Without a nest

Is it surprising that foster kids, in the face of forced independence at the age of 18, might go to extraordinary lengths to postpone adulthood?

Published March 27, 2002 8:58PM (EST)

Be it fact or fiction, we love the story of a con: The affable stranger drifts into town, spins a good yarn and takes everybody for a ride. In "Six Degrees of Separation," it's a hustler who convinces a wealthy Manhattan couple that he's their son's Harvard classmate. In the new documentary "Con Man," James Hogue passes himself off first as an orphaned track star at Palo Alto High School, then as a self-educated ranch hand at Princeton.

And now there is Treva Throneberry, a woman who spent her 20s traveling from town to town, skipping from identity to identity, always posing as a high school student, until finally, after more than a decade, she was found out and prosecuted for defrauding the state. According to writer Emily White, who profiled Throneberry in the New York Times Magazine, the perennially young scam artist was mysterious and insistent, "fixated on 18 as some kind of Rubicon she could not cross; she didn't believe in her own existence after that threshold."

White mentions, without much reflection, that Throneberry grew up in foster care. It could be a meaningless detail, a fact that fails to explain her pathological shifts in identity, her constant lying and deceit. But Throneberry's many years as a ward of the state might also be the key to her behavior, a significant motivation for her "con." In fact, in the context of a lifetime in foster care, Throneberry's tireless charade might be about as mysterious as the ruse of a mother who, in order to claim welfare benefits for her kids, says she's jobless when she's actually working at the local McDonald's.

Like all foster kids, Throneberry knew that at 18 she would be cut off from the system that had constituted her only legal parent. She had, like a lot of her peers, acquired skills she found to be necessary to stay off the street, get fed and get into school. In the same way that it would be ridiculous to suggest that a struggling mother commits welfare fraud because she derives pleasure from impersonating an unemployed person, it may be missing the point to assume that Throneberry was avoiding 18 for perverse thrills and disposable income.

Not many foster kids would engage in or even approve of the kind of lying and manipulation that Throneberry sustained for more than a decade, but more than a few would understand.

"I've had to live a life by myself where the only thing I've had is my respect and my facade, what I put out in front, whether or not it was me," says 15-year-old Dee, a veteran of 22 foster and group-home placements in three years. "I'm a victim of not being able to be myself, because being myself might not get me what I need. I'm a victim of learned manipulation, instilled by the system. I'm a victim of not being able to be real sometimes."

Young adults who faced their 18th birthdays in foster homes or group homes often describe "emancipation" as a frightening event that brings overwhelming anxiety and profound loneliness. Some spend the night of their 18th birthday on the street. Others feel they have no choice but to return to the same parents who abused or neglected them. A smaller number of the estimated 20,000 18-year-olds emancipated each year manage to go on to college, or a job and an apartment, but often find themselves with no family or friends to provide moral support.

"Once you turn 18, it's like, bam, an explosion," said one young woman, who wound up living in a friend's car upon hitting the age of maturity. "People look at you different, like you're supposed to be a adult, but you're a kid."

By posing as a teenager and a runaway, Throneberry was eligible for foster care in each city she chose, thereby gaining access to a home, food on the table and, if she was lucky, someone to tell her "goodnight" before she went to bed. In this context, she looks less like a con artist, and more like a desperate social services Scheherazade, spinning stories to prolong her care. But Throneberry was an emancipated foster child and her behavior amounted to an illegal scam. She was convicted of defrauding the public school and foster care systems of $19,400, and sentenced to three years in a state prison.

Imagine if Throneberry's actions were duplicated by a young woman with parents. Imagine if that young woman couldn't make it on her own after high school and ended up moving back home. Then imagine if her parents kicked her out -- without so much as a bag lunch -- and had her arrested for bilking them for the cost of her care. Most of us would describe that as cruelty. Is it less than cruel when the teenager is a ward of the state?

"I've lived in about 10 places since I left the group home. You don't have any family, no blood family or anything like that, and they just open the door and kick you out," said Angel, a 22-year-old with a 6-month-old daughter who was wearing out her welcome on friends' couches, still trying to figure out where to go next, when we met.

The rejection is compounded by what the foster teens understand about their seeming abandonment. However emancipation might be framed -- as a graduation, privilege or liberation -- there is no concealing from foster teens the real reason for their newfound independence: The money has dried up. "Once I hit that hour of being an adult," explained one recently emancipated group home resident, "they can't use me anymore."

"There's no reason to put us in the system just to put us out in the street," said Ida, who at 24 was opening up her own one-bedroom apartment to a constantly shifting array of recently emancipated foster youth. "You get put in the system because of abuse or neglect or rape. Then at 18 you have to go back to the same parents who beat or raped you, because you're desperate."

"We don't have anybody to lean on," she added. "If the state is supposed to be your parent, normally parents don't leave you alone at 18."

Ida offered an analysis that makes Throneberry's affinity for the regimented, predictable life of high school look perfectly reasonable. "When we're in the system," she explains, "we're trained -- what to do, how to do it, what time to do it. Then we're put out at 18 with no one telling us anything. After emancipation you don't know what to do. You run out of friends once you run out of money. Getting a job is hard because you're labeled.

