For many foster youth, emancipation signifies freedom from years of displacement, confusion, confinement and often trauma. This freedom is short-lived, however, when emancipated foster youth face the reality that with it comes the loss of any structure or support, however scant, on which they previously relied. While some assistance is available after emancipation, after the age of 18, resources become few and far between as former foster youth “age out” of the system. By 24, emancipated fosters are more or less on their own, tossed out by a system that has taught them little about surviving, let alone succeeding, in the real world.
The outcome for most is dismal: In California, 70% of all prison inmates are former foster youth, with one in four incarcerated within two years of emancipation. Thirty-six percent of emancipated foster youth end up homeless within 18 months. Others strive to overcome their past trauma and reroute their lives as best they can. Ironically, however, the age at which that road begins often coincides with the end of federal support.
Fortunately, there’s a detour — by way of Journey House, a Pasadena nonprofit that provides assistance, resources and support to the adult former foster youth that the system leaves behind. All that is required of clients is that they’re at least 18, have spent time in foster care, and have the desire and willingness to make a productive, positive change in their lives.
At Journey House, the vehicle for that change is education, whether it be junior college and university or vocational trade school. Through partnerships with colleges and a network of educational and community resources, staff at Journey House assist clients with applications and enrollment, identify available scholarships and financial aid, and help secure affordable student housing.
Some youth are already enrolled in college and look to Journey House for help covering the cost of books, supplies, transportation and even rent. For others who are homeless or living in shelters, help starts with something as simple as a shower, a meal or a load of laundry washed.
“We get to know them,” said Journey House Program Director Jorge Camarena. “I identify their goals, their personality, their character and make sure they’re safe and can meet all of their basic needs. If they can’t, we get to work right away.”
Journey House helps former fosters with transitional housing, food and health care, ensures that all clients get state IDs and Social Security cards, and provides safe, secure and permanent storage for such important documentation, including birth certificates and transcripts. Staff helps clients find employment, prepare for interviews and manage their finances. They take calls at all hours of the day or night, showing up with a Metro pass or a moving truck when they’re needed most. Above all else, Journey House offers a place to go for those who have none.
Founded in 1983, Journey House started as a group home for probation youth. For 25 years, the facility housed only boys — primarily gang-affiliated youth —
offering education as an alternative to a life of crime and incarceration. As clients got older, however, staff recognized a growing demand for services for emancipated youth — and a dearth of agencies providing them.
In 2008, Journey House ceased being a residential facility and shifted its mission to serving young men and women who left the foster system at 18. Unlike many agencies serving similar populations, Journey House is unique in that it has no age limit, allowing it to provide services that evolve with the changing needs and life situations of its clientele.
“Everybody ‘gets it’ at a different age,” said Tim Mayworm, founder and executive director of Journey House. “Our experience has been that usually when they leave the system, they want to flap their wings and be free of authority and do what they need to do, and then all of a sudden, when it doesn’t work out, they come back.”
That was certainly the case for 24-year-old Jesse Aguiar, who’s had more than his fair share of false starts. He first came to Journey House as a resident at age 16, after he was released on probation from juvenile hall. Unlike many foster youth, Aguiar came from a stable household with two working parents. Their long hours, however, meant he was rarely supervised, and he soon became immersed in the pervasive gang culture in his South Los Angeles neighborhood.
“I was infatuated by the gang lifestyle,” he said. “For me, it was a way out of poverty but also a way to find comfort and warmth. I saw the girls, the power, the money and the respect they commanded over the community, and that really attracted me.”
By age 12, Aguiar was getting into numerous fights at school, getting suspended and expelled and building a reputation for himself with local gang members. As the fights escalated in violence, he began to rely on the gang for protection. Soon Aguiar’s parents had lost complete control over him. After he was arrested and a shooting took place outside the family home, they relinquished control of him to the court.
“I didn’t come into the foster care system because of neglect,” Aguiar said. “I came into the system because I was a threat to my family.”
During his three months at Journey House, Aguiar attended a regular high school for the first time. He remembers Mayworm advocating for him, fighting with school administrators to get him enrolled in age-appropriate rather than remedial classes. Still, he wasn’t ready to give up the life he’d built for himself, and after getting into a conflict with a local Pasadena gang, he went AWOL from Journey House and returned to his old neighborhood.
