Leo has been in 21 foster homes, three psych wards, and one group home. One of his foster mothers would pull him out of bed in the middle of the night in order to whip him and then force him outside like a dog.
Belle was beaten so severely by her new housemate that she couldn’t see out of her swollen eyes. She somehow made her way to Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, where she curled up in a ball on the floor outside her counselor’s office. She remembers that she saw terror in the woman’s face when she discovered her there that morning.
Lafawn remembers that during his first foster care assignment, he’d spend nights in an empty liquor store. Too young to say anything about it at the time, he now thinks that his foster mother must have been dating the liquor store owner. He still passes the store over on Century and Figueroa.
The youths sit side by side at a long table in the offices of The RightWay Foundation on the ground floor of the sprawling Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Mall, tucked between an LAPD substation and Footaction. Established in 2011, RightWay provides mental health treatment and job training to transition-aged youth who have or are about to “age out” of Los Angeles County’s foster care system.
Leo, Belle, and Lafawn have volunteered to participate in a writing program mentored by CRIME STORY, and one by one, they share stories about their lives in and out of the foster care system. Stories that are alternately harrowing and inspiring.
The statistics for California’s former foster youth are grim. The largest child protective services agency in the nation, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) oversees more than 2 million children across the county. The Alliance for Children’s Rights reports that some 30,000 of those children are in foster care.
According to The RightWay Foundation website, 25% of the state’s recently emancipated foster youth were incarcerated within two years of emancipation. (This has become known as the Foster Care To Prison Pipeline.) The unemployment rate within two to four years of emancipation was 51%. Only 10% of former foster youth attended college, and 36% will become homeless.
It’s an uphill struggle for the youths at RightWay, but their painful accounts are evidence of how crucial a struggle it is.
Franco Vega falls back into a desk chair in his cramped office. It’s one of the few occasions when Vega, founder and executive director of The RightWay Foundation, allows anything as simple as gravity to impact him. Let alone time or resources. Vega perseveres.
A fit 40-something, Vega’s short hair and beard are salted with gray. His smile is infectious, and he prefaces his answers with an affirming “Correct, correct,” simultaneously advancing the conversation and bolstering the confidence of whomever he’s speaking to. Vega projects the vibe of someone who is exactly where he wants and needs to be. His office walls are an impromptu collage of white boards busy with reminders and photographs by RightWay youth. He gestures towards the pile of paperwork that spreads across his desk. “This is where the magic happens,” he jokes. “I call it my foxhole.”
The mixed metaphors are telling. It’s clear that there is magic at work at RightWay, as well as a pitched battle against overwhelming odds. Historically, the overstrained county foster care bureaucracy provides little in the way of transitional assistance. On reaching the age of majority, many foster youth suddenly find themselves without housing, income, work skills or a support network. They are cut adrift — often after a lifetime of traumatic uncertainty and impermanence.
RightWay, a triumph of roll-up-your-shirtsleeves social services, fills the gap. Perpetually understaffed and underfunded, Vega and his small team of social workers and licensed therapists power on, battling the disheartening metrics and pulling small miracles out of hats. And the foundation’s numbers are impressive: in the last fiscal year, 65% of RightWay’s 126 participants secured employment or paid internships, with 62% retaining that employment for at least six months. 84% received crucial mental health services, ranging from counseling to therapy and emotional support, and 24% of the program’s participants enrolled in college. Only 3% were incarcerated.
“We’re crushing it,” Vega boasts, “and we’re crushing it because… we’re thinking outside the box.” In RightWay’s case, that means providing walk-in, outpatient mental health services to youth in need. “We have licensed therapists here that you have access to twenty-four seven. You can’t go to the Department of [Mental] Health and get a therapist at 4:00 PM. You’ve got to wait in line for them to become available. Not ours. We’re available all the time.”
Mental health services are a crucial component in RightWay’s program, the linchpin of its hard-won success. Andraya Slyter, chief operating officer and therapist at RightWay, points out that many foster youth suffer from acute levels of stress. “People have an idea that trauma is something that only veterans experience,” Slyter told the Chronicle for Social Change. “But there are a lot of other people, foster youth in particular, that experience levels of trauma.”
