“When are you going to finally take me back to school?”
A profound quote from the recent L.A. Times article (http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-adv-foster-overflow-20150301-story.html#page=1) from the teenagers who come every night to our Youth Welcome Center (YWC), built within the VIP HUB clinic at LAC+USC Medical Center. We should pause to note that while 76% of all children in California complete high school, if you are in foster care only 54% will graduate. An equally frightening thought, approximately25% of foster children will be incarcerated within a few years of turning 18. When you watch from across the park that stands between the VIP Children’s Village and the YWC and see the chaos that is their lives, I am not surprised!
Three years ago, we opened the Children’s Welcome Center (CWC) for children ages 0-12 awaiting placement into foster care. The CWC has been an overwhelming success. Children come in to the CWC dirty, abused, and abandoned; they leave clean and happy, with a real chance at finding permanent placements. In fact, potential foster parents have taken to asking, “Has she been to VIP? If yes, then I will take her.”
However, opening the YWC last April has lifted a rock and allowed us see underneath an entirely different population of children from ages 13-21. These teens have been in the system too long, have been in and out of foster placements and group homes, or discharged from long stays in mental hospitals. I have become increasingly distressed as I watch them fail placements again and again, returning to the YWC, looking for clean clothes, a bed, and a warm meal.
Most of them arrive with their possessions in a plastic bag. Many come without correct shoes, clothes that do not fit, and so much anger—a level of anger that is impossible to comprehend. “Do something for me,” one told me, “Give me hope.”
If you read the article from the L.A. Times yesterday, you can see the overwhelming need and challenges these teens are facing; I would understand if you just stopped reading. These children may spend their nights with us craving attention and hope, but they spend their days in the hostile, and often lonely, environment of a social worker’s office or car. This social worker can’t easily place them and has, in many cases, plainly given up. It is easier to ignore the child, easier to bring them back to the YWC every night and let someone else worry about them than it is to continue to beg providers all over the County to give this child just one last chance.
The YWC was built for the child who is newly detained, who needs to transition into a foster or group home. It was never created to provide a drop-in zone for youth who lack any sense of permanency. The YWC is only allowed to keep them for 24 hours and thus every day by noon, a line of DCFS vehicles leave crowded with teens on their way back to the regional DCFS offices.
It is in response to the quest for education, for a second chance, and for hope, that the Violence Intervention Program (VIP) is already underway in the beginning stages of building the HOPE Center for Teens, adjacent to our S. Mark Taper Family Advocacy Center just down the street from the YWC. This HOPE Center will provide daytime mental health assessments, a place for teens to study for their GED, a place to work on finding jobs and permanent housing, and a place where they can attend group therapy and workshops. The idea grew out of our days and nights spent in the YWC; if the LA Times thinks that they have written the definitive article, they have not scratched the surface of issues these teens are facing. We know how desperate these children are and we cannot stand by and not provide the services that they so crave.
These teens are the reason we have written grants, asked friends, and are seeking funding from a wide range of resources; they desperately need to have this center now. Although we do not yet have all the funds needed to complete this project, we have started demolition and will move on with the faith that this is the right thing to do. I always believe that like-minded friends and foundations will rally around a good idea whose time has come; I am hoping that we still have time.