As Felicia's mentor, I've rescued her from a meth jag and taken her calls after her abusive boyfriend beat her. But after five years, I'm not sure I've done any good.

Published December 17, 2005 12:22PM (EST)

I should have advised her to plead no contest. Instead I said she should get a lawyer, which means she'll now wait for the court to appoint someone and come back here -- if she makes it -- to the courthouse a second time to file a plea. Now she'll have to remember the new arraignment date, remember the place, and get herself here on time.

I'm Felicia's mentor. That label is very specific and dense with meaning. In the world of social services, it refers to adult volunteers who act as guides, listeners and role models for kids with a variety of needs. There are some 5,000 mentoring programs in the United States today, the oldest and most proven among them being Big Brother/Big Sister. Children flow into such programs from many streams: Schools, relatives, social workers and juvenile justice systems all place kids in programs peopled by screened, grown-up citizens with a small surplus of heart and time.

Mentors are often defined in negatives. They are not mothers or fathers. They are not aunts, uncles, teachers, foster parents, therapists, cops, guidance counselors or lawyers. But the term has declarative meanings as well. Mentors are good. They're safe and honest. I learned this one day early on when I was looking for Taeja, the other young woman for whom I serve as mentor. I went to the housing projects where she spent time, and I approached a threesome I saw outside. "Have you seen Taeja around today?" I asked. Two of the people refused to turn their heads to look at me. The other presented me with a poker face so vacant it was hostile. He said, "You her P.O.?" No, I told him, I wasn't her probation officer. "I'm her mentor." With that, the tone of the exchange switched. All three suddenly allowed me into an invisible human circle: "She been around here this morning," they said, and "She be back," and "We'll tell her we saw you." It was clear they would. "We seen your mentor. She looking for you," they would say. "You call her."

Today I sat in the courtroom as Felicia's mentor. I didn't expect her to show. How would she have known her court date if she had nowhere to get mail? I was there, though, and it was as if she didn't recognize me for a moment when she walked in. She sat up against me on the courthouse bench.

In recent years, mentor programs have become the intervention of choice among a growing number of social service professionals, youth-program funders, and even George Bush. He has been making money available through the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to fund start-up mentorship groups, particularly for the children of incarcerated parents. These groups send mentors into schools and neighborhoods to read aloud, hang around, shoot baskets, and see movies with young people.

There's a lot of logic to it. Out of widespread poverty come drugs, despondency and spotty parenting. Even though we know that public schools cannot offset a lack of attention at home, cannot compensate for crumbling families and restore kids to emotional health, we keep expecting the educational system to do it anyway. We keep blaming the schools or their lack of resources. But no team of educators, however well-funded, can fix the ruinous lack of parental support in kids' lives. So we call on mentors to fill the gap, to provide some version of the one-on-one, flexible, adult presence these kids lack. A category unto themselves, mentors are like parents but not a threatening replacement.

I met Felicia when she was 15. She was polite and cheerful and warm. "How about a hug for my new mentor?" she said, and spread her arms to embrace me. She came from a notorious family in Daly City, Calif., the neglected little neighbor of San Francisco. Her relatives were known around town as junkies and thugs and dying gay men. Her immediate family consisted of a tiny, high-voiced mother, who'd cleaned up her speed habit and hooked up with a security guard. She was completely devoted to him, and when her kids raged that he'd sexually molested Felicia, she refused to see them again. Felicia's oldest sibling, a tough and demanding young woman, would eventually lose patience with her kid sister. Felicia's brother was an angry boy with a head injury and several long stints in juvenile detention. The main point is that, despite a romantic belief that family sticks by you and Mexican blood is thicker than American blood which is thicker than water, no one was sticking by anyone else.

When I became Felicia's mentor in the fall of 2000, she had just lost her father to AIDS. Her mother had blown off the custody hearing over Felicia, who then ended up with her dad's grieving ex-boyfriend and his world-weary ex-ex. They'd contacted the mentorship program I'd joined, looking for a responsible woman she could confide in. I would be the listener that they couldn't be while she grieved and finished growing up. They hoped I'd advise her about sex. I hoped I'd fill in parts of those gaping spaces her parents had left, while keeping her focused on her studies enough so she could get a high school diploma.

The story of how two white, middle-aged gay men with AIDS, living as close to San Francisco's Castro district as their incomes could get them, took on a gorgeous, fleshy, olive-colored teen girl with bad grammar is a story in itself. There were curfews and tutors and awkward Christmases with her new family in the suburbs. Felicia fought and struggled to be on her best behavior, which to them was still 50 percent acting out. Today she is overcome with tears of regret whenever she acknowledges she ran away from them, not least because of the luscious sleigh bed with the crisp white comforter and overflow of pillows they had bought her. Or the two pugs that would get up there with her and nestle in. Back then, she had a key and a home and two people who expected to see her daily.

I didn't expect her to show up at court today, but I went anyway. Felicia has no phone number and no address, and only when she's feeling her most extreme stabs of loneliness does she call me collect. I could wait around for one of those phone calls. Or I could try showing up at the San Mateo County courthouse.

I'm glad I did. Even though her boyfriend Junior was there. A boy of 25 whose father is locked up for murder, Junior has done little for Felicia other than beat her and call her a "slut" and land her on the streets where she scams customers at gas stations, claiming she's run out of gas and could they give her a few bucks to buy a gallon. "He hangs out while I go to work," she tells me. Then says, grinning bashfully, "We call it 'work.'"

