Xocheezy* is an 18-year-old foster youth who came of age in California’s juvenile justice system. That might have been avoided had her family ever been connected to housing support.
It is not rare for justice-involved youth to have this kind of history with the child welfare system. A recent study in Los Angeles County found that four out of five probation-involved youth had at least one report of child abuse or neglect on file.
Today, Xocheezy is a sociology student at a community college and a staff member at a youth justice advocacy organization. As part of that work, she regularly returns to the same facility where she was once incarcerated to empower young people detained there. Xocheezy has also had the chance to participate in local juvenile justice committees and has even traveled across the country to learn from other organizers.
Ten months ago, though, things were very different.
I first got into foster care when I was just 8 years old. My brother and I got removed because there was domestic violence in the home. My mom didn’t really understand English, so it was hard for her to work the system. I did a lot of translating.
Eventually, she was able to get us back because she got a restraining order on my dad. We were able to “safely go home” — but there was no home to go to.
I remember we were always living in the car or in shelters. We were always moving. There was just no stability. My brother and I tried to help our mom get housing, but the programs told us we were too late — the resources only were only available within one year of domestic violence cases. I wonder why my social worker never helped her apply when we were trying to reunify.
Eventually, we were able to get a mobile home, but my mom had to rent out a room so that she could afford the bills. The men who rented the room would always look at me weird and try to touch me. I had a hard time telling my mom, so I just always left the house.
The streets felt more like home, more like family. On the streets I was respected and I got to be myself. I learned how to be real out there. But I ended up getting involved with a gang. In order to join, they told me to bring this other girl in. The two of us broke into a store and ended up getting caught.
I was just 12 years old. It was the first time I had ever been arrested. They took me to juvenile hall. They took my fingerprints and my picture, but they didn’t even let me call my mom.
I was scared. I was terrified. I was so young.
When I got out, they used an ankle bracelet to track me, and I kept getting arrested — at ages 13, 14 and 16 — all for violating my probation.
I served more time in juvenile hall, but when I got out on probation, I didn’t have anywhere to live. My mom was homeless again.
I told my probation officer I was sleeping in a car, but she told me to just find somewhere to rent. “You’re almost off probation,” she said. She didn’t even try to help me or my mom find housing. Eventually I found a place to stay, but it wasn’t a safe place, and being there led to me getting arrested again at 17.
I was arrested a total of five times. The experience of incarceration sadly started to feel more and more familiar. I practically grew up in the system. The last time I was in, I was incarcerated for more than 200 days. Because of my home life, I was often stuck there longer than I was supposed to because they didn’t even know where to put me.
During my last stint in juvenile hall, I worked to earn my high school diploma and I advocated to start college classes. The probation department actually already had some college classes for the young men at the hall, but they had nothing for us girls.
I had to fight for it. I became an activist in there. I was MCing events, dancing, writing poetry and making art. I built a lot of connections — a very strong network — that helped support me.
When I was released at 18, I opted into extended foster care so that I could get housing. My mom was worried because she thought it was a trap since the system never got her housing. She thought they were going to send me to prison instead.
Well, I got housing, but my mom never did. I don’t really understand why I could apply for housing, but she couldn’t. It’s not fair.
My mom is a single parent. She has two young daughters. They’re still homeless. And the court never even asks about that. It’s like they don’t actually care if our family has stability, they just think they know what’s best.
Maybe if they asked, they could help. They could give us what we really need, what we had been fighting for.
It’s hard to tell them, though, because it is so intimidating in court. You sit way down, below the judge, and right beside an attorney. They expect the attorney to speak, but not you. The attorneys there make all these assumptions about us, our families and our communities. But this is not my mother’s fault.
That’s why I work to make the system better for youth. I want to make it work for us and our families, not against us.
I have a lot of dreams. After college, my goal is to become the best social worker out there and to start a nonprofit for immigrant children who enter the foster care system. And one day, I am going to make enough money to buy a house for my mom and my sisters so that they never have to be homeless, so that they never have to worry.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy, but a diamond has to go through fire before it becomes a diamond.
*The name of this young person has been changed to protect her privacy.
Katarina Kabickis a former foster youth who is dedicated to stability, dreams, and freedom for all system-involved youth. She works as a policy assistant at California Youth Connection, and is a second-year social work graduate student at University of California-Berkeley in the Child Welfare Scholars Program.