits with the bird in the bathroom, washing it with a wet Q-tip. I’ve mistakenly encrusted its eye closed with formula. Panic blooms in my heart, and it sits there like a stone and then blooms every day for three days, as I try to feed the bird. Each morning my partner gets out of bed and goes to the box in the bathroom on the other side of the house. I try to quiet the blooming rock-fire inside. “Is it alive?” I ask.
* * *
Our parents were addicts, and bus drivers, and housekeepers, and secretaries, and home health-care aides; our parents got welfare and food stamps and overdue pink colored bills, and were masters at sharpening pencils with knives, and bank teller fights, and checkout line prayers. Our parents were deadbeats, and junkies, and flunkies, and do-gooders, and churchgoers, and too young, and trying. Trying their best. Not my best. Not our best. Not even Department of Children Family Service’s best. But their best.
Here we are in California, a state of innovators and dreamers. A state that develops television programming and marketing that delivers the message that we love our children, that we are progressive and engineering, and health conscious people, and yet none of this resounds in our current child welfare system. There is limited innovation, love, or justice in foster care.
* * *
My partner is the only one who held the bird. You could see its blue heart, its tiny veins, its tiny bones. Every day we were trying. Trying to be a good mother. The little sparrow every day trying to live. All of us there, in the bathroom trying.
* * *
When my Ma and I lived in an apartment in Westwood, she took our two small beds and put them together to make one. When she held me at night her legs wrapped around mine. Her long T-shirt rising up, I felt a small pulsing at my back. She held me as though I was a gift, a possession, a boyfriend’s T-shirt. Something given to her in love. Something frighteningly precious. I could feel the rhythm of her breathing. I could hear the screeching of the wild confused world, The Needs scrambling around in her head—the bills and the food and the books—and because the apartment was locked and dark, I eventually swam my way into sleep. These are the nights I thought of when I sat at that dinner table in the big bright room simply for dining with that first foster family. That and the mere fear that became fact—that they might send me back.
* * *
Each time I approached Sneaker in his box in my bathroom, I approached with twin fears: Was the bird alive? Would I kill the bird? I was not qualified for this job. This I knew. I searched for a better source. I found the Pasadena Humane Society. A society. That I could get behind. I was just a person—a lesbo, a dyke, a freak, a throwaway, a left behind. Sneaker clearly needed a society. I called The Society. They encouraged me to come by. I drove, with one hand on the cardboard box that held the bird. The bird was sometimes chirping too loudly and then sometimes too quiet. When Sneaker was quiet I opened the box and cooed, whistling, and puckering and promising all the best foods. I drove past pharmacies and stores and fro yo shops and bakeries and homes and bus stops and all the places and all the people, and as I circled the parking lot and and then entered the parking lot, I opened the box once again and assured Sneaker that this would be the end of his bad luck. I whispered to him that he was okay and in good hands, and could he just bear the walk from the elevator to the main entrance.
At check-in there was a thick butch chola, the kind who I’ve known all my life, the woman who feels like home—short hair, tattoos, T-shirt. She asked where I found the bird. I said, the woman’s jail. She rambled through all the local women’s jails with a question mark—part true inquiry, part posturing.
When I said “Lynwood,” she smiled and nodded—like she knew the place. The place of women making makeup out of the black text on newspapers, exercising by pacing back and forth in their cells, lining up for pills, and showers, and food, and writing home, or passing notes to one another inside. Or nine months pregnant, driven to the local county hospital, pushing hard, letting go and going back to that unit—a cell by herself. And the piping on the sink is calling to her, a combination between the county-issued blanket and that low pipe and some Big Effort on her part lets her know she could die—she could hang herself in a sitting position and life would continue to motor forward.
“Can I—is there?” I handed the box over to the woman.
“You want a number?” She gave me a card with an ID#, so I could check up on the bird. According to the website I could call to find out when Sneaker was released into the free air.
Two days after I delivered Sneaker to The Society, my partner and I drove to the mountains. We were in search of a cabin, someplace secluded and wild and affordable—some sort of country life for those who yearn for seasons and trees and a place alive with wild growing things. On our way in I thought I’d check in with The Society. After three rings—there was a voice. The voice was all business. This was not the voice of my thick chola. I asked if I could check on number blah blah blah. Yes of course I could! And then the voice said, Oh number blah blah blah died two days ago.
Everything shattered. The setting on my phone was too loud. My Beloved heard. She was crying—tears streaming down her face. I wanted to reach over and comfort her. I wanted to yell at the Removed Person on the phone. I wanted to get answers. I wanted to be angry.
Whywhywhywhywhywhy? Like bricks piled high. Like that little bird—trying—open beaked, hungry and chirping at me. Like what I wished I’d done—been strong enough, been caution-free enough—to scoop That Little Wanting Bird up into my hands and hold it close to my breast and gently, patiently, precisely push nutrients into its beak.
Like I was fearless enough to not let that big blistering bubble that ran from his tendoned little see-through neck to his right wing bother me. Like I had been more deft, more reckless, more loving.
And there in the truck with my beloved my thoughts were echoed. “Why?!” she cried, while holding the steering wheel. “They didn’t feed him!” she decided. I was not prepared for such bad news on the side of the mountain. I wanted to have better answers on the side of the mountain. I regretted my own acceptance at my limitations, my own ability to acquiesce that there were Experts out there who knew about things, but Did Not Have Love In Their Hearts.
Can other beings live on knowledge without love? Can other beings live on love without knowledge?
As I write this, I walk down my street, or any street just as long as it’s in the thick of the city that borders the L.A. River—there the ghost of my failure haunts me. And every now and again I hear it, the chirping. I know that chirp. Like a new mother who hears a baby cry, something in the core of me lights up and wants—and will never be relieved.
The rules, the homes, the hand-me-downs, the mom-shaped hole and the dad-shaped hole, the dream-shaped hole, and now the sparrow-shaped hole—these are the holes of my life that can never be filled.
Melissa Chadburn has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, Salon, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America and dozens other places. She is a fellow for The Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Co-published with The Establishment.
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