On January 1, 2012, California extended foster care past the age of 18. Foster youth in California previously set to “age out” of the system are now given the option to remain in-care until the age of 21. Today, in The Time of the Readiness, the first set of youth to participate in extended foster care saw the erratic walls of youth collapse—and aged out. The Time of the Readiness refers to the time caretakers, social workers, probation officers all scramble to complete paperwork to prove foster youth are no longer dependents of the state. Yet, foster youth have already long learned not to depend. This is the first lesson.
One day in the spring of panic and want and emptiness, my partner brought home a baby sparrow. Home is Atwater Village, a place along the L.A. River between Echo Park and Glendale, where young families settle and a posse of desperate people sometimes come to steal the copper piping and wiring from abandoned homes and cloaked by night scuttle under Toyota trucks for the catalytic converters, and hopefully finger coin slots of payphones for forgotten change. Home is Los Angeles, where people squat in the public storage units and the cool kids sniff glue, or huff camera lens cleaner or suck the nitric out of the whipped cream cans at the CVS.
The bird was mostly naked, some little fuzz, and his eyes were just open. She found the fallen sparrow inside a women’s jail downtown. She’s a deputy for the Sheriff’s department. Somehow the bird made his way inside and the deputies stuffed it in a box and fed it bread. I tell her the bird won’t live even as I become frantic, as I run to get a warm towel, as I tell 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. Left to your own devices. But what are Devices? Do you have any Devices? 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. Cause that’s what grown-ups do. That’s what you know is better. There is no other stop after this. After this, it’s the emergency homeless shelter. A bunk in a room full of bunk beds. In by 6p.m., out by 6a.m. Those county issued blankets made of wool can’t be cleaned; their dark grey masks the stains. Lice, everywhere, all the time. A shower if you’re lucky. You hear jail might be easier. Jail, you get a shower. Jail is not a daily hustle—a daily grind. Jail, you know where you will be between 6a.m. and 6p.m. when the emergency shelter opens again. But jail is jail. And you wanted to go to college. When I was coming up, The Time of the Readiness hit at seventeen and a half. It felt interstellar, that on this arbitrary date I was suddenly An Adult.
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 of birds. Their constant presence makes them easy to overlook—like a new lover or an ex-lover, someone you want badly to create some superficial synergy with, or someone you want to most avoid. It’s true; After the sparrow entered our home, I seemed to see them everywhere. Similarly, their tendency to displace native birds causes some people to resent them. How 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 silly all the other options—it, this, that, shim. Sneaker. My partner called the bird Sneaker.
Those who were in foster care could continue to receive supportive housing or a monthly check of $776. Thirty-eight percent of California’s foster care population live in Los Angeles County, but there are currently only eighty beds available in supportive housing units for 18-21 year olds. They mostly get the check. It’s cheaper and easier for the county. Trying to survive off of $776 a month in Los Angeles is like trying to survive off of $56 a month in Los Angeles.
To qualify for a check in The Time of the Readiness, your social worker or probation officer must administer a readiness assessment.
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 blistering clear lump filled with fluid on the side of Sneaker’s neck freaks me out. Sometimes I miss the bird’s beak and Sneaker’s chest is covered and encrusted with food.
