Catching Charges to Get Foster Care’s Help

Homeless teen had to be labeled truant to get off the streets

homeless foster care
Illustration by Christine Ongjoco.

If ever there was a modern-day orphan in American suburbia, surely Meritsa Sedillo fit the profile. At 17, she slept on hard rubber flooring beneath a play structure in an East Bay elementary schoolyard. She worried about what she’d eat each day, scouring the ground for change she could use when the ice cream truck came by.

Her mother had left her as an infant, resigned to addiction and life on the streets. Her father, who lived 400 miles away, was paralyzed from the waist down and barely able to care for himself, let alone a teenage daughter. The people who had raised her since infancy, her grandfather and grandmother, died two months apart from each other in 2017.

“When I was going through all this, I was so out of hope I stopped caring,” Meritsa said. “I thought, if I end up living on the street, that’s just what’s meant for me.”

Despite her desperation, Contra Costa County denied Meritsa not only the protection of the child welfare system, but also access through the local agency to extended foster care, benefits she could have relied on for housing and other support until she turned 21. 

Instead, she had to turn to the criminal justice system for help.

‘You’re so close to 18 there’s no point us helping you’

There are more than 7,000 adults in extended foster care in California receiving financial and casework support for housing, jobs and education during the first four years of adulthood. Most of those eligible turn 18 while in the child welfare system but have not been adopted or reunified with family.

Countless others have no access to such support, even when they are approaching age 18 in precarious circumstances, with no one and nothing to rely on. There are no hard numbers on how many young people like Meritsa can’t get into foster care as older teens, and thus lose eligibility for benefits that could sustain them through age 21. 

But shelter providers and youth advocates say there are too many out there for a state the size of California to ignore – teenagers who cannot go home because of abuse and neglect, or who are undocumented and have no family in the country, or whose legal guardians have died. 

Many have no idea they could be eligible for foster care and don’t ever talk to social workers about the benefits paid for through federal and state funds. In some instances, child welfare experts say, social workers do not file abuse or neglect petitions in the dependency courts, the filings come too late, or the court rejects the allegations. In still other cases, counties appear loath to take on the per-person expense of extended care at such a late stage of childhood – costs of up to $2,400 per month.

homeless foster care
Meritsa lived on the streets before the juvenile justice system helped her get access to foster care benefits. Photo: Max Whittaker

Extended foster care “can make the difference between street homelessness and having a job and a home, so it can be amazing when it works well,” said Lilly Chen, a supervising attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid. “Our challenge over and over again is helping young people knock down the door to get into foster care.”

Meritsa, who is now 19, had to keep knocking. When she was an infant, social workers investigated her home, but she was not formally removed from her parents. Instead, her grandfather was advised, informally, to petition the Contra Costa County probate court for legal guardianship. 

Meritsa’s grandfather would eventually leave the home the two shared with his wife, and move to Los Angeles. But Meritsa stayed close to her grandmother through her teenage years, loving her with an intense devotion as the elderly woman’s health declined. Caregiving became Meritsa’s full-time job, she said, and she began skipping high school classes to take care of the woman who had raised her. There were medications and baths to manage, as well as difficult moods when signs of dementia emerged. Meritsa persevered, even when her grandmother didn’t seem to remember who she was.

“No one else was willing to be there for my gramma,” Meritsa said. “She was my best friend. That’s why I was willing to leave school and take care of her. She’s my biggest inspiration. She’s the woman I want to be one day.”

In May 2017, Meritsa’s grandmother died, followed weeks later by the death of her grandfather. By that time, with no parents or legal guardians excusing her repeated absences from school, Meritsa was called to juvenile court for truancy. She appeared at the hearings by herself, the rare teen with no adult by her side when she received reprimands and an ankle monitor for missing too many classes.

Meritsa’s older cousin, who was in her 20s, had joined the teen in her grandmother’s East Bay home a year earlier. But when it was just the two of them living together, they had a falling out. Meritsa said her cousin called child protective services, saying she couldn’t handle her anymore. Meritsa came to believe she was going to be handcuffed and dragged off by social workers, and if she ran, she’d be chased by police and arrested. So she hid at friends’ houses.

“I had heard some bad things about foster care. I didn’t know what it was,” Meritsa said. “It made me terrified.”

