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Journey's End

'Aging Out' examines what it means to be all alone and 18

By Gretchen Giles

Daniella's got a baby on her hip and a glint in her eye. A 20-year-old foster "child" who has opted to stay in the system until she turns 21, Daniella is now anxious to "age out." Her baby's father, Veasna, is also in foster care; a Cambodian orphan, he's acquired a hip-hop accent during his time in the system and is loath to leave his comfortable group home.

Meanwhile, Risa has just turned 18 and is the first in her family of 12 siblings to graduate from high school. She's won a scholarship to UC Santa Barbara and is only the second client her social worker has ever had who has attained a savings account, checking account, job and college placement. She's ready to leave her 10th foster facility and go it alone. Almost. And David's been in the system since he was abandoned by his mother at age six weeks. Mentally fragile, uneducated and angry, David is also on the cusp of release from foster care. Freedom to David means little more than the chance to burgle, drink and score crystal meth.

What sets each of these young people apart is a life spent as wards of the state. What makes them exactly like any other young person about to step alone into the world are the fierce unknowns awaiting them. But what again sets them apart is that no one is there to help them. Daniella has no relative to watch the baby or knit a blanket. Risa sets up her side of the dorm room alone while her roommate's family sets up hers together. David can take a bus to the Alaskan fisheries and no one will know where he is; worse, almost no one will care.

Followed in documentary filmmaker Roger Weisberg's award-winning Aging Out--showing Thursday, Sept. 30, at Rialto Lakeside Cinemas--Daniella, Risa and David's stories serve as shorthand sketches for the 20,000 or so young people who turn 18 and are released each year from the U.S. foster care system. According to a February 2003 report from California's Little Hoover Commission, about 40,000 children enter foster care in this state alone each year. Upon aging out, about one-third haven't finished high school, a quarter will be homeless for some time, half remain unemployed and another quarter are destined to be arrested.

Screening as a benefit, Aging Out shows here to help raise funds for the United Way's new transitional housing facility, a 26-bed oasis on Santa Rosa's Yulupa Avenue that will allow new adults the break they need to get jobs, save money and establish themselves cautiously in the world. Clients will be expected to pay roughly 30 percent of their income in rent for the privilege--estimated to be between $225 to $375 a month--and will learn such basics as bill-paying, how to secure a lease, the steps necessary in job application and other adult essentials.

While growing up always comes with its adjacent pains, that delicate time of late-adolescence/early adulthood can be particularly treacherous to navigate. Young people with two supportive parents, a solid education and a beckoning college often have trouble making the transition and moving forward. Those not blessed with families, education--fine or otherwise--or college opportunities find it that much harder to be 18.

Daniella goes to college at night; Veasna sleeps in the student lounge with the baby on his chest, waiting for her classes to end. They don't live together--the system can't provide for that. They want to make their own family. "I feel guilty," Daniella says, looking at an old photograph of her birth family, including the father who beat her so badly that she finally called the police on him herself, "because I keep wanting to be part of that family."

While Risa has everything to be congratulated about, the strain begins to show. She begins to experiment with "every drug except heroin," hears voices and has a psychotic episode that leaves her in the hospital for three weeks, voids her UC scholarship and lands her back with her final foster mother, a kind woman who takes her back even though the state won't fund it.

Given several chances and even the unlikely friendship of a sympathetic cab driver, David can't help but steal and drink and smoke dope. He bounces around from one bad experience to another, finally landing back on the doorstep of the only people he knows as family, the first foster parents who took him in as a baby and regretfully let him go as a five-year-old when he became too violent to keep. Vowing in the end that he's had enough of dope-smokers and druggies, David shoulders a backpack and boards a Greyhound bus for Alaska.

"The only thing I'm proud of is my defiance," he says sadly. "But that gets old, man."


'Aging Out' screens on Thursday, Sept. 30,
at 7:15pm in benefit for the Social Advocates for Youth's new transitional housing facility. Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. $20. 707.544.3299, ext. 231.

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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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