Exiting foster care in San Diego can be as difficult as entering

Aged out

Cover photo of Suamhers Piraino-Guzman

Cover photo of Suamhers Piraino-Guzman

When I was a kid, I thought that adulthood was something that just happened. That one day, I’d be standing on a field in a cap and gown, and the next, I’d arrive home from my fancy office, sit down at my grown-up-looking table, and sift through bills I’d have no trouble paying with all the money that had suddenly appeared in my brand new checking account. What I, and many of my friends discovered, was that the route to adulthood is not as simple as ascending a staircase. It’s a precarious path on the edge of a cliff, and the majority of those who trek along it stumble and fall at least once. I fell three times.

When I turned 18, I wanted nothing more than my independence. One night, a younger, naïve version of me scrawled in her journal: “I need to get away from my family, be on my own. I want to have a good job, and work full time, and learn full time, and make lots of money and have time to party. That’ll never happen, it’s impossible.”

What I didn’t realize was that I was among the first generation to experience “youthhood” — the period between adolescence and independent adulthood that emerged once baby boomers started becoming parents. Dubbed “boomerang kids,” we kids of boomers, upon becoming of legal age, didn’t necessarily want to stay at home but had difficulty staying away.

I was still 18 when I moved into an apartment in Lemon Grove with a friend I’d met at San Diego State University. Ten months later, I reported to my journal that I’d decided to move back home to save money. Over a year later, I moved out again, this time into my own place with no roommates — an arrangement made possible by my dropping out of school and accepting a promotion at the call center at which I worked in Miramar. My apartment was furnished with a blend of hand-me-downs from home (an old coffee table, dresser, the bed from my old room) and new items my mother gifted to me (dishes, utensils, towels).

A year later, I quit my job and drove the car my parents bought for me to Los Angeles to prove to myself that I could get by in a city without knowing anyone. At 23, I was fired from my job at a recruitment agency for sending personal emails and again moved back into my old bedroom at home.

Within six months I’d found another job in San Diego and an apartment in Hillcrest to share with one of my sisters. But, just weeks after my 25th birthday, I lost that job due to massive layoffs. By now, my parents were separated. I moved into the spare bedroom of Dad’s Mission Hills condo, and my 23-year-old sister moved back into the house in Chula Vista with Mom.

I had set out on a march toward adulthood but life got in the way. Each time I stumbled and fell, instead of plummeting into an abyss, I rebounded. It was as though my family was a trampoline, catching me on my descent and then redirecting me upward again.

When there is no trampoline

Fewer than ten miles from the home in which I grew up was a group home for foster youth. There, another girl reached her 18th birthday. Like me, she was eager to escape the strict authoritarian rule of her household, which in her case was dictated by paid caretakers rather than parents. Upon being emancipated, the girl stuffed everything she owned, which was mostly clothing, into two black trash bags, and that was it.

This girl, and around 300 other 18-year-olds that year, didn’t have a trampoline to catch her. If she fell off the metaphorical cliff while attempting to climb her way toward independent adulthood, she’d disappear into the chasm and eventually land at the bottom as just another statistic: one of the 60 percent of girls who get pregnant in the first year or two of leaving foster care, one of the 50 percent to end up homeless, one of the 30 percent to end up in jail, or among the 80 percent who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, and/or depression.

Many years later, a 19-year-old Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman found himself leaving that same group-home, his own black trash bags in tow. The youth, who’d entered the foster-care system at age 16, couch-surfed and slept on the streets for a few weeks before a bed opened up for him in the transitional housing program for which he’d applied. Now 23, Piraino-Guzman lives in a house not far from that group home with his girlfriend, her two small children, and their foster son, Jacob, a 14-year-old whose special-needs conditions include cerebral palsy and epilepsy. After surviving atrocities as a powerless minor, Piraino-Guzman now dedicates his life to foster-youth advocacy. He currently runs the Families Forward and Caring Helpers Programs at Mental Health Systems, a local nonprofit organization that seeks to assist those facing substance abuse and behavioral problems.

I visited Piraino-Guzman in his home. As I crossed the threshold into his living room, sparsely furnished with a couch, a television, and diminutive toddler chairs and table, I thought about how grown-up it all seemed — to have a house and children; to be that responsible and together at 23, the same age I was when I moved back in with my parents for the second time.

