Pushing Foster Children Off the Plank 

Kayla Gordon was emancipated from foster care during California's budget crisis. It wasn't easy.

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As for Kayla, she's working on building relationships with Jennings as well as her biological family. Teague said Kayla has come a long way in the past few years — that the young woman recognizes how hard it is for her to trust people. Kayla didn't speak to her mother until she was eighteen, and their relationship is difficult because her mother still struggles with drug addiction and homelessness. But her dad has pulled his life together after spending most of it in and out of prison. He's off probation, and he and Kayla exchange text messages. When Kayla has kids someday, she wants her parents to be part of their lives.

One of her sisters is about to age out of foster care, and Kayla said her sister can't wait. Kayla, sounding older and wiser than her twenty years, said, "When you're young — you're a teenager — you want to leave the nest." There's the appeal of coming home late and being finished with the foster care system. Looking back, Kayla remembered how much help she received, and she told her sister not to burn her bridges.

"It's very difficult to take care of yourself," Kayla said. She knows. She watched many friends from foster care become statistics. For a couple months, every time she went out with Teague, they ran into someone living on the street who Kayla knew from a group home. It happened in Martinez, Oakland, and then San Francisco. Kayla has seen people around her fail: she is determined to succeed.

She has decided, for now, against the First Place for Youth program. She missed the next step in the application process — a class — and found out she would have to start the whole application process all over again, beginning with the interview, which didn't appeal to her. She doesn't really need the help now anyways, she said. Her grades have improved since she moved in with the Jennings family, but she doesn't know how long the situation will last.

Growing up in foster care made Kayla independent and determined. "No matter what I go through, I realize that I can't give up," she said. "Nobody's been there for me like I've been there for myself."

Kayla watched her peers rush into adulthood without permanency, a buzz word used in the foster care lexicon for the conditions kids need to find stability and succeed. Kayla defines it as "someone to lend a helping hand. That doesn't necessarily need to be money."

Colton, her former social worker, believes in Kayla. Kayla is one of only two former foster kids who have Colton's phone number. Colton has left social work, but they still stay in touch. Colton calls Kayla a late bloomer.

"It's kind of hard to have goals and aspirations and dreams when you have nobody to look up to," Kayla said.

Now, she does. The people around her have master's degrees and doctorates, and someday, Kayla aspires to be a child and family lawyer. "I really like children, and I really believe in the idea of family," she said.

Kayla still struggles every day, and she says she's still figuring out who she is, but she knows she has a lot to be proud of. "Compared to the majority of my peers, I'm doing pretty damn good," she said.

Still, Kayla wonders when she will finally feel grown up. She always looked older than she really is, and that hasn't always helped her. "Everybody believed me when I told them I was grown."

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