Ceres foster teen opts for extended services after 18; foster mom is her role model

kcarlson@modbee.comJanuary 18, 2014 

    alternate textKen Carlson
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: County government, health and medicine, air quality, the environment and public pension systems
    Bio: Ken Carlson has worked 13 years for The Bee, covering local government agencies in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. His in-depth reporting has focused on access to health care and public employee pensions.
    Recent stories written by Ken
    E-mail: kcarlson@modbee.com

— Stephanie Lopez used to run with gangs and get into fights at school, until a foster mom taught her to respect others and carry herself with pride.

Her choice to receive extended foster care services after her 18th birthday gives Lopez a stronger chance to succeed in life.

Before Assembly Bill 12 took effect in January 2012, foster children were mostly on their own after turning 18, and their outcomes were poor: low rates of high school graduation, problems with homelessness, unemployment and criminal arrests, and disturbing rates of mental illness.

Now, foster wards are given support to attend college, acquire job skills and take advantage of other resources until they are 21.

Lopez is attending Modesto Junior College and has chosen to keep living in the Ceres home of her foster mom. The teenager is president of the Stanislaus chapter of California Youth Connections, a group that advocates for young people.

“She is really smart – I tell her she can be a doctor,” said Maira Gonzalez, her foster parent. “She does not believe in herself at times. She can be a leader, because I am cheering her on all the time.”

Lopez credits Gonzalez with making her follow the rules of the household, giving her structure after previous foster parents had let her run the streets. Gonzalez made her throw away her gang colors and harsh makeup, and she bought Lopez new clothes, explaining that others would judge her based on appearance.

Three years later, Lopez is well-spoken and wants to earn credits at MJC to transfer to a university. She has chosen to keep living with Gonzalez, though she will be eligible for transitional housing provided by county social services. Right now, the thought of living in an apartment scares her, she said.

“I have fear of the unknown. I don’t characterize myself as ready to be on my own,” Lopez said.

Once a foster kid herself

Gonzalez, who spent several years in foster care herself, said other court-dependent children she knew did not fare well after turning 18. She credited her last foster mom with instilling in her a work ethic that has helped her thrive as an adult.

Gonzalez started working at 14, and the foster mother let her keep 20 percent of the earnings, socking the rest away in a savings account. Gonzalez turned 18 with enough money to buy a good car from a dealership, she said.

She became a legal assistant and bought a home when she was 23.

Gonzalez, now 27, took in Lopez as her first foster child after getting licensed four years ago. At first, she did not want to care for teens because of the stories she had heard, but an agency convinced her to take Lopez on a trial basis.

When a social worker brought Lopez to the door, the teenager was wearing dark clothes and had one side of her head shaved, with her hair in a ponytail. “She stayed for one weekend, and I said, ‘If you want to stay, you are going to change,’ ” Gonzalez said.

Today, she fosters four other teens in her Ceres home, one with a newborn baby. She takes care of runaways and other teens whom many foster parents don’t think they can manage.

The rules of her household include being respectful, not cussing, and getting to school or work on time, Gonzalez said. She strives to be the foster parent she never had by buying the girls nice clothes and creating a family atmosphere, she said.

Gonzalez’s memories of being a foster child include eating Top Ramen in her own seat while the family had a hearty meal at the dinner table. One foster parent made her scrub tiles as the other children played, she said, and entering a home for the first time was a terrible experience. “You feel that everyone is looking at you. You feel different. You just want to be left alone.”

After fostering about 15 teenagers, Gonzalez believes her own approach is effective. “The runaways don’t want to leave my home. They are stuck to my hip,” she said.

Extended care is valuable

Lopez was placed in foster care because of extreme circumstances. Her father, a native of Mexico, was a drug dealer in San Jose; he was arrested and deported to his native country. The rest of the family moved to Stanislaus County, where her mother is among multiple defendants in a homicide case.

Lopez said she visits her mother at the county jail once or twice a week. The teenager stays busy with California Youth Connection activities, such as spending the day at the state Capitol, where she has spoken on behalf of foster teens.

She is getting ready for volunteer work through Project Yes, a Ceres Unified School District program that helps disadvantaged youth prepare to enter the workforce. She is one of 67 foster youths who have opted for extended services through the Stanislaus County child welfare division.

Amie Prutch, the county’s program director, said the public covers most of the monthly cost for those in transitional housing, but the foster wards gradually are expected to pick up more of the rent.

Lopez, who has not chosen a career path yet, believes teens who age out of foster care are worth the public investment. Extended foster care services are costing the county roughly $470,000 a year. “For me, it’s an opportunity to get a head start in life. It’s preparing you to be able to live on your own,” Lopez said.

Her foster mom said she hopes Lopez will transfer to a university far away from her gang friends in San Jose.

Gonzalez said fostering teens is not easy. Parents may have to deal with behavioral issues, emotional outbursts or the fact that the teenagers are sexually active. She always makes sure to meet their friends and tries to know the friends’ parents.

“If they want to stay at a friend’s house, I tell the girls that I may wake up in the middle of the night and check to see if you are there. You are going to be in trouble if you are not there,” Gonzalez said. The maximum penalty for getting in trouble is being grounded for a month.

Gonzalez readily shares the painful memories of being removed from an abusive home and said she carries emotional scars that never go away. A person who often steps out of her comfort zone, she visits with Lopez’s mother at the Public Safety Center and talks with other family members.

“Her mother tells me, ‘Thank you for turning her life around,’ ” Gonzalez said.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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