I'm relieved to see she's alive and healthy. I'm reminded of how hard it is to destroy the health of someone so young. I'm glad she's clean, other than her hair and fingernails.

What's so strange is how much I feel toward her, and how little, during this encounter, I try to help. For five years I have listened and urged reason. I've rescued her from a meth jag in Portland, Ore. I've helped her do math. I've visited her day after day in the hospital when the mold in the dive she was sleeping in gave her asthma so bad she couldn't stand up on her own for 10 days. I've made sure she got her Depo-Provera shot. I've driven her friend to the abortion clinic. I've helped her buy Christmas gifts and taken her to the gym. And I've remained neutral, because the adults in Felicia's life never have stopped bad-mouthing the people she loves. I didn't dis her mother, who dissed her guardians, who dissed her sister, who dissed her mother -- and so on.

But I've come to this: Over the course of five years she's slipped away so far that I have run out of things to offer.

Felicia takes some deep breaths. She's nervous. Funny what can still make her scared after all she's been through. She puts her head on my shoulder. I know she's nervous because this is her first time facing a judge. She has always been proud of her clean record, unlike Taeja who'd been referred to the mentorship program by a judge. But now she'd endured her first arrest, caught leaving Walgreens -- I know that's her favorite store -- with two full bags of shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, makeup and whatever else. Once, I got a call in the middle of the night when she was weeping so hard I could barely understand her. She'd gotten picked up for making too much noise, the boys she was with were drunk, and the cops got angry at them. "They threw me against the car," she sobbed as I turned on my bedroom light. But they hadn't pressed charges and had sent Felicia right home. This time, after boosting shampoo, she'd spent a couple of nights in jail.

She is also charged with giving the police false information. When they asked her name, Felicia used a false one, the name of a friend. Turned out, though, that the friend had a warrant herself, so Felicia panicked, forced to backtrack.

Sitting on the smooth, pewlike wooden bench, waiting for the judge to mumble her real name, Felicia catches me up on things. She's whispering a mile a minute, telling me about her mother moving away without leaving a trace and her sister working at the airport. She tells me again how she regrets leaving her guardians, and how Junior said something strange and messed up her chance to work at T-Mobile. She giggles when she tells me how fat they're both getting from so much McDonald's and how last night they each had three cheeseburgers. She explains that she can raise about $50 during a day of panhandling, and that she's found a hotel that only charges $40 a night. At one point the bailiff turns to us with his finger pressed to his lips. She keeps whispering, "I can't believe you came."

After court, Junior thanks me for the coffee and egg sandwich. This is a good sign. It's reassurance that, at least for a minute, he's experiencing the same reality I am. He has Felicia's name in elegant calligraphy tattooed around his neck, and he has an impish smile I've always understood could inspire love. But because his psychosis makes him unable to converse normally, he is isolated from the organized world. And he won't let her get off his island. Even if he did, she might not leave anyhow. But there's nothing for her in Junior's world, no home, no job, no people, no help. No mentor. It's a good sign that he thanks me for the coffee. Sometimes, when she tries to call me, he screams and pulls the phone out of her hands, after which I might not hear from her again for months.

Tonight, hours after we say goodbye, she calls collect. This time she's speaking even more softly. She gives me a phone number to call back and a room number to ask for. We talk honestly for a long time. She cries quietly. Junior is asleep next to her on the motel bed, and if she wakes him, he'll surely hang up the phone. But I can hear what she's saying. Junior is cruel and abusive and then alternately needy and frightened. He begs her to stay with him and then calls her a "whore." She's so torn. Through the tears, she keeps asking me, "Martha, what should I do?" But she's not ready to do what I tell her. Sometimes she's self-aware enough to say, "But I'm not ready." More often, though, she tosses understandable but weak justifications at me: She'll be lonely without him; he'll end up back in jail; he's fine when he doesn't use drugs; she has nowhere to go.

These have been long years being Felicia's mentor. In my dark moods, I see them as a slow succession of surrenders -- over and over I've lowered my expectations of what good I can do. It was far too late to parent her, to teach her about planning out a weekend, for instance, or about three meals a day. In retrospect, it seems almost surreal that I once tried to help her with homework. After we talk, I realize how very different my feelings are tonight from the frustration and concern I felt when I couldn't get her to focus on a paragraph of social studies. Tonight my reflexes are dulled. I have no impulses to fix her.

I also keep feeling a certain regret about the advice I gave her today. She could barely fill out the forms, and it even took me time to figure out what they were for. No one in the courtroom explained anything. The judge and the clerks and the bailiff seemed to speak in a secret language no one else could hear, never mind decode. But now I realize that she had two choices today: to put in a plea on her own and have her case disposed of right then, or to request a lawyer and come back later. We had opted for the latter. But it's silly. It just gives her another chance to not show up and dig the hole deeper. And there's nothing really for an attorney to do. It's a shoplifting charge, with false information. She'll get probation, maybe a year and some months.

But I also realize that I want the lawyer. Felicia doesn't care either way. It's me who wants a lawyer to take her case, someone who knows things that I don't, who knows, for instance, how to get a young life to go right. I want someone to take over where I failed or at least to please help me help.

By Martha Baer

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