Katrise Stewart, 17, left, gets a high five from Erin Green, center, as Desiree… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
Three years ago, Claudia Jacqueline Benjamin was one of hundreds of Los Angeles County foster children who preferred the chaos of the streets to the security of a stranger's home.
She'd gone into foster care at 15, after a fight at school revealed problems at the home where she lived with her grandmother.
But when she stayed away from her foster home one night, she was moved to another in a neighborhood far away from her family in South Los Angeles. She went on the lam for three weeks and landed in juvenile hall.
"After that, I just kept running away," said Claudia, now 18. She would live on the streets for weeks at a time, sleeping in cars, at bus stops, on sidewalks and crashing on friends' couches.
Authorities moved her through almost a dozen placements — group homes, foster families, detention facilities.
She felt restless, rootless and angry, she said. The least little thing would set her off. "I was like, 'They don't care. So I'll just leave.' It was easy to feel neglected."
But now she's not worrying about where she'll sleep, but about what she's going to study in college. A week ago she moved into a stable, comfortable foster home — a place she'd run away from once before. She appreciates it this time.
What made the difference, Claudia told me, flashing deep dimples and a little girl's smile, was a social worker willing to reach out — and keep reaching until Claudia reached back.
Claudia's story is a reflection of one of the most vexing problems of the county's system of foster care:
The Department of Children's and Family Services doesn't have enough family foster homes for parent-less adolescents. Unhappy teens who run away become wards of the Probation Department because they're considered delinquents. The two agencies barely talk to one another, so those children languish on the streets and are often victimized by thieves, drug dealers and pimps.
Four years ago, in the wake of a scandal over hundreds of unaccounted-for children the foster care agency agreed to try an unconventional approach, forming a small Runaway Outreach Unit that relies not on hauling kids in from the streets, but building trust to bring them back.
"The old way wasn't working," said the unit's leader, social worker Eric Ball. Since 2008, his team — using Facebook, family connections and foot patrols — has located 1,500 missing youths and eased 500 into independent living and out of foster care, he said.
"The important thing is to make contact and begin to earn their trust," Ball told me Saturday, from a crowded downtown community center, where his team had gathered hundreds of their teenage wards for a daylong conference on healthy living.
"We're trying to empower them," Ball said. "Nobody likes being told what to do."
Ball knows; he was a hard-headed teenager too. He grew up in South Los Angeles with a single mom and spent time in juvenile hall for stealing cars. A football scholarship sent him off to the University of Arizona. He earned his master's degree at Pepperdine University, then worked in group homes and drug treatment programs.
Now he works the streets with six social workers, reaching out to homeless children tired of being shuffled through a system where everyone is paid to take care of them — and no one seems to listen to them.
Many of the teenage runaways have mental or emotional problems, or are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Some want to reunite with their families, others are so wounded they don't trust anyone. The outreach team enlists help from family members, churches and community groups to draw boys away from gang-banging, rescue girls from sex-trafficking rings, and talk pregnant teens and new mothers into care and off the streets.
"You stay in touch, so they know you're really there for them," said social worker Val Cacatian, who deals with 12- and 13-year-olds who've run away from foster homes because they miss their siblings or their mothers.
"They still have the idea that things could be all right, if only they could get back home," she said. "By 16 or 17, they realize, 'My mother loves her drugs more than she loves me.'
"Sometimes they'll contact me on Facebook: 'Hey Val, can you find me a placement?' They get tired of couch-surfing, living in the streets."
That's what Claudia did a few months ago — reached out to Cacatian and said she was tired of running the streets.
"Val told me, 'I'm not gonna force you to do nothing. If you work with me, I'll help you be where you want to be.' "
Where Claudia wanted to be was close to her family. "Val got a relationship with my grandma, my brother, my family … and got to know them all," she said.
When that didn't work out, "Val stayed for hours in her office, trying to find a place for me to live."
And when Claudia was locked up last spring in juvenile detention camp, she was delighted when Cacatian showed up for a visit.
"Val wanted to see if I was safe, if I was doing all right," she said. "I wasn't even her case no more. But she came to check on me ... said 'I'll pick you up whenever you want.' "
There's a sense of wonder in Claudia's voice as she shares the memory.
It's more than the offer of caseworker to client. It's the kind of promise a mother might make, if she wasn't out of reach.