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Before 16, Sherry Sotelo became adult in San Diego's juvenile court

Pregnant at 15, she says she was “hopping from couch to couch”

Before turning 16, Sherry Sotelo won the right to adulthood in juvenile court.
  • Before turning 16, Sherry Sotelo won the right to adulthood in juvenile court.
  • Image by Howie Rosen

Child no more

Before turning 16, Sherry Sotelo won the right to adulthood in juvenile court.

Before turning 16, Sherry Sotelo won the right to adulthood in juvenile court.

For Sherry Sotelo, growing up wasn’t how she wished it would be. She, her four siblings, and her mother lived wherever they could — in an accommodating relative’s house or a complex of two-bedroom apartments somewhere south of I-8. Her mother was single, with limited English, and hard-pressed to find work. When Sotelo was 12, her mother secured a job in Tijuana, so the family moved there. But then Sotelo wanted to go to school in the U.S., so she came back. She enrolled as a freshman at Hoover High, rooming “with whoever would let me stay.” After a while, she says, the loneliness got to her. “It was tough, not having my mom here, so I went back with her for another year.” At 15, she returned to San Diego. She began dreaming of a college education and a career in veterinary medicine, yet she was still vulnerable to temporary quarters, no steady income, and a dearth of nutritious food.

At 19, Sotelo has tender eyes and broad, welcoming features. Her face is garlanded by thick, curly black hair. She’s narrating her autobiography in a blue-carpeted, white-boarded conference room at Garfield High School, a glass-and-steel edifice next to City College. There, a student for three years, she graduated in January. She’s benefited from — really, been saved by — the San Diego Adolescent Pregnancy & Parenting Program. With us is Lana Cooper-Jones, a veteran of school district counseling projects for pregnant teens and young mothers. She has shepherded hundreds of girls through this program and advocated for the emancipation of some.

Sotelo was emancipated three years ago. Before turning 16, and with the help of a lawyer at San Diego Legal Aid Society, she won the right to adulthood in juvenile court. Why was it needed? Reasons abound. She had given birth to a daughter, was overstressed by motherhood, was tardy or way behind with classes, and had to search, often weekly, for a safe place to sleep. In fact, she dropped out of high school for a semester just to get her bearings.

Pregnant at 15, she says she was “hopping from couch to couch.” She bounced from a bed at the home of her boyfriend’s mother to a sofa in her aunt’s house to a cot in her child’s paternal grandmother’s apartment. Cooper-Jones, whose tough-love steeliness is backstopped by patience, remarks on Sotelo’s tortuous road: “Sherry didn’t have a support system.” She was not homeless but was shuttling between sleeper sofas, lining up with a cousin or aunt every morning for the bathroom.

Enter an array of teen-mother services at Garfield. The alternative school is among San Diego’s most specialized, a California Model Continuation High School. That means it serves San Diego at-risk youth through, its website states, “the use of exemplary instructional strategies, flexible scheduling, and guidance and counseling.” Cooper-Jones describes Garfield’s program. “If you’re pregnant you can go to a self-contained classroom and an expectant teen center where you get your academics, you get your pre-natal information, and then after that we have a nursery where you can bring your baby. Sherry did both programs.”

Such scheduling flexibility allows girls to move between traditional classes, Monday through Friday, 8 to 2:45, and, if necessary, independent study at home. The latter was often pure chaos for Sotelo. Imagine not having a quiet, TV-less place to read, no door to shut out family or children for just an hour, simply to concentrate.

I ask her when she first got wind of emancipation. Was it something kids discussed or fantasized about?

“My mom actually mentioned it to me,” she says, though her mother didn’t understand what the procedure involved. Few do. Plus, she got pushback from some family members. Once the idea spread, they thought it a punishment against the mother for not being stable. Sotelo recalls them asking, “Why are you going to sue your mom?”

At first, she says, “I was very iffy on it.” But as she learned more about emancipation, she told the querulous relatives, “I’m not going to sue my mom. I just need to be an adult because my mom is not here with me. So everywhere I go I have to sign papers, and I can’t do it. Because I have no adult with me, and I’m not an adult yet.” Such sharp reasoning fell on deaf ears. The family maintained its superstition about a lawsuit, which meant, she says, her mother “got iffy about it, too.”