When I sat at the table at my first foster home, I ate the way I learned to eat—like a person who is hungry, a person who enjoys food. Back when I had a family, back when I was five, my Lola lifted her plate to her mouth and scooped it all in. Her dentures would rest in a glass of water on her kitchen table. Me—I guarded my plate, elbows on the table, knife, fork, spoon, all a shovel. The Foster Family looked at me like I was a feral thing. Forgoing my napkin, I used the back of my hand for a miner’s swipe. They said things like: “Whoa, slow down.” And, maybe, they thought they were doing such a good thing, feeding the hungry girl. Or, maybe, they thought, I was sick of them and wanted to go be a teenager somewhere. What I could not say was that something happens when I am in Wanting. I was content and enjoyed the food and was in Wanting and the feeling is like front teeth biting into a popsicle and wearing cold wet tight pants. The feeling of wanting was like a urinary tract infection, almost arousing. It was a feeling that I thought I could escape with speed and time. The sooner I finished my food, the sooner they would stop staring at me, they would stop asking me how-was-my-day, they would stop being a family with me. The sooner I finished my food, the sooner I could go disappear outdoors, to go smoke at the end of our cul-de-sac. If I was a ghost at the table, maybe they would not notice that I was not one of them. Six months later, I went back into a group home, cloaked in rejection and abandonment. I had no clue it was temporary. I thought that house and that family and that life was forever. Over the course of two years, I attended four schools, had two foster family placements, and lived in two group homes.
Sparrows will select an area where the ground has been freshly turned or is soft. Using their underbellies, they burrow downward into the soil. They then wriggle about in the indentations, flapping their wings and ruffling their feathers, causing dust to rise in the air. Sometimes folks see birds flapping frantically in the dirt and are startled at the erratic motion, the crazy posture, the dust rising around the bird. This is a dust bath.
The first night in a group home, I find something in which I can sleep. I avoid questionable brown stains or off-brand labels and eventually find a large faded black T-shirt and a small slip skirt with brown turtles on it. I look them over for fleas or lice. Smell them. I am a scavenger. I shake them out and hang them on the shower rod while I shower. I pick at myself like a mama gorilla.
I think think think about that school I want to go to.
I get up ridiculously early, at the first peep of sun, so I can shower in privacy with hot water beside the ticking time bomb of an egg timer. Everything is measured by clocks: showers, phone calls, tick tick tick. Shower—ten minutes. Get dressed—five minutes.
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. I suddenly started to wear lots of make-up. 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,” where public school guidance counselors were trying to allow me to reach my full potential: Harvard, Yale, Brown. No now it was all I.L.P. (Independent Living Program), classes. In these classes, you pull one thick paperback off the shelves and page through lists of careers. But, they’re actually jobs, not careers, and they are in alphabetical order. 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 these foster youth also stated: 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 eleventh grade this seems like 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.
When I was looking at colleges and tracing college applications with my fingertips, places like Sarah Lawrence and Reed College, I suddenly started to wonder how I would pay for this. So I asked my social worker and she suggested that I get on General Relief.
I didn’t think she heard me correctly. I asked her how I would pay for college and she said again that I could go and apply for General Relief. What you do to get General Relief is you go and stand in a line all day with other people who are hot and tired and poor and sad and hungry.
Then you fill out some paperwork and, if you’re lucky, they sign you up and you get two hundred dollars a week. Which was fifty cents less than what I got paid when I worked at Winchell’s Donuts in high school, where the manager smoked in my face and hit on me all the time, and I got a gun pulled on me for donuts one time. We couldn’t close because I had to work off the donut-loss and closing was simply out of the question. So, instead, I worked graveyards with a shaky hand any time a batch of teenagers walked by, which was pretty much always.
The second evening, my partner sits with the bird in the bathroom and washes it with a wet Q-tip. I’ve mistakenly encrusted-its-eye-closed with formula. Panic blooms in my heart; it sits there like a stone and then blooms every day for three days, as I try to feed the bird. It’s warmest in the morning. 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 still the fire inside. “Is it alive?” I ask.
Three years ago, Antoine, who is now 21, moved out of his foster placement and into transitional housing in Whittier. A type of supportive housing for former foster youth between the ages of 18 and 21, it had a caseworker and staff onsite. Antoine had been fostered by an older woman he called his grandma, who made a point of fostering young black men; she wanted them to come up proud and responsible. She told him he could stay with her longer, but he chose to emancipate. Antoine shares a two-bedroom penthouse with a roommate, another former foster youth. There’s laundry on site, a water fountain outside. There are some rules, such as no overnight guests, noise, upkeep of the place, and the case managers have access to the apartment for inspections. But Antoine says he doesn’t mind. He wasn’t into anything that could get him into trouble. He was mostly into Dragon Ball Z cards. His room looks like a typical twenty-year-old guy’s room: a bed, a television set, an ironing board, and a lot of DVDs. Downstairs his kitchen was fully stocked with bacon, pancake mix, eggs, and cereal. Antoine describes his first night as a little too quiet. He wasn’t used to it, he said. But it wasn’t long before he got a roommate.