Eventually, she confessed to the school principal what was going on. At that point, Meritsa was 17 and in 11th grade, attending school sporadically and crashing with friends. She couldn’t get a driver’s license or find work because she had no Social Security card and no birth certificate.

Meritsa met with two Contra Costa County child welfare social workers, she said. Each time, she left no closer to support. Meritsa described the first visit as a 10-minute conversation that did not help her overcome her fears about foster care or the trepidation she felt about going into the system. 

“She didn’t tell me about benefits or anything, Meritsa recalled. “She just said, you don’t want to be in the system, OK bye.”

The second social worker visit followed a request from the high school, which had a program serving homeless students. Meritsa said in that meeting, she was told the only way she could get into foster care was if she agreed to be in the nearest group home – 80 miles away, in Modesto.

When she insisted that the only constant in her life was the school program and her close circle of four friends, Meritsa said the second social worker told her there were no other options. This, even though under state and federal law, foster youth have a right to remain in their “school of origin,” which in California is any school attended in the last 15 months that a student feels connected to.

“I want to get help, but I want to stay in this school,” she said she told the social worker. “I need to be with my friends. These are the only people I have.” 

But Meritsa said yet again the response was clear: “She said, ‘No, you won’t be allowed to stay in this area.’ And the case was closed again.”

The third meeting with a social worker went in an entirely different direction. 

“She said, ‘You’re so close to 18, there’s no point us helping you,’” Meritsa recalled. So went the fourth visit. “Seeing that I was homeless, bouncing around from house to house, living in a car for a month, she closed my case again, and said, ‘We can’t help you.’”

Officials with Children and Family Services in Contra Costa County did not respond to requests for comment on Meritsa’s case, citing confidentiality laws.

Harsh results 

For years, according to court records and interviews with Bay Area advocates and shelter providers, teenagers who are eligible and among the most in need for extended foster care have had difficulty getting access to the child welfare system – particularly those close to their 18th birthdays. 

“This has caused harsh results,” a 2018 legislative analysis warned.

A recent example can be found in a 2017 ruling by the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal, which upheld Contra Costa County’s decision to dismiss the foster care petition of 17-year-old David B. The teen, who was diabetic and paralyzed after getting shot, had no family caring for him, nowhere to stay and no one to pick him up from the hospital and help administer lifesaving insulin injections. 

The juvenile court initially accepted David into foster care, and the local child welfare agency placed him in a homeless shelter until a more suitable placement could be found. But the agency later reversed its earlier position, arguing that David may not actually have been abandoned by his mother and other relatives, who declined to answer calls from social workers. 

Instead, it described the wheelchair-using teen as “a runaway” who had been “an unreliable reporter” about his circumstances. 

At age 17 years and 11 months, the juvenile court dismissed David’s case. And though his attorneys appealed the decision, it was too late. David’s 18th birthday came and went, and he was no longer eligible for foster care benefits and housing options that could have provided for him until he turned 21.

homeless foster care
Meritsa and others who’ve tried to enter foster care close to their 18th birthday have faced obstacles from officials who think they’re trying to milk the system. Photo: Max Whittaker.

The same appeals court reviewed a similar case from Alameda County, which had denied 17-year-old “W.C.” entry into foster care even though he appeared to be alone in the world with no resources to survive. The unaccompanied minor from Guatemala was so distraught he became suicidal. He ended up at an Oakland shelter after being denied medical treatment, court records state, “because he lacked insurance and had no legal guardian available to approve mental assessments.” 

The court had two initial hearings in W.C.’s case that determined he was eligible for foster care, a detention and a jurisdictional hearing one day before his 18th birthday on May 1, 2015. But since his “disposition” hearing was set for May 26, the county’s lawyer argued he could not be brought into the system since he would have turned 18 by that date.  

Some limited legislative remedies have been enacted with young people like David and W.C. in mind. Bills passed in the past two years have eased access for an estimated 50 to 120 foster youth statewide each year – specifically, older teens who have been initially accepted into foster care, but who turned 18 before reaching the “disposition” stage of their cases, which can take months. Previously, those teenagers had been deemed ineligible for extended foster care benefits, often just weeks or even a day shy of necessary court dates. 