The high percentage of foster youth who brush up against the criminal justice system bears this out. “You know, normally you just hear about the crime,” Vega observes. “But we really try to take a deep look at who that individual is, because before they were busted for a crime, they were someone’s kid, they were a baby.” This empathy is characteristic of Vega and RightWay. “Some of the crimes my youth have committed were out of survival mode,” he notes, a response to being denied the most basic of items, like food or clothing. “You know, we have young ladies who were busted stealing in a mall… undergarments, underwear. Their group home was getting $6,000 a month for each youth. But that money wasn’t going to them. So they had to go into survival mode” and steal those necessities.
Vega knows something about survival. His official biography on the foundation website lays out the details: “Like many of the youth he now serves, Franco Vega had a traumatic upbringing. Franco suffered a great deal of mental/physical abuse and neglect from the one person who should have protected him the most, his mother. Franco’s dad, who was a good father, died of a terrible disease, alcoholism. Five years later Franco’s mother passed away of cancer. At the age of 15, he was now in and out of juvenile hall and remained on probation until the age of 18 years old.” Vega came of age gangbanging on the streets of ‘80s South Central, an experience he looks back on with clear-eyed realism. “The only thing I was good at when gang banging was street fights,” Vega concedes. “Because win or lose, the ass kickings I got wasn’t nothing compared to what my mom gave me.”
At RightWay, self-destructive survival-mode habits and attitudes are exposed, examined, and re-evaluated, consistent with the foundation’s mission “to move from a point of pain and disappointment to a point of power, productivity, and self-sufficiency.” RightWay also operates a half-day program for prospective employers, teaching mentorship skills and trauma-informed training.
The place where these two objectives intersect can often be blurry. “It’s basic soft skills,” Vega says of RightWay’s job training and placement services. “How to interview. Then how to keep a job. Networking. How to deal with triggers.”
I ask him what he means by “triggers” in this instance. He nods: “I’ll give you this example,” he says, “90% of our youth are African-American, 90%. Black boys in particular. When you go into [the job market], black females [may] be your supervisors. So when they have a 50 or 40-year-old black woman, you know, on them, asking them, ‘Why are you late?’ or [telling them] ‘You’ve got to do this,’ that kid might have triggers… mommy triggers, right? We teach them how to deal with those triggers. She’s a black woman, but that’s not your mother.”
Vega offers another example of how traumatized foster youth must play catch-up on the life and work skills many of us take for granted. “Sixty percent of women in Congress or politicians were Girl Scouts. Sixty percent,” he notes. “Not one of our girls has been through Girl Scouts, and that’s telling me that at a younger age they should’ve been doing [these] things. But no, they were secluded, locked up or whatever. So we have to teach them all that. This is their first cookie stand, you know?”
This lesson is central to RightWay’s approach. “Without confronting their past trauma in a healthy way,” the foundation mission statement reads, “it is difficult for our youth to hold a job, support their families, or have a rewarding future.” Vega proudly concedes that RightWay is a mental health service provider first, and a job training program second. “Our kids don’t want to hear about therapists or therapy,” he points out. Therapy’s “been shoved down their throats as little kids.” he says. “We have to make it cool and hip. That’s why we use younger demographic master-level [MSW] folks” as therapists. “They kind of look like them. Listen to the same music. We try and keep it young and hip so a youth [might] schedule a therapy session” and actually show up.
Success at RightWay means more and more foster youth pushing through their doors at the mall, and still more demands on their already strained resources. “When we first started,” Vega recalls, referrals were “through the Department of Children and Family Services, the foster care system. We would get referrals from social workers. We’d get referrals from the courts, the judges, attorneys, everyone. And now,” he notes proudly, “we don’t need those referrals. Now it’s basically word of mouth.”
Vega, his staff, and The RightWay Foundation confront the challenges ahead with admirable determination. “People are shocked when I say this, but jobs is the easy part,” Vega tells me. The hard part, he says, “is helping these kids get through trauma, you know?”
CRIME STORY and The RightWay Foundation are pleased to announce the launch of a unique creative collaboration. Working closely with CRIME STORY journalists, a self-selected group of RightWay youth will craft narratives about their experiences in and out of the foster care system. These accounts will be published on the CRIME STORY website at regular intervals.
You can watch a PBS/KCET segment that features the work The RightWay Foundation here.