Soon after, Aguiar’s best friend was killed in a drive-by shooting while the two of them were out. Aguiar survived by playing dead, but the incident drove him into a deep depression and drug addiction. As an addict, he was rejected by his former gang affiliates, and out of desperation, he turned himself in to the police. He spent the next two years back in juvenile hall, determined to use that time to reprogram his brain for a different path.
When he got out at age 18, Aguiar had nowhere to go. No longer welcome at his parents’ house and not wanting to go back to his old life, he consulted a list of re-entry resources he’d been given upon release. On it, he noticed the name of his old group home.
“I saw Journey House on there, and all of a sudden, I wasn’t so afraid,” Aguiar said. “I came here feeling so guilty and so shameful, and within seconds, all of that shame had been taken off. Before I even started talking, I just broke down, because I was so relieved that I had somewhere to go.”
Today, Aguiar’s story has come full-circle at Journey House, where he works as an advocacy coordinator while finishing up his math requirements at Pasadena City College. In addition to working in gang intervention and restorative justice, Aguiar and another Journey House staffer launched Beyond Foster Care, an advocacy group aimed at raising awareness of the plight of emancipated foster youth and informing policy relating to the foster care system.
His colleague, 26-year-old Gabby Hendriksen, is also a former foster youth who is all too familiar with the failings of the current system. At age 15, she was placed in foster care with her younger sister after reporting their mother for abuse, neglect and drug use in their home. In escaping those circumstances, however, the sisters found themselves in an even worse environment. They spent 90 days in an emergency placement home that felt more like a lockdown facility, where they and other survivors of abuse were treated as delinquents rather than victims.
“It was highly confusing and traumatizing,” Hendriksen recounted. “To this day, I still look back and question why adults would treat children who are fleeing domestic and familial abuse like that. While I didn’t want to incur the abuse that was happening at home, this was a completely new kind of abuse.”
Hendriksen and her sister were eventually placed in a foster home with 11 other kids, some of whom had disabilities and special needs that were never met. Their foster mother padlocked the refrigerator, hoarded state-issued clothing allowances and withheld the paychecks Hendriksen earned at her part-time job.
After a year of reporting the conditions to the Department of Child and Family Services, Hendriksen proved to a court that she and her sister could live independently, and they were emancipated when she was 16. The two lived together in a one-bedroom apartment, working minimum wage jobs to pay rent while still completing high school. AB 12, a state Assembly bill providing financial support to foster youth ages 16 to 21, went into effect in 2012, but for Hendriksen, it was six years too late.
“As older foster youth, we kind of slipped through the cracks,” Hendriksen said. “That’s why we started Beyond Foster Care, because we’re stronger together than we are alone. We want to bring accountability to the system.”
Now a student at Azusa Pacific University, Hendriksen is studying social work and psychology in pursuit of a career as a social worker and marriage and family therapist. At Journey House, she works alongside Aguiar, connecting other foster youth, researching policy and advocating for legislative change that treats each foster as an individual, rather than an age or number.
“We’re trying to initiate a bigger conversation about some of the societal and institutional barriers that prevent foster youth from succeeding, and it’s near and dear to our hearts because it is representative of each of our stories,” Hendriksen said. “It’s representative of a safe place, a safe room, a safe table to have a conversation about your struggles, your successes, what you need and what you’ve gone through. I’m thankful that I can come out on the other side of that pain and be able to look back and help and encourage the people who come through Journey House.”
At Journey House, the results speak for themselves. Of more than 300 alumni, only three are currently incarcerated. The vast majority have graduated from college or trade school, and a growing number are going on to pursue master’s degrees in medicine, law and social work. As their hopes turn to goals and those goals turn to realities, Journey House is there to support them every step of the way.
“What I’ve seen some of these kids turn out to be, it’s wonderful, and their parents don’t get to see the beauty of them or their accomplishments,” Mayworm said. “When you see them thriving and you see their creativity and their beauty, that’s what keeps us going.”
Aguiar may never fully escape from his past, he said, but for the first time, he feels he has a future. More so, after years of missteps, relapses and self-sabotage, he finally feels worthy of it.
“Even when I was ready to change, I still tripped and fell, and when I was ready to get back up, Journey House was here to help me get back up, regardless of what I’d done,” he said. “I closed a lot of doors on myself, but the one here at Journey House never closed on me.”
For more information on Journey House and how to support it, visit journeyhouse
youth.org or call (626) 798-9478.