Tasha Hunter, the groundskeeper at Antoine’s housing program said, “It’s the next stage in life for a youth who has never had their own bedroom, never had their own bed, never had their own apartment. And really never had a say in what to buy, what not to buy. What time should I get up in the morning? When should I do laundry?” Some of the former foster youth aren’t even comfortable sleeping in their own beds.
“They would rather sleep on the floor or sleep on the couch because that’s something that they are used to.”
Not all supportive housing is as well kept as Antoine’s. Community resistance can make it hard to locate these units and some extended foster youth end up in places that were formerly Single Room Occupancy hotels. One of the housing units I visited in Long Beach was a low-rise, behind a strip mall, directly off a highway. There was garbage hanging from balconies.
In Dr. Culhane’s CalYouth report, it was observed that the apartments assigned to young adults’ were typically located at the very back of the complexes.
“These ranged from very back of the apartment complexes with well over a hundred units, to smaller ones with less than twenty. Given landlords’ concerns about taking in young adults from the foster care system, it is not surprising that these are the units that they would rent out to programs serving older youth in foster care. Further, with the limited amount of affordable housing in many counties, housing programs cannot be blamed for taking what they can get. However, it was quite striking that these young adults had been placed at the very back of complexes.”
In the most dramatic case, a young woman’s residence consisted of one room in a transient motel, wherein she had to share the bathroom with others in her hallway. The door to the bathroom did not lock and, so, she had to worry about others entering while she was showering. She mentioned repeatedly that, although she did not feel unsafe, there were several registered sex offenders in the building and she had set up a buddy system with another person in the building to ensure her protection. Her room itself was approximately 10 by 13 feet and contained one window, which would not lock and opened to the fire escape. She had one dresser and a small refrigerator in her room and many of her dresses were located on hangers that hung on pipes in the ceiling. She also had to put a sheet over her door to cover an opening that men previously used to look into her room. “Management say, “We can’t get rid of all the bugs that are in the place, so you just got to keep your stuff clean in order not to have bugs.” When I see [the bugs], I’m like “Ooh, did I really just see that?’”
Although she knew this was not the ideal living situation Diamond was adamant that it was the best place for her because of its limited financial investment and close proximity to school and work. Diamond had difficulty initially getting her monthly stipend, a not uncommon situation among young adults in this sample.
As for me, most of my life, I’ve walked around hating myself because I’d done that thing that was the worst thing of all; I rejected my mother. I used to be fourteen. I used to live in a group home. I used to wander the streets looking into people’s dining rooms with the worst kind of ache. I used to long to belong to a world of the ordinary. But, us throwaways, we got to be conscious in balancing this normative desire with our financial constraints.
In the Summer of 1994, we wore only one strap on our overalls, kids passed time by throwing little cardboard discs called POGS at one another, the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house took an unforeseen dramatic turn when Real World of San Francisco casted the first HIV positive housemate, and I was emancipated in a small courthouse in Monterey Park.
The halls buzzed with chaos. Estranged families waited around in their Sunday-best, only to have their case continued. Finally, it was my turn—a county-appointed attorney called me into her office. She showed me a drawing of the courtroom, where I would sit, where my mother would be sitting, where the judge would be sitting. She asked me what I wanted. “Emancipation,” I said. I handed her a binder I’d made that had all my accomplishments, certificates, ribbons, high grades, and a plan on just exactly how I’d become a secretary. We entered the courtroom from the back. My mother was sitting across the aisle. Once she saw me, she jumped up like a Labrador and waved. I was scared that I was not strong enough to go through with it.