Piraino-Guzman was born in Honduras. His father was from Saudi Arabia and his mother from Turkey. His father was a Muslim, his mother Krishna. This is relevant because when Piraino-Guzman’s father began abusing him, it was because his son was “not a full-blood Muslim.” With the slow and steady cadence of someone reading a report, Piraino-Guzman recited the sources of the three most visible of the 57 scars his father gave him: the attempted brand on his forehead to mark his contaminated ethnicity, the gash at the back of his head where a plate of improperly heated food was shattered, the jagged white line from the top of his right brow and down over the eyelid from where his father used a bread knife to try and remove his eye for being hazel like his mother’s, not brown like his father’s.

After beating his mother so badly she has been in a wheelchair ever since, Piraino-Guzman’s father ran away, never to be seen again. As the eldest of four sons, Piraino-Guzman, at nine years old, set about taking care of his family by finding odd jobs.

When we reached the part of his story that brought him to America, Piraino-Guzman began to fidget, adjusting the shoulder of his gray T-shirt, spinning the thread bracelet on which his girlfriend’s name, Perla, was embroidered. The exotic good looks that incited rage in his father also made the teen a target for predators. A Latin-accented boy with light skin, dark hair, and striking clear green eyes reminiscent of a sunlit lagoon, was a valuable commodity for those in the business of human trafficking.

When he was 15, Piraino-Guzman was abducted just after ending his shift at Pizza Hut and smuggled into the United States through Mexico. “I remember waking up several times to find an IV in my arm,” he says, showing me the scar that remains from where the needle was inserted. Six months later, after he was kept in a drug-induced state and raped hundreds of times by anyone willing to pay the price to his captors in one of the 17 American cities through which he was transported, Piraino-Guzman was rescued when police busted down the door of the house in City Heights that held him, a girl from Colombia, and another from China.

At 16, Piraino-Guzman was placed in foster care and designated a material witness for the FBI. In the course of two years, he stayed in nearly 20 group homes and 2 foster homes.

“I spoke no English and was now in a different country trying to adopt a different culture. I was emotionally unstable and continued to harm myself. I was a time-bomb.” He doesn’t tell me he “attempted” suicide, but that he “committed” suicide. After taking pills, he says, “I was actually dead for two minutes, but they brought me back.”

Piraino-Guzman spent three Christmases alone in group homes. He was withdrawn, lonely, and despondent. Finally, something changed. “Group homes have a $50 budget to get us anything we want on our birthday,” he explains. “A couple of days before my 18th birthday, the people in my room were asking me what I wanted. All I wanted was to see my mother, but that wasn’t going to happen. Then a secretary came to my room to tell me, ‘Your CASA is here.’ I said, You must be crazy. My casa is back home, back in Honduras, and they explained to me what a CASA is.”

Court Appointed Special Advocates (known as CASAs) are volunteers provided locally by the nonprofit Voices for Children. There was a consensus among those with whom I spoke that the laws pertaining to foster care tend to protect the rights of parents over the rights of their children. To counteract this trend, organizations such as Children’s Advocacy Institute and Voices for Children concern themselves solely with the best interests of the youth they’re serving.

Piraino-Guzman’s advocate was named Marcos. “I remember that quote — that you forget what people did for you, what they gave you, but you would never forget how they made you feel,” he says. “Marcos made me feel like he cared. He showed me consistency — I moved from group home to group home to group home. My social worker changed, my therapist changed. But my CASA stayed the same.” One crucial aspect of this new relationship that garnered Piraino-Guzman’s trust was that Marcos was a volunteer. “It was the fact that this person was not being reimbursed for his miles; the fact that this person truly, genuinely wanted to be with me. He became the father figure I lost long ago.”

Piraino-Guzman, who is now an American citizen, counts himself lucky to have been assigned an advocate. Foster youth well outnumber CASA volunteers. He says nonprofit organizations such as Voices for Children and Just in Time for Foster Youth help to fill the gaps into which many youth fall.

“I felt like a pet”

Don Wells, center, heads Just in Time, a group that helps foster youth transition into adulthood.​

Don Wells, center, heads Just in Time, a group that helps foster youth transition into adulthood.​

Though some — like Piraino-Guzman, who in addition to his new family continues to support his brothers and disabled mother back in Honduras — are forced to grow up faster than others, the transition from adolescence to adulthood doesn’t occur when someone reaches a specific age. “If you’re in an intact family, your parents are transitioning you to adulthood from the moment you’re born,” says Don Wells, executive director of Just in Time for Foster Youth, an organization that caters to the needs of 18- to 26-year-olds who have aged out of foster care. Wells says one’s independence is gleaned gradually — that as a child’s independence rises, the parent’s responsibilities lower, until one day the two lines cross and the youth is more independent than not but still has access to a parent’s support and assistance. With foster care, there is no gradual crossover. “That line is like a flatline.”