But for the most part, legal experts say, the young people granted relief under recent state laws comprise a relatively small group, with a specific timeline hurdle in the courts. Other desperately needy young adults remain without help, especially if they have no access to an attorney.

“I would suspect if you called the vast majority of shelters for minors and asked what happens when you call child welfare, they’d say ‘very little,’” said Erin Palacios, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. “They’d say, call after 21 days, call me back because then it might be a case, or they’ll come out and do a cursory investigation and not a lot will happen.” 

Seeing kids as dollar signs

Bill Bedrossian, chief executive officer of Covenant House California, a nonprofit organization that provides shelter, housing and support services to homeless, runaway and trafficked young adults, said, “In theory, anybody under 18 without support would already be in the child welfare system.”  

But it doesn’t always work that way. Even though California law is clear that a homeless youth without any relatives willing and able to take them in should be in foster care, sometimes social workers make an offer that essentially becomes a choice for teens like Meritsa, or a veiled and undesirable threat. You can enter foster care, but you’ll have to leave your school and move to a distant group home; you can enter foster care but it’s going to be very difficult to find you a foster family. 

Advocates say some social workers have even evoked the cost of such care in conversations with young people, such as an accusation in a San Diego courtroom that an older teen who wanted to enter foster care was attempting “welfare fraud.” 

The message in Northern California is young people are attempting “a benefits grab,” said Amber Twitchell, director of the nonprofit youth-led VOICES advocacy group. Too often, the culture of child welfare agencies “sees kids as dollar signs and nothing else,” Twitchell said.

At the DreamCatcher Youth Services program in Oakland, run by Covenant House, Bedrossian said it is not uncommon to have young people whose cases are referred to child protective services. In those instances, case managers call the Alameda County child abuse hotline. If the department does not file a petition, attorneys from Bay Area Legal Aid who work on site at the shelter pursue the case further, a process that involves searching for a relevant Welfare and Institutions Code to build a case in court. 

The extra legal help is necessary, Bedrossian said, because too often “there’s just not a lot of creativity when it comes to meeting the needs of young people.” 

The option of last resort

Meritsa’s case eventually reached Lilly Chen, the supervising attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid. For three months, Chen tried everything she could to get Meritsa into foster care. Meritsa’s father lived in Los Angeles, but she had no relationship with him, and he was paralyzed and himself relying on relatives for care. In numerous phone calls, Chen implored social workers, unsuccessfully, to file a petition in dependency court that Meritsa’s case met the standards of caretaker “absence” or “incapacity,” both grounds for the teen to enter foster care.

Still, the child welfare agency interpreted Meritsa’s success at couch-surfing to mean she was not in any real danger, Chen said. Meritsa’s attorneys were informed by a social work supervisor and in a court report that the agency’s policy required the director to approve any petitions to bring 17-and-a-half-year-olds into foster care, an extra hurdle discouraging such efforts. Even if a court could be convinced, at the time, California law required dependency cases to have proceeded through several stages of preliminary hearings before teens could be eligible for extended foster care, and in Meritsa’s case there simply would not be enough time.

homeless
Lilly Chen, on using a truancy charge to get Meritsa into foster care: “It was by far the option of last resort.” Photo courtesy of Lilly Chen

“CPS said she has a roof over her head, we’re not going to do anything,” Chen said.

When Meritsa was at her lowest and ready to resign herself to finding a car to live in, Chen learned from a colleague about a novel approach she had tried years earlier in San Francisco. 

“It was by far the option of last resort,” Chen said. 

Under Assembly Bill 12, California is one of two states in the nation that provides benefits to eligible young people who are not in foster care, but who turn 18 in the juvenile justice system. And in the delinquency courts, the timeline to become a ward of the state was quicker.

Meritsa had never even been arrested, and truancy is a “status offense,” not a crime. But under an antiquated provision of the penal code established in 1937, she could be adjudicated for “habitual disobedience.” 

So Chen worked with a placement supervisor in the county Probation Department to achieve something almost unfathomable for a youth advocate – she advocated getting the deputy district attorney handling truancy cases to file charges on her client.

“In Meritsa’s case, she should have been found dependent on the child welfare side. She’s basically an orphan,” said attorney Raúl Arroyo-Mendoza with the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office. “Initially people didn’t realize what happened to her. They didn’t know why she was skipping school – it wasn’t until after that everyone found out the really traumatic backstory.

