Amiri Whisenton was 10 years old when he was sent to foster care.
He tore through so many foster homes across Alameda County he can’t remember them all. The foster families were often either too strict or too lenient. He’d get kicked out for either staying out past curfew, smoking cannabis, being disrespectful, or for doing all three. Sometimes he just ran away and didn’t come back.
“I wasn’t bad, but I was wild,” Whisenton said, now 19 and living in East Oakland. “I wouldn’t listen to nobody. I was disrespectful. I was off the hook.”
Whisenton had found a pseudo-family on the streets. He hung out with older guys and started smoking cannabis. By 14, he was carrying a gun and robbing people. He went on a day-long crime spree that landed him in juvenile hall. After that, Whisenton was placed in group homes. After a judge extended his stay in a group home rather than releasing him to his father, Whisenton was so frustrated that he ran away and became homeless.
Whisenton’s journey is not unique. Thousands of foster families struggle to support high-needs kids like Whisenton. Once inside the California’s probation system, kids who are removed from their home are usually sent to live with either a relative, a group home or juvenile hall.
For Whisenton, his chances of getting back to a foster home after being locked up were near zero, at least while on probation. And in Alameda County, most kids who don’t have relatives to stay with are sent to a group home outside the county, sometimes out of the state.
With the advent of new state laws that restrict the use of group homes, probation departments are looking to find ways to help youth like Whisenton so they don’t fall through cracks and come out more damaged than when they entered the system.
Sabrina Forte, a juvenile justice attorney for Bay Legal Aid, said many of her clients struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression as a result of poverty and growing up without a parent. And doing drugs is a common coping mechanism for them. To deal, “a lot of our kids self-medicate,” she said.
Forte said that if Whisenton and others like him are going to get the help they need, probation has to begin to view these behaviors through a “mental health and poverty lens.”
“Amiri’s behaviors are symptomatic of broader trauma or mental health,” said Forte, who represented Whisenton when he was 17.
New California laws known as the Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) have mandated that juvenile probation departments embrace the latest in child psychology. That is, youth do best when they are living in a family-like setting and receiving community-based services. Starting this year, California began rolling out the reforms, which will also heavily impact the state’s child welfare system.
Under CCR group homes are no longer an option to house kids for more than six months. As a result, the new mandates have probation department across the state hustling to the make the necessary changes from a disciplinary corrections agency that relies heavily on group homes to one that now must place kids in the least restrictive setting possible — typically with relatives or friends or foster homes. And for high-needs kids like Whisenton, CCR requires probation to have a robust infrastructure of foster homes as well as a network of therapeutic and wrap-around services necessary for these families to support the youth. In additional, CCR will increase a number of resources — financial and training — so that families are better equipped to deal with kids who might smoke weed or have other behavioral problems. Not alienate them or kick them out.
The Alameda County Probation Department has historically sent most of its kids who can’t live with a relative to a group home in another county or state. To meet the mandates of CCR, the department will need more family placements. It has contracted with two Foster Family Agencies, or FFAs, which are private organizations that place kids with foster homes. These agencies will help find placements for kids and help train family or relatives in becoming approved probation placements.
“For the probation department, this is just a whole new game. So, there was a much steeper learning curve,” said Stacey Wooten, deputy chief of Alameda County’s juvenile probation.
In preparation for CCR, Wooten said that probation has tried to place some youth with an FFA. But most of the kids didn’t get matched because they weren’t appropriate for their clientele.
“We kind of expected that because of the stigma attached to probation youth,” Wooten said. They did place one youth, however, but Wooten wasn’t aware of his current status.
In the past “if there was no friend or relative willing to work with the youth, we were sort of forced to send them to out-of-town residential placements,” Wooten said. “CCR has really caused a change in how we do our work in probation.”
CCR provides more money for family and friends who want to step up and house a youth. But to become an approved placement requires 12 hours of training, background checks and psycho-social evaluation. All of which can be barriers for them.
“It can be very daunting for some of our families,” Wooten said. “There is such a stigma attached to the probation youth that we think it may be difficult to find those families — not impossible but difficult.”
To help place a probation-involved kid in the most appropriate setting, probation departments will now work together with child welfare services, the courts, the family or guardian to ensure the best options for the youth.
All group homes in the state will have to get relicensed as short-term therapeutic centers.
In June, Alameda had 51 youth living in out-of-home residential placements, but only three were located in-county, in Oakland. The rest were sent all over California or out of state, as far away as Pennsylvania. As CCR continues to be implemented, youth will still remain in out-of-county treatment centers or group homes. No effort yet is being made to bring them home.
“I don’t think it is appropriate to bring them home in the middle of treatment just because of the change of how we do business in the future,” Wooten said.
In the meantime, kids like Whisenton continue to get lost navigating a system in which they feel helpless and alone. Whisenton believes the old system set him up to fail.
Whisenton now lives with his girlfriend, their nine-month-old daughter and his girlfriend’s brothers in East Oakland. He works as an in-home supportive services provider for his mom in West Oakland. With a son on the way, he also receives state foster care benefits, including $889 for himself under the California’s extended foster care (AB 12) and $900 for his daughter.
He is hoping to get a warehouse job and a Section 8 voucher that would offer a new home to settle down with his growing family. Whisenton said he no longer admires the street life.
“I just want to live a comfortable life and raise my kids,” he said. “I don’t want no drama.”