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Struggling to Pull Shattered Family Together

Trayvon Walker, 20, has five siblings in foster care. He's trying to give them a big brother's guidance. But the system just isn't set up to help.

July 25, 2006|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Inside his sparse Van Nuys apartment, Trayvon Walker clicks on a photo of a 17-year-old boy with chin raised, cheeks stretched and a full mouth strikingly similar to his.

"That's my brother," says Walker of the teenager he worries about so much lately.

He clicks on a different page and scrolls through photos of his 16-year-old sister, wondering if she has a boyfriend.

At 20, Walker is trying to click together the scattered lives of his brothers and sisters. Raised by the foster care system in California -- in which 42% of children are separated from one or more of their siblings -- Walker knows only pieces of their stories. Five of his seven siblings remain in foster care in Victorville, Hesperia, Pomona and Ontario, and only two live together. One sister is autistic. One brother is about to turn 13. The 17-year-old in the online photo is getting ready to emancipate from foster care. Of his two older brothers, one is in jail and he can't find the other.

Walker wants the court or social workers to provide flexible visitation rights and transportation, so he can give his siblings still in foster care the parental figure that he never had.

He says it is up to him to pass on vital lessons in adulthood to his younger siblings, even though he lives 50 to 100 miles away. They are lessons every young adult should know but which those who grow up in foster care often learn the hard way: Don't buy more groceries than you can carry on the bus. Call potential employers to follow up on job applications, even if they didn't call you. Count school credits to make sure you've earned enough to graduate on time.

Nationwide, 20,000 young people become too old for foster care each year, with an estimated 4,000 in California. Foster children are supported by federal and state funding, and the law allows counties to keep them in care until they are 21.

But most leave foster care and step into adulthood on their 18th birthday, without a safety net.

A study of young adults who left foster care because of their age, conducted by the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children, found that 42% did not graduate from high school. Less than half were employed and 14% had been homeless.

Those who maintained strong ties to family members -- including siblings -- during their childhood in foster care were more likely to be enrolled in school or working, the report found.

"The majority of youth end up leaving care without having any relationships with anyone," said Jennifer Rodriguez, legislative and policy coordinator for California Youth Connection, a nonprofit foster youth group. Preserving the sibling bond "needs to be a critical focus during emancipation."

California requires the juvenile courts to consider at every court hearing sibling placement or visitation. But with a shortage of suitable homes -- especially those that accept sibling groups -- judges and social workers often can't keep family members together.

"Our lawyers ought to be yelling and screaming in court in every single hearing where this isn't done," said Los Angeles County Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash. "Our judges need to be beating up on everybody to make sure this is getting done."

State law makes it difficult for siblings to contact each other after they have been adopted because of confidentiality rules -- an issue lawmakers are trying to change this year with a bill by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that would make it easier for siblings to find each other.

The Legislature approved an increase of more than $83 million this year for foster care. Most of that will be used to hire social workers, but $4 million will be set aside to help the thousands of foster care children who have no place to live when they become emancipated from the system.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles, said more changes are needed so other foster youths don't have the same experience as Walker.

Funding should be reallocated to help families instead of dismantling them, she said, and there needs to be more of an effort to locate and support relatives of children placed in foster care. Relatives, she said, are more likely to take siblings.

Walker was emancipated from foster care after living in 24 homes. He taught himself to iron, fold, shave, vacuum, shop, save.

In a dresser drawer, he keeps five old photos that he had laminated, one of each of his younger brothers and sisters. He knows the clock is ticking for them. So he squeezes advice, admonishment and nurturing into a few phone calls and typed lines.

When his sister jokingly writes on "SHUT UP WIT ALL THAT NONSINCE."

He writes back: "I'm glad you can spell."

Sometimes he types simply: "I love you."

She responds: "I love you to brother I will talk to you when I can."

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