Editor’s Note: This was originally published in the March 2010 issue.
On a frigid morning in January 2008, I got a call from Melissa.* “I’m going to school!” the 23-year-old blurted out. “I’m gonna get off welfare, get a job, and I’m moving out of this crime zone. I don’t care about breaking my lease, I gotta get my kids out of the Fay [Apartments].”
“Oh yeah,” she added, almost as an afterthought. “The ER said I need an ultrasound. Where do I get one?”
Melissa’s phone calls often skid into my world like this—long, screeching train wrecks careening dangerously close to the cliff. She calls me because she needs help, and because I am the person who has offered it. For several years I was a CASA volunteer—a Court Appointed Special Advocate working with teens in foster care. I regularly made recommendations to magistrates and caseworkers: Where should the kids live? Did they need therapy?
How was school going? In the process, I’d seen a mountain of statistics about what happens to foster kids when they turn 18 and “age out” of the system to face the
adult world alone. I knew that the odds were against Melissa getting off government assistance, or finishing her education, or finding a decent job. But when she called
me that snowy day, she sounded so optimistic and confident. So confident, in fact, that it gave me confidence in her.
That’s all it takes, I thought. Hard work and determination are all any of us need to succeed in life. Well, hard work and determination plus guidance from a stable adult. Six months after that January telephone call, I quit my job and became that person for Melissa.
I had met Melissa a few years earlier, after she aged out of the Hamilton County foster care system. I wasn’t her CASA, but I knew about her case. She’d been through the wringer. What hooked me was her determination to succeed. I felt sure I could make a difference, that Melissa didn’t have to be one of those grim statistics. But now I’ve spent two years in Melissa’s world. I’ve attended meetings with her at Job and Family Services, helped her move into subsidized housing, sat in public assistance lines with her, appealed and fought a sanction when she lost government aid. And the truth is, I’m no longer sure about my nose-to-the-grindstone theory. I’m no longer sure that Melissa will ever be self-sufficient, even with my help. When kids are treated badly and neglected, when they lack the life skills that most parents drive into their kids all their lives, when they miss so many weeks and years of school, is it even realistic to think they can ever catch up?
I had expected barriers and roadblocks when I made the decision to work with Melissa. What I hadn’t expected was such a deep, dark hole, where every toehold gives way abruptly, nowhere near the top. Where it’s just easier, less frustrating, to resign one’s self to life at the bottom. It takes a lot more than hard work to pull a person up out of that seemingly bottomless hole. How much more? I’m beginning to think it takes a miracle.
The first thing you notice about Melissa—tough, lanky, built like a dancer—are her eyes. They are a startling green. Wary. Constantly monitoring her surroundings, like a tigress. The second thing you notice is that she’s stunning. Men of all ages turn to stare at her, sometimes rudely. She openly scorns them. “What are you looking at?” she’ll snap.
But if you see the crinkles and dimples that overtake Melissa’s face when she smiles, if you hear her tinkling giggle, she seems like a different person altogether. And it’s hard to reconcile that smile with the trauma that has dogged her all her life.
Melissa doesn’t remember when the trouble started; the first call to Children’s Services was made before she could talk. Somewhere along the line a caseworker created a “life book”—a scrapbook of childhood photos and mementoes. Melissa remembers that. “It told me so much stuff I didn’t know,” she says. “Like how I had a little brother who died of dehydration and neglect even though my family told me a different story: that he died a quick death.”
Melissa loved her mother in that grab-her-around-the-knees-so-she-can’t-walk way. When an avalanche of medical conditions began to take their toll on her mother, a wheelchair became just a bigger part of what Melissa wrapped her arms around. A relative took them in, but in the memory of a 5-year-old, “It was me who took care of my mama.” Melissa says she remembers changing her mother’s Depends and feeding her, and taking care of another younger brother. She was only 7 when her mother died, and it devastated her.
In the chaos driving Melissa’s life, education took a backseat. No one taught her colors. No one read her books. She was behind before she even started school and she has never caught up. It seemed Melissa was doomed to live in a world where bad people did bad things to her. “I didn’t want to go home after school, ever,” she says. When she was 9, an adult acquaintance sexually molested her. A neighbor called the police and the case went to court—Melissa cowering on the stand, caseworkers hovering over her so she wouldn’t have to look at the perpetrator. The man went to prison; Melissa went back to live with her relative.