Wells — a mild-mannered man with a shaved head, rimless glasses, and a relaxed smile — first became interested in the plight of troubled teens when he was working as marketing director for KGTV/ABC10 San Diego in the wake of the Columbine massacre. “I kept hearing people talking about young men and how disconnected they were,” Wells remembers. At the time, he organized a campaign to recruit male mentors and ended up becoming one himself.

As a foster kid, says Melissa Gutierrez, “You are not a part of the family and you are not trusted.”

As a foster kid, says Melissa Gutierrez, “You are not a part of the family and you are not trusted.”

Melissa Gutierrez was 17 when she was first referred to Just in Time; she has since gone back to seek help managing her finances. One of the organization’s seven programs, Financial Fitness, is geared toward teaching youth how to create and stick to a budget and develop a savings plan. “There are courses on budgeting and finance, and you take two classes a month and meet with financial advisors, and you’re paired with a volunteer from the community,” Gutierrez explains. Her volunteer financial advisor is named Melinda, about whom Gutierrez says, “She’s amazing, so smart. She wants to help me invest in myself.”

Melanie Delgado, an attorney at the Children’s Advocacy Institute, says most foster youth have no experience handling money. After describing a new transitional housing program that allows young adults to live on their own and receive a monthly payment that goes directly to them, Delgado explains, “When you hear $820 a month at 18, that sounds like a lot of money. But, if you look at your budget, that is not a lot of money. These kids don’t seem to have a concept of how to budget. They have classes and learn about budgeting, but there’s a difference between learning and sitting in a class and watching your parents do it every day.”

Gutierrez entered the system at age 14 because her single mother, who suffered from a disability, could no longer take care of her. She aged out when she was 18. Now 22, Gutierrez remembers, “I was being told by many social workers that I was an easy case. I wasn’t on drugs, wasn’t getting pregnant, didn’t have behavioral issues. But it was still exceedingly difficult for them to find places for me. I thought, If I’m having this much trouble, how must it be for people who have real issues?”

Of the temporary housing facility at which she stayed, Gutierrez says, “It was awful. It’s just very impersonal. You did not get a feeling of being loved or cared for. It was more like an extended day-care program, where the people were just being hired to monitor the children.” As a “child of the state,” Gutierrez missed out on normal teenage activities. None of the foster families with which she was placed felt comfortable teaching her how to drive. “If you’re a youth, you’re considered a liability,” she says. “No one will want to sign you on to their insurance. I wanted to learn how to drive so badly.”

Three months before she was to graduate from high school, Gutierrez’s foster family decided, after housing her for nearly ten months, that it was time for her to go. She, of course, had no say in the matter. “I was going to school and working, taking the bus to Round Table in Rancho San Diego,” Gutierrez remembers. “I came home one day and they said they wanted to talk to me. My foster father was going on and on about how, ‘We don’t know if this is good for you, or appropriate.’” And then he uttered the phrase that Gutierrez says she will “never forget as long as I live.” Her foster father told her, “You living here is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”

Melissa Gutierrez and foster care

Melissa discusses her experiences in the foster care system at various times in her life.

Melissa discusses her experiences in the foster care system at various times in her life.

On traveling from home to home, Gutierrez says, “You feel like you’re constantly having to adapt to whatever situation you’re placed into. It’s, like, ‘I’m unsure of who I’m supposed to be today to fit in, and if I don’t, what’s going to happen to me?’” Before they threw in the towel, her last foster family (a married couple with three biological children) chastised Gutierrez for her clothing. For example, they didn’t allow her to wear skinny jeans because they said they looked too tight. “I was always on my toes because I worried about the next thing I might do wrong, and there’s that lingering threat of getting kicked out and not knowing where you’re going next.”

When she was told she had to leave, Gutierrez remembers, “I felt like a pet. Like at the pet store they thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be great,’ and then they brought me home and realized, ‘Oh, we’re not able to take care of it...can I send it back?’ I appreciate them trying and putting in that effort, but I feel like they gave up on me. It was really disappointing, and that’s so common. I’ve heard it so much, for you to be given up on, and judged by how many times you’ve moved, even though it’s not always your choice.’”

