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Foster girls beat all odds

Sisters who were abused in Taiwan and came to the U.S. only to enter the system, find success after one woman gives them a home.

June 14, 2008|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Maggie and Rachel Lin have faced unimaginable adversity: As youngsters, the girls lost their father, who was murdered by a street gang in their native Taiwan; they suffered abuse at the hands of family members, made a harrowing journey to the U.S. and spent most of their childhood in a succession of foster homes, some where they suffered new cruelties.

Against those odds, Maggie headed off last year to Dartmouth College, and after graduating Friday from Pacific Hills School, Rachel will attend Vassar. Both have received nearly full scholarships from the schools.

Their success has been hard won. It is rare for a foster child to attend a private prep school like Pacific Hills in West Hollywood. In California, about 54% of foster children graduate from high school and only about 10% enroll in college. Fewer still are admitted to elite universities.

Yet somehow the stars aligned for Maggie, 19, and Rachel, 18, two strong-minded and resilient girls who found a foster mother who believed in them and a school that allowed them to blossom.

Growing up, neither one could have imagined this outcome.

When the girls moved in almost five years ago, Rachel was blunt: Thanks for giving me a place to stay, but I'm a renter and will always be just a tenant here, recalls the girls' foster mother, Kate Moulene.

"I didn't even bother to try to establish a relationship; I didn't even try," Rachel said.

"She was like a feral cat," Moulene said. "She trusted no one."

Moulene put locks on the windows of her Hollywood Hills home to keep the sisters from sneaking out at night. Rachel was in the habit of visiting her boyfriend in Walnut, where she had been living.

Maggie was scared but hopeful.

"Even though I deal with all of these trust issues, part of my way of coping with things is to believe that it's going to be different," she said. "I go into another home thinking, this is going to be all right."

Moulene, a former journalist and founder of a marketing firm, was a single mother of sons Cameron, 14, and Pierre, 12, and adopted daughter Anna Mei, 7, who was born in China and orphaned. The family had watched the movie "Cheaper by the Dozen" when the boys experienced an epiphany: Wouldn't it be fun to have more kids?

Moulene went to a website featuring foster children and within minutes saw a picture of Maggie and Rachel.

The two were used to getting calls, sometimes in the middle of the night, from social workers telling them to pack up to move. They were in the process of meeting another family when they were told of Moulene's interest.

After they met, Cameron confided to his mom that the only thing he wanted that Christmas was for Maggie and Rachel to move in.

The sisters paid a final visit to Moulene's home and the children huddled.

"They all talked about it and came down and said they decided to do it," Moulene said.

"She bought us online for free," jokes Rachel.

A self-described pessimist who doesn't easily make friends, Rachel is all in-your-face honesty and biting wit, which she uses like a wary fighter to keep an opponent off guard. She accuses Maggie of hiding behind a mask of pleasantry.

"Sometimes you need to put on different personas," counters Maggie. "It was required when we were moving around to different foster homes to keep sane."

The girls' troubled mother, who had been in and out of their lives, remained in Taiwan when they left.

Maggie remembers their first foster home in California. The mother drank to excess. At night, bugs left welts on Maggie's body, and the sound of them scurrying on the floor and walls haunted her dreams. Six years old, she ran to the roof and would have jumped off had the mother not grabbed her at the last moment, she said. At another home, the girls said, their government-issued spending money was confiscated by the foster parents. They were not allowed to open the family's refrigerator or use the computer.

Both girls have written about their troubled experiences and were among a number of foster children recently recognized by Los Angeles County for their academic achievement. Because they were older, county officials gave them a say in their future.

Maggie had always been the caretaker. Sensing an opportunity, she made the decision to take a chance on Moulene, who eventually became the sisters' legal guardian.

Impressed by their fortitude, Moulene also saw an opportunity. Growing up, Maggie and Rachel had been told not to waste time thinking about college. But all they needed, thought Moulene, was a door to open.

She met Richard S. Makoff, the head of Pacific Hills, a sixth- through 12th-grade independent school of about 300 students from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

"I said, 'Look, these kids can change the world but I don't know how to make that happen myself,'" Moulene recalled. "He gave the girls scholarships and opened that door."

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