I’ve only heard Melissa talk about this once, in the presence of a social worker. But it must have traumatized her deeply. One rainy afternoon, while the other kids were skipping home to watch after-school specials, Melissa came up with a plan. She would run away. If Melissa had learned anything in life up until then it was this: No one was going to take care of her; she’d have to do it herself. Again and again Melissa would run. She didn’t care where.
This sad semblance of family life ended when Melissa and her brother were placed in the custody of the Hamilton County foster care system. They were taken downtown. Assigned a case number. They would not remain together.
But the running didn’t stop. Melissa ran from every foster home she was placed in. “Looking back now,” she says, “I think I ran because I never wanted to live with a family. Maybe because I • Continued on page 166
had such a bad experience with my own.”
Foster care was created to provide safe, temporary homes for children who have been so severely abused or neglected the court decides it’s unsafe for them to remain with their caregivers. The idea is straightforward enough: While caseworkers attempt to stabilize the family, the child is cared for in a loving environment. If returning home isn’t possible, caseworkers are supposed to find the child another permanent home. The goal is clearly defined and mandated by law: Every child should end up with a safe, permanent family.
It didn’t work like that for Melissa. Caseworkers tried, but they never could find her a permanent home. Instead, she was shuffled from one placement to another, like a piece of luggage on a whirlwind tour.
Huddled in one of their many “What To Do About Melissa” meetings, the caseworker and other professionals finally decided that she needed a lock-down, live-in treatment facility. The young teen was sent to a complex 90 minutes from Cincinnati. For the first time in her life, Melissa knew stability; knew where she’d be the next day, the next week, the next month. She was 14.
In Ohio, if a child isn’t in a permanent home by the age of 16 or so, caseworkers start preparing the teen to live on her own. A child is placed in a furnished, paid apartment and given a weekly
stipend. Caseworkers check in periodically. Melissa returned to Cincinnati when she was just shy of 16 and was deemed a suitable candidate for the Independent Living program. She was settled into her final placement: a sparsely-furnished one-bedroom apartment in College Hill.
For the most part she handled it well. She got herself up (usually) and on a city bus to attend a charter school. She carefully budgeted her weekly allowance, stretching the $40 to cover food, clothes, toiletries, cleaning products. It was in that apartment, on a rainy August morning in 2001, that Melissa turned 16. No one threw her a party, but she was happy just the same. I’m sweet sixteen, she said to herself.
In 2003, Melissa officially aged out of foster care. She practically skipped from the courtroom the day the magistrate “emancipated” her. She was free: of caseworkers, of court appearances, of foster parents who never became her parents, of homes that never became her home. She felt ready to take on the world, even though she was just 18, with no family, no support system, no job, no money, no skills. Seven years later she’s a single mother of two, undereducated, unemployed, and at the end of her welfare benefits.
To those who keep track of such statistics, Melissa’s poor outcome is no surprise. It’s the norm. According to a 2007 University of Chicago study of Midwestern youth who had aged out of foster care systems, such kids were more than twice as likely not to have a high school diploma or GED. Only 47 percent were employed at the time of the survey, and more than half reported having been homeless more than once. Forty percent didn’t have enough money to buy clothes; 20 percent couldn’t pay the rent.
But then, what are our expectations for our own children? My sons, 20 and 17, couldn’t support themselves fully; neither could their friends. And they’ve had safe, nurturing childhoods and strong family support. They have people to catch them when they fall, co-sign car loans, buy them socks. Yet we expect young adults who have nothing and no one to succeed at living on their own.
Some of the most important things we teach our kids can’t be taught by a system. They are the “kitchen table” skills and life lessons we preach over and over until they become part of our offspring’s psyche: Sometimes You Have To Do Things You Don’t Want To Do. Work Hard. Education Is Important. We are not born with these values; we are taught them—often by the adults we know and trust. For kids in foster care, it’s a toss of the coin whether they ever experience and learn these lessons.