Foster youth, says Wells, aren’t taught how to negotiate relationships, “because what happens is, if there’s a problem, they move on to the next place.” When an issue arises in a foster home, he explains, “It’s not, like, ‘Let’s sit down and figure this out.’ It’s, like, ‘You change. You’re the problem.’ When we talk to kids about counseling, they don’t like it. They’re, like, ‘You’re trying to fix me again, and I don’t need to be fixed.’”

Fortunately for Gutierrez, a friend’s parents agreed to take her in so she wouldn’t have to change schools before graduating. When she first entered college, having obtained a scholarship to San Diego State University, she stayed in the dorms but was welcomed to stay with the same family during breaks. “The dorms kick you out,” she says. “That’s a huge concern for transitioning youth in college — you can’t just go home.” The family, which Gutierrez affectionately refers to as her “adoptive family,” provided her the safety net she’d always craved.

“I never had a house key until I was with my adoptive family. I couldn’t believe it — I remember them giving it to me.” Gutierrez had not been allowed to be in her foster family’s home alone. “I would go to school, I had a stable job, I was one of the best employees. I thought I proved myself capable and trustworthy. But [as a foster kid], you are not known to them, you are not a part of the family, and you are not trusted. Even by the more understanding families.”

It was the little things that hurt the most, Gutierrez says, such as not being included in the family photos at Christmas and not being able to go home after school because she was not entrusted with a house key.

As an advocacy attorney, Delgado works to promote legislation that serves children. She recently wrote up a report on the new Assembly bill, “Fostering Connections to Success,” or AB 12, which, with some conditions, raises the age of emancipation to 21. “When I was 18, I wanted to get out of the house, and then once I got out of the house and realized how expensive that was, I wanted to go back,” says Delgado. “The great thing about AB 12 is that if they turn 18, they can opt out. But if they get out and realize what it is to live on your own and decide they need help, they can go back in. And they can do that any number of times until they’re 21. It’s really helpful; it’s a great step forward, but it has its challenges.”

Delgado explains that in other states, where the age has always been 21, studies reveal the same dire statistics facing youth that age out at 18. The only real difference was that the usual problems (i.e., homelessness, unplanned pregnancies, incarceration) were merely delayed by a few years, and the college completion rate did not go up. Across the nation, the percentage of former foster youth who obtain a college degree is 2 percent.

According to the MacArthur Foundation, “adults between 18 and 34 received an average of $38,000 and two years’ worth of full-time labor from their parents, or about 10 percent of their income.” In 2010, Frank F. Furstenberg, the man who led this research, told the New York Times, “We have not developed and strengthened the institutions to serve young adults because we’re still living with the archaic idea that people enter adulthood in their late teens or early 20s.”

After speaking with more than a dozen foster parents, advocates, and youth, it became clear that there is one underlying factor that makes a difference when it comes to a youth’s chances for success, and that is access to a stable, consistent, caring adult. “When I talk to youth and see reports,” Delgado says, “the ones who are doing well have a mentor — they have a person in their lives who they know is worrying about them at one o’clock in the morning.”

Social workers come and go, and as much as they may care, the work they do is still a job, and every youth they handle is but one of many names on the docket. On the flip side, by the time most foster kids reach 18, they are wary of developing any attachment.

“Youth first come to us [at Just in Time] because there’s something they need,” says Wells. “But they are still skeptical of having anything other than a transactional relationship with us because that’s what they’re used to. Their experience is that everyone’s getting something out of it, and as soon as they’re not getting paid anymore, they’re gone. So, they wonder, ‘Why are you here?’ There’s lots of testing that goes on in those relationships, because they’ve been told before that here’s this person who’s going to take care of you, but then they make a mistake and are removed [from the home].”


Rachel Zahn is a pediatrician and child-advocacy consultant who specializes in a child’s formative years, from birth to age three.

“Brain development depends on interaction with a primary caregiver,” Zahn says. She explains that when we’re born, we have all the brain cells we’re ever going to have, but “they do not have connections between them,” those firing of the synapses that form our health, both mental and physical. “The way those connections are made are with interaction through human touch, verbal communication, all the things parents typically do to interact with babies,” she says.