It was one thing for me to plot and plan my life after fostercare from inside my group home along the beach somewhere, but here in the courtroom, with her across the aisle, it felt so permanent, so unfair, terrifying. She’d taught me to kick guys where it counts. She kept me close, at times too close, and then neglected me all together.
The judge called our name. The attorney handed her my binder. They asked my mother if she contested. This was where I was hoping for I-don’t-know-what. A messy mom? A mom who yelled out for me? Or, alternately, a responsible mom? A mom who had made her own binder proving that she’d somehow overcome things like poverty and mental illness, the facts of our lives? A mom who allowed herself to want me, to fight for me? She said nothing. I was emancipated. I went inside, so deep, a type of prayer beyond words, a series of flashbacks, images of my mom and I dancing to the Bee Gees, or reading the Ann Landers and Dear Abby advice columns, or making sausage and rum balls over the winter holidays. I imagined briefly that we were free. Free from each other and what it would feel like if we allowed ourselves to let go of the guilt attached to the failure of this relationship. This guilt would serve as the hot core of my life, for the rest of my life.
I was seventeen. If I was lucky, the most I would get was a certificate, a ceremony back at the group home, cake, and a check for two hundred dollars. But as far as the system was concerned, I’d run out of places to go. Folks make such a big deal about emancipation, but all it really means is you are no longer receiving financial support. Emancipation is just a fancy way of saying: you will no longer get any money.
Our parents were addicts, and bus drivers, and housekeepers, and secretaries and home healthcare aides, and our parents got welfare and food stamps and 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 church-goers, and too young, and trying. Trying their best. Not my best. Not our best. Not even DCFS’s best, but their very own best.
Here we are in California a state of innovators and dreamers. A state that develops tons of 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.
Even with extended fostercare in place, compared with their peers, these young adults are on average less likely to have a high school diploma, less likely to be pursuing higher education, less likely to be earning a living wage, more likely to have experienced economic hardships, more likely to have had a child outside of wedlock, and more likely to have become involved with the criminal justice system.
Foster children are twice as likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder than are veterans of war. In some states, they’re more likely to be abused in foster care than they are at home. What I’m proposing here is that the Time of the Readiness begins when life begins. That we don’t wait ninety days for the clock to start ticking. What I’m proposing here is more beds in supportive housing for 18-21 year olds. What I’m proposing here is less rules, the damage that’s done when you approach a person as A Liability. Liabilities do not have healthy happy lives. Liabilities are to be controlled. Liabilities are kept small. Liabilities are feared.
I used to wonder if there was an inherent way to be, a way in which I was broken, or a character attribute that would make me more loveable. If my mom ever smacked me on the back of the head, or got in my face, shaking me, if she demanded “What are you thinking?” If an overbearing lover stared at me too intently and asked the same question, “What’s on your mind?” I’d say I’m thinking about kids. Thousands and thousands of kids. I’m thinking of this giant hurt and what it would look like if the world had a no eject or reject button. As it stands, you can be ejected from extended foster care if you don’t comply with the requirements, like if you aren’t in school, and don’t have any health limitations. Boom, ejected. One can also get ejected for marriage. Yes, that’s right, the youth in extended foster care can cohabitate with their loved ones, but they cannot get married. A kid can get kicked out of housing if they don’t comply with the rules of the program. So, if you were to fight with your roommate, you could get kicked out of your housing program and, while you are still eligible for benefits, you are now a homeless adult. We enter the world broken-hearted, parentless children and are thrust into adulthood with astonishing amounts of want. We grow up and never grow up. We reach and reach and reach. We cannot approach foster youth holding liability and risk at the helm. We all know that—yet group home systems operate on points and levels. We wait until someone is sixteen to begin preparing them for their transition. Sometimes we wait until ninety days before their eighteenth birthday. We are setting our youth up for failure.