“The most important thing was to make sure Meritsa would be eligible for AB 12, however we accomplished that goal.”

When a delinquency petition was filed on Meritsa, “My judge automatically saw the loophole,” Meritsa recalled. There were two weeks before she’d turn 18. “My judge said, ‘Where do I sign?’” [Note: This article originally stated that Lilly Chen made this comment, and has since been corrected.]

Meritsa said she knew the implications for having a juvenile delinquency history, no matter how minor, and that it might make it hard for her to get a job. But she was assured her records would be sealed when she was 18.

“Regardless of being a juvenile delinquent, I was so happy,” she said. “On my birthday, my probation officer came into court with my birth certificate, and my whole perception of life changed in that week, my whole view on everything completely changed. I thought, I’m not going to be living in a car, I’m not going to be hungry for days, I’m not going to be sleeping at school.”

homeless foster care
Meritsa, now married, currently lives with her husband’s family in Bay Point, California, while they save to buy their first home. Photo: Max Whittaker

‘I love working’

One week before Meritsa’s 18th birthday, she became eligible for extended foster care. 

“With that, I knew I was going to get the benefits, so I was happy,” she said. “Usually no one’s going to walk out of that court going, ‘Yes! I’m a juvenile delinquent! I’m a ward of the court!’ But I knew after age 18 I would have the benefits of AB 12, I’d have housing, I’d get my own room for the first time in a year. I knew I was going to get a small check, and at that point, any money would help.”

Meritsa immediately began filling out applications for a transitional housing program. Her probation officer warned her not to count on a quick response, advising her that “some people don’t get approved for months on end.” But within days, she got a call from First Place for Youth, and they had an apartment available. Meritsa’s homeless stretch – which lasted from March 2018 to January 2019 – had ended.

She already had a full-time job at Starbucks, and through extended foster care she had her rent paid and received an additional $425 for groceries, toiletries and personal bills. In the housing program, she learned how to manage money and track her bills. She bought her first car, a handsome 2001 navy blue BMW. 

“People at First Place were really, really friendly and supportive,” Meritsa said. She had weekly meetings with a youth adviser, and monthly checks-ins with an education adviser.

Meritsa admits that first year she overdid it – working at Taco Bell from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and then Starbucks from 3 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. every day most days.

“There was a period where she was working two jobs, seven days a week and she had just graduated from high school,” Arroyo-Mendoza said. “She would have gotten AB 12 eligibility working 80 hours a month and she was working 80 hours every week – I had never seen anything like that before.”

Meritsa spent a year at First Place before she and her two chihuahuas, Teddy and King, moved in with her now-husband and his family in Bay Point. Though she’s been furloughed from a job at Chipotle due to the coronavirus pandemic, she’s now a manager-in-training at Round Table Pizza. Foster care provides her an additional $1,000 monthly payment known as a Supervised Independent Living Payment, allowing her to use the money toward rent in any home approved for health and safety standards by her probation officer.

These days, Meritsa is contemplating what her next step will be — either going to college to study criminal justice or marine biology, or enlisting in the Navy. But she’s waiting for the pressure of the pandemic to ease before she makes any big life decisions.

Reflecting on Meritsa’s journey, Arroyo-Mendoza said she embodies the reason Assembly Bill 12 was created.

“I was really blown away when I first met her because she is incredibly smart … and I think she is someone who could be successful no matter what,” Arroyo-Mendoza said, “as long as she has a stable place to live, go to school and work, that’s all she needs.” 

Karen de Sá is the Safety Net Reporting Fellow for The Chronicle, and a former investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and The Mercury News. She can be reached at kdesa@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

Staff Writer Sara Tiano can be reached at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

Katarina Sayally is the Youth Voice Correspondent for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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This four-part series by The Chronicle of Social Change was reported and written by Karen de Sá, Sara Tiano and Katarina Sayally, with editing by John Kelly. Christine Ongjoco created the illustrations. The project was mostly reported before the coronavirus pandemic struck, and included months of ongoing communication with current and former foster youth, observations in two confidential courtrooms and interviews with more than 60 child welfare experts. Facts have been updated to better reflect current circumstances.  

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