"When you first enter the system," Ida continues, "every new group home is a gang. You finally get used to them, then you have to learn how to play the staff to get what you need. By the time you turn 18, all you know is to hustle the system. Boys normally go from the system of care to the system of the military or the system of prison. If you're a girl, you get pregnant to get welfare."

Some needs -- housing, medical care, training in "life skills" -- are addressed by the Foster Care Independence Act, which became federal law at the end of 1999. The five-year initiative, paid for with $700 million in federal funds, is meant to boost state Independent Living Programs, which offer training in skills like balancing a checkbook or looking for an apartment and a job. It also allows (but doesn't require) the states to pay for living expenses for some emancipated foster youth, and to extend Medicaid coverage until age 21 -- but to date, these benefits have reached only a fraction of those who need them.

But when asked what they most lacked when they turned 18, emancipated foster kids talk about wanting relationships, about feeling and being alone. Having grown up without family -- and often without any stable, permanent relationship in its place -- they are painfully aware of the need to be self-reliant. What they long for is someone they can count on.

"It's not about needing someone to secure me and be there every step of the way," Angel said, "but just to give me that motivation -- 'You can do it' -- which we never had. To this very day I need that. But it's hard to find people like that."

When Throneberry was arrested -- having graduated, yet again, from high school and finally exhausted her extended adolescence -- she was living in a shelter. But she hadn't skipped town this time. She had enrolled in college, and actually seemed to be considering acting her age. White speculates that, had Throneberry not been arrested at that point, she might finally have managed to "cross the border into adulthood ... and face her fear that she could not exist past 18."

In fact, the explanation for Throneberry's relative stability may be less complex: She may simply have been in better shape to run her own life at 30 than she had been at 18. It is a development that many parents consider a fact of life. But there is no room in the foster care system for a gradual transition to adulthood, even though this may be more necessary for foster kids than for children with parents at home.

"I had no identity until I was 25," said one system veteran who attributes her thwarted development to her successful accommodation to institutional life. "I basically got it through other people. I didn't think for myself. I didn't project any goals for myself. I let someone else do it for me. And now I find myself at the age of 30 trying to find out what I really want. Everything seems fresh, because I'm still in a learning stage as a group home kid right now."

At 21, Phu was a foster-care success story. He had graduated from high school and gone on to San Jose State University, where he worked 20 hours a week to support himself and studied deep into the night to keep up with the rigorous requirements of the engineering department.

His freshman year, Phu slept in his car over Christmas vacation because the dorms were closed and he had nowhere else to go. By his junior year, he was living in an off-campus apartment and driving himself relentlessly, dreaming of his schoolwork during the few hours of sleep he allowed himself each night.

"If I don't study enough, I don't learn enough, and I'm gonna be nothing," he explained. "Maybe if I have a family, if I have my parents, that pressure would be less. You feel like in case something happens, you call your parents to rely on. But for me, if I don't take care of everything by myself, then who's gonna take care of me? Here, I do everything by myself. I feel like I'm a family, but only one person -- a family to myself."

Jennifer, 24, a classmate and friend of Phu's, also was doing well, but she struggled with the powerful stigma that many foster youth say they carry well into adulthood.

"The image people have of former foster youth is that we're going to become welfare dependents and rip off the state for all this money," she said. "I'd hear people who didn't know I was in the system talking about, 'Oh, those kids in group homes -- they're just gonna grow up and get welfare, and they're going to be taking my taxpayer money, sitting on their butts eating potato chips and soda.' I had been told all my life, 'You're just going to take, take, take.' That really hurt me, so I decided no matter what I do, I'm going to be working. And that's exactly what I did my whole way through college.

"But it's not as clear-cut as just, 'Pick yourself up by the bootstraps and move on,'" Jennifer continued, "when you don't have the supports to do that. People don't understand that because they think everybody has a family."

In their panicked competency and subsequent achievements, Jennifer and Phu represent the minority of emancipated kids. A major study in 1991 by Westat Inc., a Maryland-based social services research group, of children raised by the state found that within two and a half to four years of emancipation, 46 percent had not completed high school, 51 percent were unemployed, 25 percent had been homeless for at least one night and 40 percent had been on public assistance or incarcerated.

"There is a lot of emphasis in the system on 'independent living skills,' making these kids independent," observes Joan Merdinger of the College of Social Work at San Jose State University, who has conducted research on emancipated foster youth. "And yet is that a good idea at that age? It sounds so harsh to me as a parent. You want your kids eventually to be independent -- of course that's the goal. But it seems for youth in foster care, the driving force is to make them independent, and part of that is so they're not in the system."

In practice, foster kids cease to belong to anyone once they leave the system. But the truth is that the half-million young people under the jurisdiction of the foster care system are by definition -- by legal decree -- ours. If it were possible for us to accept that, maybe it would be impossible for us to abandon our children at the stroke of 18, ignoring their needs or level of maturity.

If Treva Throneberry were part of our family, it is difficult to imagine that our response to her "scam" would be to put her in prison. But, if Treva Throneberry were part of our family, she might not have been afraid to grow up.

By Nell Bernstein

Nell Bernstein is the author of "A Rage to do Better: Listening to Young People from the Foster Care System."

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