If the state is going to act as a guardian, they ought to act like a good parent. What would a good parent do when faced with a child who got in a fight, smoked pot, got pregnant, got married, got caught shoplifting? A good parent would parent.
My partner is the only one who held the bird. You could see it’s blue heart, it’s tiny veins, it’s tiny bones. Every day we were trying and the little sparrow was trying. All of us there, in the bathroom, in our house, trying.
Foster youth exit the system on the wrong end of every socio-economic indicator. Their monthly checks keep them living in poverty. We cannot continue to deny the fact that this system disproportionately affects youth of color. These children come in wide-eyed and vulnerable and willing to love people who don’t really love them back, over and over and over again.
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 recalled when I sat with that first foster family at their table in the big bright room, simply for dining. This is what I thought about with that family and the fear that they might send me back
Similarly, each time I approached Sneaker in his box I approached with twin fears, Was the bird alive? Would I now 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. 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, whistled, puckered and promised 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. I circled the lot and parked. I opened the box, once again, and assured Sneaker that this would be the end of his bad luck. Because the truth is: I’ve come to know Sneaker as a boy, and I think that it was okay to pluck a place on the binary for this small furried feather. It was in his clear mission and his neediness and his vulnerability and his cry and let’s face it Sneaker itself is an almost masculine name. So I whispered to him that he was okay and in good hands.
At check-in a thick butch chola—the kind who I’ve known all my life, the woman who felt like home, short hair, tattoos, T-shirt—asked where I found the bird. I said, the women’s jail. She rambled all the local women’s jails with a question mark—part true inquiry, part posturing.
“Not LCMC. Lynwood. CRDF.”
She smiled and nodded—like she knew this was the place of the bird. This was the place of women making make-up 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 kiting notes to each other inside. This was the place of women who, nine months pregnant, are driven to the local county hospital, where they push hard, let go, and return to their unit. This is where these women sit in their cell by themselves and think about suicide and dying.
Can I—is there?” I handed the box over.
“You want a number?”
She gave me a card with an ID number, so I could check up on the bird. According to the website I could call and check-up and hear when Sneaker was released into the wild free air.
For gangsters, for foster kids, our dreams, our ambitions, they’ve been edited—we belong nowhere. Our selves—our bodies, none of us matter.
Two days after I delivered Sneaker to The Society, my partner and I drove into Lake Gregory. We were in search of a cabin, someplace secluded and wild and affordable. We yearned for the trees. For me—who yearns for seasons and trees and mountains 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. The quick response I got was, “Oh number blah blah blah died two days ago.”
Everything shattered. The setting on my phone was too loud and my partner heard everything. She was crying. I wanted to reach over and comfort her. I wanted to yell at the person on the phone. I wanted to get answers. I wanted to be angry.
Whyhwywhywhywhywhy? Like bricks piled high. That little guy—that little bird trying—open beaked and hungry, chirping at me. I wished I’d been strong enough to scoop That Little Wanting Bird up into my hands and hold it close to my breast. I wish I’d been fearless enough and that big blistering bubble had not bothered me a bit. If I were just more deft, more reckless, more loving.
And there in the truck, we sit together. My thoughts were echoed, “Why?” she cried holding the steering wheel. “They didn’t feed him!” she decided. And I was not prepared for such bad news as we drove the side of a mountain. I wanted to have better answers, and 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.
As I write this, I walk down my street, or any street, a street in the thick of the city that borders the L.A. River the ghost of my failure as a bird keeper. 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 seeks and will never be relieved.
This piece has been supported by the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project and portions of this essay have been previously published in The Establishment.
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. Her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Farrar Straus and Giroux in spring of 2017. ☆ Judge Bronwen Dickey selected “The Readiness Assessment,” as second runner-up of Proximity’s 2016 Narrative Journalism Prize.