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No papers -- and little hope of advancement

People in their late teens or early 20s are seeking help establishing their identities from a nonprofit law firm. Without documents, they cannot open a bank account, obtain a job or enroll in college.

August 23, 2009|Garrett Therolf

Many days, Jamal King stands at South Vermont Avenue and West 46th Street in South Los Angeles, his muscled arms covered with tattoos flaunting his membership in the Rolling 40s, a drug-running criminal gang.

His former foster father often drives past slowly, wagging his finger.

"I know people look at me and just see a gangbanger," King said. "It's not really who I am. It's just temporary."

But King's hope for a better life is hobbled by more than poverty and his surroundings -- he lacks a birth certificate.

He was born in a car 20 years ago as his mother tried to get to a hospital. By age 2, he was being raised by Los Angeles County's child welfare system. At 18, he was sent by the system into adulthood without a single form of identification: no driver's license, no Social Security card, no way to prove who he was.

Unable to qualify for even an individual taxpayer identification number, he has less ability to navigate through society than an illegal immigrant. He can't open a bank account, obtain a job, receive government benefits, enroll in higher education.

"It's like I don't exist," King said. The only form of identification recognized by authorities is his fingerprints. "In jail, they know exactly who I am."

Not long ago, a state assemblyman wanted King to travel to Sacramento to testify about a bill designed to help get papers for people in his position. King couldn't make the trip. No one could figure out a way around identification requirements at the airport.

King is among a small number of people in their late teens or early 20s who have sought help establishing their identities from the Alliance for Children's Rights, a nonprofit law firm that works for abused and impoverished youths out of a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise.

Those without basic papers, like King, were usually born outside of hospitals. No birth certificate was automatically generated, and their parents never filed for one.

State officials say it is difficult to know how many young people are affected. At the alliance, managing attorney Lara Holtzman said her organization typically hears about one new case a month.

"And these are just the kids who somehow find us," she said.

Eighteen-year-old Dominique Freeman of Los Angeles was born in a hotel room. When she was 3 days old, the county began caring for her after her mother tested positive for cocaine.

The county eventually placed her in the care of her maternal aunt, whom she credits with keeping her focused in school and ambitious about her future. When she was 16, Freeman wanted to pursue a summer job, but her aunt told her that the absence of a birth certificate would prevent that.

"My aunt told me that the Department of Children and Family Services assured her that they were going to do it for me," Freeman said. "My aunt said she didn't know how to go about doing it because she was not the mother."

Last year, Freeman was forced to turn down a scholarship to Cal State Northridge and delay her admission for one year while she waited for her papers. Now she spends most of her days watching television in the home of extended family members. Freeman said she feels cut off from the world.

"I have a lot of friends," she said, "but it's been hard because I can't work, and I have no money and that means I can't go out with them."

With help from the alliance, she received her birth certificate this summer and will be able to start school in the fall. But it's been a terrible year waiting. Her aunt died shortly after she lost her scholarship, and she has survived on the good graces of relatives who offer her small amounts of cash and a temporary place to sleep.

In Panorama City, former foster child Sergio Romero, 18, also waits. Lacking identification paperwork, Romero said, he cannot drive and doesn't qualify for Native American benefits he believes he should be entitled to. He was born in a hospital, and a birth certificate should have been issued, but it has inexplicably disappeared.

In all of the cases, Holtzman said, her firm has struggled to find a way to expedite paperwork with the state, and she fears the process will drag on for up to a year. For a delayed birth certificate to be issued, each client must convince a judge that they were born in the U.S. and then wait for the state to issue a certificate.

In King's case, foster care officials and, later, juvenile probation officials were long aware that he lacked basic identification documentation. Although both agencies have procedures to obtain birth certificates for children before they leave their systems, King was among an undetermined number who fell through the cracks.

Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) is sponsoring AB270, a bill in the state Legislature that would strengthen the mandates that no children leave the system without basic documents. It is currently stalled because of the state's budget problems.

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