When I first started working with kids who had aged out, I was certain that education was the answer—the great leveler. If Melissa could get some education and training, I thought, she could earn a livable wage, maybe even get benefits. But it’s not that simple. Many of these kids can’t make it through school; often they can’t make it to school.
When Melissa called to tell me she was enrolling in college, I offered to help. “What school are you thinking about?” I asked.
“The medical assistant program at Cincinnati State,” she told me.
I knew Melissa had tried this before. She had enrolled in the two-year technical and community college not long after high school, before she became pregnant with her first child. (She says the baby’s father was later killed. She had her second baby 18 months later. “That’s enough,” she told me. “I
have my tubes tied now.”) As a CASA volunteer, I had learned the hard way that you couldn’t simply drop these kids off at the admissions office. So I went with her to meet with a campus guidance counselor. When the discussion turned to the number of hours she would take that first quarter, I weighed in.
“Do you think maybe you should start out with just a few classes….” I began. It was the same advice I gave my son when he started college.
“I can do it, Chris,” Melissa interrupted, eyes hard, chin determined. She was opting for a heavy course load, to finish as quickly as possible. “I want this,” she insisted. “You don’t have any faith in me do you?” That stung.
“Ms. Santoro,” the counselor said, in soothing counselor tones, fingers perched in an inverted V against his lips. “Our young people can surprise you. Sometimes they’re capable of much more than you think they are. It’s important not to hold them back.” Melissa smiled at me triumphantly: See, he believes in me. Together they planned a full course load. I decided—hoped—that her optimism would outweigh the odds.
But the counselor, like most people, was clueless about Melissa’s life. He didn’t understand that Melissa would have to get up at 5 a.m. to take her kids on the bus to daycare, catch a second bus downtown, then a third to get to school in time for her 8 o’clock class, then repeat the trek after a full day of classes, fix dinner, and study. And how was he to know her 3-year-old had asthma, her 18-month-old got ear infections, and that these conditions required frequent night visits to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, which often resulted in Melissa arriving back home at dawn with
two cranky kids who were too sick for daycare? He also couldn’t know that Melissa had no reliable family—no one to act as a backup babysitter—so she’d be stuck at home with her sick
kids. Nor could he know that the complexities of Melissa’s life weigh her down and surround her like a fog, making everything that much more difficult.
In April 2008, three months after her excited telephone call, Melissa failed all her classes at Cincinnati State. She didn’t re-enroll.
A job, that’s what she needs, I thought. I was still feeling optimistic about the possibilities. It wouldn’t last long.
As I helped Melissa fill out employment applications, I realized how little she knew about the job search process.
“I got a job, Chris,” she called to tell me one Friday afternoon. She’d been in a popular shoe store, and the manager told her she’d be great in sales. “He told me all I have to do is fill out an online application and I got the job.”
“Really?” I said. Call me pessimistic, but I suspected the manager had the hots for Melissa. This particular store is notorious among the kids I work with for their commission plan.
“How will you get paid?” I asked. Melissa told me she had to sell so many shoes per week. It seemed like an impossibly high number. I asked what would happen if she didn’t reach the quota. Her sigh told me she thought I was so negative.
“It’ll be alright, Chris,” she said. “He said he’d give me a little time to get practice.”
Melissa doesn’t have a computer, so I filled out the online application while she dictated. We got to the part where she had to choose a position. “There’s sales manager and salesperson,” I said.
“Sales manager,” she said immediately.
“Melissa, you don’t have any experience in sales!” I countered.
She got huffy. “Chris, you don’t know the situation. The guy said my training as a nursing assistant counts.”
In general, I try not to tell Melissa what to do. I want her to make her own decisions, to know I have confidence in her. “OK,” I said, clicking the Sales Manager box. But I was dying to know. “Why did you choose manager rather than salesperson?”
“Because I don’t want anybody telling me what to do,” she said.
She didn’t get the job. Not that one, or any other.
At my suggestion Melissa looked into Cincinnati Works, a job readiness program that teaches the soft skills of looking for and keeping a job, then helps participants find employment. Although she was apathetic about the benefits (“I know how to look for a job, Chris”), Melissa signed up.
Twenty minutes before class the following Monday, I called her. I assumed she would be getting off the bus downtown. “Hey Melissa, you all ready for today?” I, at least, was excited.
