By. Tasion Kwamilele
In 2010, California, a state with one eighth of the country’s foster care population, set the tone for the nation by passing legislation to extend foster care to age 21. Two years later, the law is being implemented. As child welfare administrators and social workers scramble to help this new cohort of California foster youth receive the benefits they now deserve, thousands of others tackle the challenge of transitioning into adulthood on their own.
In this piece The Imprint explores what life is like for those former foster youth on the cusp, who are ineligible to participate in extended care services.
Twenty year-old Oakland resident Leandralynn Dunson grew up in the foster care system. Throughout her time in care, she says she lacked support and security. With numerous placements and failing grades, she had to rely on self-motivation to make it through.
Dunson was seven years old when she entered the system with her younger sister. Her mother was addicted to drugs, she says, and after teachers and neighbors noticed the young girls being sent to school in dirty clothing, someone reported Dunson’s mother to Child Protective Services.
“They sent us to a lady in Oakland. She bought us new clothes, took us on trips, and she was a good support system,” Dunson says.
But she and her younger sister only stayed there for a year before she was moved. An aunt, who was already taking care two of Dunson’s brothers, wanted the two young girls to move in with her. Since they regularly visited the family on the weekends, Dunson thought it was going to be the perfect foster care placement.
“We thought because it was family, everything was going to be peaches and cream. But it wasn’t,” she says.
When she moved in the social workers stopped checking on her and her sister, Dunson says. The relative beat her often, she says, and the woman’s husband molested her. Dunson kept quiet about what was happening for three years before she could finally tell someone about the abuse. “I told my teacher, and the same night I was picked up and moved back into a foster home.”
In 2011, there were 1,421 allegations of sexual abuse in children between the ages of 0-17 in Alameda County’s child welfare system compared to the 2,629 sexual abuse allegations in 2001, according to the Center for Social Services Research (CSSR).
Dunson’s little sister moved back and forth between family members and never made a formal complaint of abuse. So Dunson found herself alone in foster care. She desperately wanted to be with her family, and after a few months, she moved in with one of her cousin’s to give it another try. But that relative also beat her, Dunson said, and after three months she was back with a foster family.
From then on, it was like musical chairs. Every few months she was in a new city, in a new foster home. She rarely completed a semester at any school.
“When I was in the seventh grade, I got straight F’s. I just stopped caring, and they didn’t care,” she says. “They didn’t have to make me learn, they just had to make sure I was at school.”
She remembers attending Jesse Bethel School in Vallejo, where she went three months without having a textbook for a class. She says it wasn’t until she was in her late teens, and solely responsible for her wellbeing, that she was able to succeed in school. Until then it did not bother her because she knew the social worker might come to move her at any time.
“Everywhere you go you never plan to stay in one spot. The social workers will always tell you they are looking for another place for you.”
She says her worst foster home experience was when she moved to the small city of Newman, California when she was 13. The foster family was considered to be “cool parents” by other foster kids because of the freedom they gave they gave and the stores where they were allowed to shop.
Dunson stayed there for a month, left briefly to live with one of her relatives again, then was moved back to Newman by her social worker. But this time it was not “cool,” she said. The mood had changed. She was not welcomed, she says, and her foster father molested her. “Our foster mother knew what was happening, but she ignored it by getting on the phone when it was happening.”
Scared and fed up, Dunson and a foster sister ran away to a friend’s house, where they called police to report what was happening at the foster placement.
But, she says, instead of helping the children, the police took them back the same night to the foster family. A few days later, Dunson came home from school to find all of her belongings in a bag at the door.
Dunson says it is “scandalous” to know that her family was in close proximity and watched her struggle but did nothing to help. “I even told one of my uncles who is a pastor and has his own church.”
Dunson again went willingly to live with family members at 17 but she did not worry about building a family connection, instead she focused on preparing herself to be completely on her own.
Alameda County’s Independent Living Skills Program (ILSP), helped her find housing near downtown Oakland.ILSP provides life skills training, housing, health care and education to young adults transitioning from foster care to independent living.
Dunson said ILSP gave her bus passes for travel, helped her transition into her first apartment, and gave her the necessary support for school and work. It was this sense of stability that allowed Dunson to focus on her education.
She wanted her sister to stay in school and to be diligent to her studies but she knew she couldn’t advise her sister to do something that she wasn’t even doing. With the help of ILSP Dunson got back on course, finished her studies, and got her diploma. But she knew she wanted to continue her education to ensure stability in her life.
“I want us to do more than just make it,” Dunson said. She gives credit to ILSP and knows that their support helped her develop into the young woman that she is today. Once she finished school, she even began building a relationship with her estranged father, who had been addicted to drugs, she said. She says the relationship was not easy, but he made sure to bring her to church every Sunday.
At this stage in her life, the only time she saw her social worker was when she came to her house for her to sign the papers to be emancipated from the system. California’s Fostering Connection to Success Act (AB 12), which aims to extend foster care services for California foster youth until age 21, had recently passed, but because of her age, Dunson was not eligible to opt-in. Dunson signed the papers and just that quick she was on her own.
At 19, Dunson became pregnant with her son and looked forward to continually build the relationship with her father but when she was in the seventh month of her pregnancy, her father was shot and killed.
Dunson is now focused on taking care of her small son and going to school. She has enrolled in nursing training at Merritt College in Oakland for the summer semester. She is excited about getting the training and skills to do what she loves: help others.
She also hopes to continue learning more about her new passion: photography. She was recently showcased at the Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland. Dunson’s piece “From My Roof Top” was featured in the “Emancipated Hearts” Exhibit. She says her work told the story that whether she is alone or with another, she can face her fears and overcome adversity.
Dunson does not complain because growing up in the foster care system taught her the true meaning of forgiveness and selflessness. Her mother now has six aneurysms and has been hospitalized for two years.
“I have to take on the trials and tribulations from her decisions for the rest of her life,” Dunson said. “I still have to take it on because she is still my mother.
And that’s how Dunson chooses to live her life, working to make each life decision, regardless of her difficult childhood, count for something.