Meanwhile, at Garfield, Sotelo had met Cooper-Jones, who counted all the strikes against her: she was living on her own, she couldn’t sign papers, she couldn’t rent a place, she couldn’t get a car, she had a daughter, both were hungry, she had no way to get a job, and without legal status she couldn’t qualify for cash aid from the state. The world closes up like a bank vault when you don’t have the power your signature entitles you to. Cooper-Jones — case worker, counselor, advocate, and networker — got the ball rolling with Legal Aid, which, in turn, secured a date for a court hearing with judge Carol Isackson.

After further education, Sotelo went to her mother and explained herself. “‘Mom, how am I supposed to do anything if I don’t have guardianship of my own person? If I’m not legally an adult? You’re not going to get sued. It’s just a request to you to say you’re okay with me getting emancipated.’ And then she was okay with it.”

With all these options — childcare, school, counseling, therapist, the promise of emancipation — Sotelo thrived in this new normal. She got A’s and B’s at Garfield (through it all, she says, she had “only one C, maybe two, on my whole record”), and her sleeping situation calmed because her daughter’s paternal grandmother made permanent room for mother and baby in her home.

Court and Freedom

When I ask about friends, Sotelo hesitates, her eyes stilled by thought. She tells me she’s had few friends to talk with about her travails. Such is another dilemma shifting homes bring about: once she shared her tale with anyone, a budding relationship was nipped because she had to rush home by bus to care for her daughter or get back on the bus, child in tow, to find another bed. She says, matter-of-factly, “I have too much stuff going on in my life to have friends like that.”

With a nod of affectionate approval, Cooper-Jones says, “Sherry kind of stays to herself. She’s really motivated. Her goal is to finish school and go to college.” She describes how many girls at Garfield are in the same boat — living on their own or with a boyfriend, having no parental support and no way to get emancipated because parents fear a court date after which they’ll have to pay “child support,” as if the child were divorcing them.

Cooper-Jones says she encourages “many of the girls downstairs” to get emancipated so they can apply for a transitional housing program — two such local programs are Take Wing and Home Start. These programs resettle homeless kids but only if they are emancipated or adults. Most teens scrape by, over speed bump and pothole, until the liberating age of 18 — moving on to maturity and purpose for some, debt and drudgery for others. The startling thing about Sotelo, Cooper-Jones says, is that “Sherry, at 15, did everything she had to do to become legal.” During her 19 years of counseling, Cooper-Jones estimates that of the 60 girls she believes should have been emancipated, girls she pushed, only 10 followed through.

The hardest part of her job, she continues, is “to find the girls and let them know the Adolescent Pregnancy & Parenting Program is here to support you — you can finish school, there is help. Come and work with a case manager so we can show you the routes to take,” including emancipation. While the opportunities are never enough, resources and sites for pregnant and parenting girls are available. Garfield is one. Lindsay Blended Community School, a county facility, is downtown and has a nursery for childcare. Victoria Summit School offers the same in San Ysidro. So does Twain High School in Linda Vista. YouthBuild is a public-private partnership for kids to take classes and get a job.

At her emancipation hearing — the airlessness of the courtroom shocks every first-timer — Sotelo says, “I was nervous. There were two girls sitting in front of me, and they had their hearing first. When they came out, they were crying. I wasn’t sure what their case was but that got me a little bit more nervous.” She relaxed because “the judge didn’t seem scary at all. It went very smoothly. [Isackson] asked me how long had I been on my own. What were my grades? What did I plan to do after I was emancipated? You have to show that you’re responsible, that you’re not going to get emancipated just because you want to.”

What happened next? “I was happy,” Sotelo beams. “I was very excited. I said, ‘Thank you very much’ to the judge.” She signed and pocketed the paperwork that said she was legally an adult. She then qualified for a small stipend from a state program that helps kids with children finish high school so they need not work. This money let her pay her share of the rent on the grandmother’s lease.

Both a wave of the wand and a three-year slog. “A lot is different,” Sotelo says. “My child has all the things she needs to be healthy. We have a home. It’s definitely become more stable. We do not have to ask people for money or food. We can provide for ourselves. I feel a lot better. At the time, I didn’t have any money, I felt stress, and I would say that affected a lot of my school because I couldn’t buy diapers or anything for my child.”

Cooper-Jones echoes Sotelo’s transformation. “After she got emancipated,” in the spring of 2012, “she came to school after the summer. She was here every day. She wasn’t missing classes, and it was like something just fell off of her. Like, ‘I’m finally at peace.’”