When infants and toddlers don’t receive this standard care, the negative effects are not only physiological, but also emotional and lifelong. If a child is neglected or abused, as 99 percent of foster youth have been at one time, the first thing they learn in life is that they cannot depend on the person who is caring for them.

“They live in a state of continuous fear,” Zahn says. “A lot of the behavioral upset that you see is their response to not being able to trust. They are constantly testing the people around them, and they’re not doing it purposely in any way. It’s completely intrinsic — they learned on a very deep level not to trust, so their behavior is a result of that and they’re acting out that lack of trust.”

The foster-care system, rather than alleviating, serves to exacerbate the issues surrounding trust.

“Frankly, most foster kids are pretty damned angry at what happened to them, and rightly so, so they do tend to act out. In foster care, the culture is if you do something wrong and act out, you’re at risk of being sent away, and that sends a really bad message. It further victimizes kids who have been victimized,” Zahn says.

“I mean, 80 percent of the people in prison in this country were once in the foster-care system. That’s an incredible number. Kids who don’t learn to trust, who don’t learn to form human relationships, they don’t really care about other people because they were never cared for. They can’t love other people because they were never loved. They tend to do really bad things out in the world.” People who are prone to commit crimes, she says, “tend to be people who were treated like this as young children and never learned to trust and love, so their brains did not develop normally.”

Zahn focuses on the very young because she believes prevention is the best solution. “As a society, we do not nurture our children effectively. Particularly children who are victims through no fault of their own through neglect and abuse; we tend to further victimize them rather than giving them what they need to be healthy and grow and thrive.”

Talking with Just in Time for Foster Youth

Just in Time for Foster Youth

Just in Time for Foster Youth

At Just in Time, Wells works to provide a family-like support system for youth. “You’re walking out of foster care basically into a void, of, ‘I don’t know who I can count on,’” he says. “It’s like saying to somebody, ‘Okay, now you’re old enough to drive a car, here are the keys.’ But they’ve had no training, they’ve never been behind the wheel, nobody’s explained it to them. To some extent, they’ve never even been in a car before and they’re supposed to be able to get in and drive down the road because they’re a certain age. And it’s, like, ‘What’s wrong with you that you’re not able to do that? We gave you the car and keys.’”

Through its programs, Just in Time offers youth ages 18 to 26 assistance and coaching on everything from basic needs (grocery gift cards, clothing) and financial literacy to networking with working professionals.

“In our own lives, if we’re connected in a healthy way, we have one person we talk to if we’re having a relationship problem, another if we’re having an issue at work, another if we’re thinking about buying a car or saving money — there are all types of people we go to for different things,” Wells says. “We’re trying to get away from going to one person — it’s too tenuous, it’s not healthy. One person can’t do all that. There’s a difference between holding on to a rope and having a safety net.”

The only solution

When I was 18, I thought I could take care of myself. I still tell people “I moved out at 18,” like it’s some kind of badge of honor. What I don’t tell them is that I moved back in three times. I had a home to move back to. I had a father who rescued me on the side of the freeway when, at 19, I got my first flat tire and didn’t know what to do. I had a mother who, without giving me a hard time because she always said she’d rather me call her than get into a car with a drunk driver, picked me up at a taco shop at 4 a.m. after I’d been in Tijuana with friends. I stumbled, I fell, and there was always someone there to catch me. Because it was all I had ever known, I had always taken it for granted. Until now.

In her report, Delgado writes about what she sees as the ideal situation for any foster youth: “A model in which a consistent, caring adult in the life of a youth is able to provide emotional support and guidance as well as financial resources.”

In other words, what these kids need most, even after they turn 18, is a parent. But Delgado recognizes how far away that ideal is. “It’s a lot more difficult than it sounds,” she says. “It’s hard to find someone who will be there and be there consistently over the long term. It can’t be someone who’s there six months and leaves; they’ve been through that their whole lives. It’s a huge commitment and not something that should be taken lightly.”

Because it’s unrealistic to expect that each youth will find his or her own devoted, lifelong mentor, Wells focuses more on the community aspect than one-on-one relationships. When speaking about the problem of disconnected youth, Wells stresses, “The only solution is positive connection. That’s what makes the transition transform into something that creates hope and possibility and wellbeing instead of despair and dependency. Giving money to a young person so they can make their rent is easy. Being a community for them is harder. So we have to do the hard things, because that’s what really works.”

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