“No.” She sounded weary. “I overslept.”
“What?!” I nearly screeched. “Why?”
“I was up late doing my hair.”
This time I definitely screeched. “Doing your hair?!” She knew I was disappointed, and frustrated.
Cincinnati Works starts a new session every Monday. But the next Monday her daughter was sick. The next Melissa had daycare problems. The next week, medical issues took center stage.
“I had a seizure or something yesterday,” she told me on the phone, her voice utterly drained, kids squealing in
the background. “A friend took me to the ER. They said I blacked out. Said I needed to see a neurologist. Said they can’t do an ultrasound in the ER, that I have to find a gynecologist. But I do have a bacterial infection and I got a prescription.”
I didn’t know where to start. “Did you fill it?” seemed the logical first question.
“No,” she said. “Oh, and they found a lump on the back on my head. They said I should get a biopsy. Where do I do that?”
I tried to take it all in, then decided I needed to hear it again. Melissa sighed at having to repeat herself. She never understands why I am so slow at comprehending her life. I never understand how she lives that life. I pieced together the story: They had done a pap test, discovered she had an infection, and prescribed an antibiotic (the one she hadn’t filled). The doctor wanted her to see a neurologist for the passing out, and someone to do a biopsy for the lump on the back of her head.
Where to begin? I decided I would have to help her get a family doctor. “How about if I get a list of doctors that take your Medicaid card?” I suggested.
“That’d be great,” she sighed with genuine relief.
One year later, Melissa still hasn’t made that appointment with a family physician. In her train wreck of a life, the emergency room embodies her concept of health care: it’s not a priority until it’s a crisis.
But as pressing as Melissa’s medical problems are, I feel as though her emotional issues are even more debilitating. Once, when she told me she had long crying jags, low energy, and lack of interest in anything, I asked if she knew what depression was. “Not really,” she said. “I thought it was just the way I am.” She also told me she frequently has horrible visions and recurrent memories of things that happened to her as a kid.
So I launched into a campaign to find a therapist who would work with her and, after many weeks, located a program that would accept her for free. Melissa went twice before the complications set in—childcare problems, transportation issues, missed appointments. Two visits and she was finished with therapy. Another ladder to nowhere.
When I barged into Melissa’s world in 2008, I thought for sure that education would end her unemployment, her dependency on public assistance, her inability to achieve self-sufficiency. I thought that if I could just help her solve some of the medical and emotional issues, she could get—and stay—on her feet. But I discovered, over and over again, just how little prepared she was for adulthood, and how abysmal the hole she’d been dropped into was. Each time I think it can’t get any worse, it does.
This winter, another crisis phone call: Melissa was being threatened with eviction because, she said, an accused sex offender had used her address as his own. Before the mess could be sorted out, she packed up and moved. Again I found myself scurrying to steer her toward a solution—this time, looking for a homeless shelter.
It has been two years since I started working with Melissa, and she’s worse off than before. She and her children are homeless; she moves from one sketchy acquaintance to another, filling her days with rounds of calls to shelters to find an opening, meeting with social workers to discuss her dwindling options. Recently she was telling me what she’d do once she finally had a place to live: She’d find a job; she was determined.
“You can go back to Cincinnati Works again,” I suggested gently. “They can help you.”
But I saw that look again, accusing me of a traitorous lack of faith. “Chris,” she said, “I can do this.”
All she needs is someone to help her. That’s what I thought when I first began working with her. And at the time I believed it. But now, looking back through the telescope at our time together, I wonder. Deeper than the education challenge, wider than the emotional issues, higher than the missed “kitchen table” skills, the real issue is an alarming one: If a child doesn’t get what they need in childhood, can they ever get it? Deeper down still, I wonder: What, really, are Melissa’s chances? What have she and I accomplished? Will she ever find a job? Will she have the work ethic, the people skills, the social skills to keep it? And if not, will her kids end up in the system? Will this whole sad story be repeated in a new generation?
If only, I think. But then I wonder, If only what? If only she’d gone into foster care sooner? Stayed there longer? If only she’d had a different home? A better start?
I don’t have the answer. The hole is too deep.
*This person’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.