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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Kayla has a warm smile that she mostly reserves for friends. She's a full-figured five-foot-eight, and a silver piercing called a Monroe — after Marilyn's signature mole — gleams above her lip. Her iPod is packed with slow "lovey dovey music," and she posts her poetry on MySpace. She smokes Newports, a habit she said she picked up at age twelve.

She put the family photo down and came across a few from her time at the Chris Adams Girls Center in Martinez. At the time, she was thirteen, and in the photos she wore a lei, held a rose, and stood, smiling stiffly, in front of a hand-painted backdrop. She lived at that treatment facility for troubled teenage girls — it's now closed — until she was fifteen. She was there because the foster care system had no other place for her.

Every day, she would put on blue pants and a pink T-shirt stamped with "Chris Adams Girls Center." No one could leave the facility unless they were with family, so Kayla was stuck. "I never spent a night away from there," she said. It's where she learned how to crochet and play chess.

Kayla picked up another photo that meant a lot to her. The image itself was unremarkable — a shot of people walking across a parking lot. But it was taken at Sea World in San Diego, where she went with her foster parents and foster sister at the time. "It was my first family vacation," Kayla recalled. She was fifteen at the time.

On that same trip, she also met her birth sisters for the first time. They're younger than she is, and she has photo booth shots with each of them. In the strips of photos, they're grinning, goofing off, and acting sexy with pursed lips. Family matters to Kayla, and even though they're hundreds of miles away, she said she's committed to keeping her sisters close.

Kayla got into trouble in her early teens, but while she was in juvenile hall and at Chris Adams, she earned credits toward her diploma. And even though she's not sure she can list all the schools she attended, Kayla graduated from Lincoln High School in San Leandro when she was just sixteen. That was the year she resolved to make a change in her life. "I turned sixteen years old, and I realized I'm never going back to jail again," she said.

By that age, she had met a handful of people who would help guide her through the tough times.

Kate Teague remembered the first time she met Kayla. The sixteen-year-old was planted in a chair at the Bay Area Youth Center's office in Hayward. Teague worked there as a youth development specialist. It wasn't one of Kayla's best days, and she had a sour expression on her face. Kayla had recently moved into Generation House, a group home connected to the center.

Thinking back to that day, Teague laughed. She called Kayla a talker and said they got to know each other quickly. When something would happen at the group home — a fight, or some other emergency — Teague was on call. Kayla came to learn that Teague was someone she could count on. "Every time I called Kate, Kate would be available," Kayla said. When Teague took another job, and Kayla left Generation House, they stayed in touch, talking at least once a week.

Teague, 34, respects Kayla's appetite for information. "She wants to hear about all the potential options in the world out there," Teague said. "And then she'll choose what she wants to take part in."

Around the same time, Don Graves became another person Kayla could call on when she needed advice or help. Graves coordinates services and programs for kids and teens in foster care in Contra Costa County. He describes Kayla at sixteen as a smart, articulate go-getter who was also headstrong and stubborn.

Graves, 40, has worked with foster youth for eighteen years. He has hundreds of stories, and his office is practically wallpapered with pictures of the young men and women he's served. In one photo, a group stands in the marble hallways of the state capital after meeting with their representatives. Another shows a serious teen in a black bow tie who was shot and killed before he turned 21. Then there's a Polaroid of a grinning young man with a group of friends. He made a bad decision one night and was sentenced to sixteen years for a home invasion robbery, his first offense. "I was the only one in court for him," Graves said.

Graves knows that life hasn't been simple or easy for the kids and teens he works with. He said he tries to focus on the positive and treats them all as individuals. Graves is a father himself, and he sympathizes.

He remembers a time in the not-so-distant past when teens left foster care carrying their belongings in green plastic garbage bags. Now, emancipating teens in Contra Costa County get a piece of luggage full of first-apartment essentials like envelopes, stamps, pots and pans, a tool kit, a flashlight, an alarm clock, and cleaning supplies. The Assistance League of Diablo Valley donates the bags. Graves coordinates the Independent Living Skills Program, which offers 15- to 21-year-olds workshops on finding an apartment, applying for a job, and managing finances — skills other teens might learn from their family. The funding comes from the federal and state government, and the county runs the program.


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