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But in the meantime, young adults like Kayla have few places to turn. Other programs have dramatically improved the odds for them, but budget cuts have limited their reach. So teenagers leaving foster care today have fewer options than Kayla did just a couple of years ago, and service providers are seeing the fear and anxiety brought on by these additional uncertainties. Kayla remembers what turning eighteen was like for her. "Everyone's looking at you like you're an adult," she recalled. "But you're not."
Kayla buries her childhood memories for a reason. On a cool summer night, she sat on a bench outside a strip-mall restaurant and broached the subject with hesitation. Lighting a cigarette, she stared hard at the concrete in front of her. Slowly at first, she started telling stories she'd rather forget.
The details were often blurry. She recalled a foster home in Southern California where she lived some time between the ages of four and six. Her foster parents had biological children of their own as well as foster kids. The foster kids would sometimes be sent to the garage to eat by themselves. It was punishment for taking the biological kids' toys, crying too much, or just getting on her foster parents' nerves somehow. "If we didn't eat it fast enough, they would take our food," she said.
She fondly recalled one family she stayed with when she was older. There were two parents, two biological kids, and two foster kids. "I loved that foster home, loved it," she said. They went to church, took trips to the water park, and lived close to Knott's Berry Farm. But when the couple got divorced, she had to leave. Kayla said she cried.
The Express could not confirm exact details, but Kayla's account of her teenage years has been verified as reliable by several sources. Most of the placements ran together — a month here, a week there, six months somewhere else. Playing soccer at a group home. Getting migraines so bad she needed a CAT scan. Only years later would she learn that the medical condition runs in her family.
Kayla also remembered abuse. When she was five, a teenage boy molested her while he was babysitting. She told her social worker, but the adult didn't believe her.
At six or seven, Kayla was back at a group home. She was prescribed ADHD medication, but wouldn't always take the pills. Kayla is still angry about the diagnosis. Looking out toward the parking lot, she watched a little boy running laps around his family as they walked to their car. "I don't know any little kid that isn't hyperactive," she said.
Kayla once confided in a therapist, revealing that her foster parents at the time beat her. "Instead of her reporting it, she told my foster dad," Kayla said. "I went home and got beat again." She never went back to that therapist, and she spent four years with that family. When they moved to Northern California, they brought her along. Kayla remembered how her foster father would buy clothes for his daughters at nice stores and then outfit her with Goodwill castoffs. He had their names tattooed on his body, but not hers.
Because Kayla felt like she didn't get enough attention, she says she acted out at school. At thirteen, she lived with a foster mother who was in her sixties and in poor health. The woman rarely left the house, and let Kayla do as she pleased. Kayla said she started stealing, experimenting with drugs, and hanging out with the wrong crowd. When her foster mother got fed up, she simply kicked Kayla out.
After that, Kayla said her social worker called her "un-adoptable, un-fosterable."
In April, Kayla sat on a couch looking through old photos at the place she currently calls home. "I don't know who this is; I don't know if that's my grandpa or what," she said. "But that's my mom."
In the photo, her mother smiles brightly. She has dark curly hair, a heart-shaped face, and an olive complexion from her Italian, Spanish, and West Indian ancestry. Kayla's caramel-colored skin is darker than her mother's, but she has the same beautiful features. In the snapshot, her mother sits in a place Kayla doesn't know beside a man she doesn't recognize.
Kayla grew up with only questions about her family, no answers. It wasn't until her early teens that she learned anything about them. A social worker helped her find her younger sisters and put her in touch with her great aunts. "I always felt a void in my life, like something was missing," she said. "That feeling has never gone away."
Her great aunt gave her a small stack of family photos that date back before she was born. One shows Kayla as a onesie-wearing infant in the arms of her mother and grandmother. But Kayla doesn't remember this. One of her earliest memories is from a group home in the Southern California city of Orange that housed hundreds of foster kids. "We were all waiting for something," she recalled.
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