Sotelo believes her mother, who still lives in Tijuana and whom she sees once a week, is “proud of me, actually. Because we got through the tough times, even though she’s not been here with me. She’s always lifted me up. Always helped me. From far away, but she’s helped me. Emotionally.”

Any message for girls in her situation? “It’s not as hard as it seems,” she says quickly. “You have to put in the hours to get the paperwork done, but it’s totally worth it. It brought me peace of mind. I could afford to have a stable home.”

Today, Sotelo is the first in her family to graduate high school. She received a scholarship from the S.L. Scholarship Foundation, set up by three San Diego couples for, its website reads, “young single parents with financial needs to help them continue their college education. (Its funders are Jim and Sally Sandler, Lynne Lasry and Allen Synder, and Tom and Lisa Laube.)

Sotelo’s a full-time student at Cuyamaca College, taking courses in English, biology, and personal growth. She has launched herself (“a lot more homework in college than high school,” she says with a Cheshire-Cat smile) toward a bachelor’s degree in general biology. She plans on transferring to San Diego State or University of California San Diego, and post-college, realizing her goal of caring for animals.

Tough Row to Hoe

For many years, until her retirement from the Legal Aid Society this past January, Barbara Davis was a force — a soul-catching matriarch — for San Diego’s neediest adolescents who, rightly and wrongly, felt they had to get free from dysfunctional families. I’m lucky to catch her on her last day at work: she’s already had her retirement party. On her bright red Legal Aid Society knit shirt she sports a ribboned badge, “Retired! Let the Games Begin!” Wearing small gold-band earrings, her short dark hair salted with gray wisps, Davis is pensive, reflective, taking her time. As she empties her drawers, there will be tears.

Thirty-three years in law and many of them with Legal Aid, Davis has often been the first and last contact for emancipating teens from contact to court. She says this stint with Legal Aid was her “third tour of duty.” She had her own practice as a criminal lawyer, adult and juvenile, and re-upped with Legal Aid as a senior attorney, managing their juvenile law division. Kids call in, requesting emancipation, and Davis goes through a checklist, some of which are her calls.

Guidelines ring with musts. He/she must be 14; “willingly live separate and apart” from parents or a legal guardian; supply proof that the parents or the guardians know the minor is not living with them (if necessary, the court can waive this parental notification because the parents are absent or uncooperative); manage his or her own finances, which means no money from criminal activity; and provide reference letters, transcript or report card, birth certificate, and evidence of employment or benefits, that is, money coming in.

The last requisite is perhaps the most important. To emancipate a teen, the court is turning the parents’ obligation to support the juvenile until 18 to either the teen herself, a new guardian, or, if warranted, the financial wherewithal of the court. If the judge deems it necessary, the state may then pay benefits. Davis says it used to be teens had jobs — fast-food workers, for example — but lately “they don’t,” which means the state steps in to save them.

“If the young lady is emancipated, she qualifies for cash aid.” Such a qualification is a kind of Catch-22. The teen must prove she has taken responsibility for her survival when others have not, but to reach that goal she is trying to obtain the financial means only emancipation offers. Case in point: hiring representation is expensive, Davis says, and few kids can pay the $430 fee. Emancipation helps cover such costs, and more, once the juvenile signs up for a job on her own.

Though the pro bono pot always runs low, fee waivers must be given. Legal Aid’s funding comes mostly from Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit group established by the U.S. Congress to pay for legal advice and programs for low-income Americans. Other money is offered by the state bar, the county, and by private foundations.

How do kids learn about it? Juvenile court, pamphlets, internet, word-of-mouth. Once the idea pops into their mind, Davis says, she gets calls of stinging urgency. “They’re mad at mom and dad and they think, Hey, I can get emancipated without knowing what that means. Or someone wants to get married” and calls in. Davis says, “No, that’s not the plan,” a line she’s delivered a thousand times. “The plan is not that you get emancipated so you can move in with your boyfriend.”

It is often necessary that an adolescent whose parents aren’t around needs to apply to college, rent an apartment, or get a job. In other words, enter into a contractual agreement with someone or an institutional someone when a parent’s signature is not forthcoming. It’s a key reason why emancipation is law. In an email, Encinitas family attorney Larissa Bodniowycz writes, “Under most circumstances, minors are considered to lack the ‘capacity’ to enter into binding legal contracts.” The most celebrated of these circumstances are, “in California, for entertainment, for example, acting and singing.”

Such cases commonly involve decisions on “behalf of” a child star’s earning potential and the need for kids to work long hours and, thus, bypass child-labor laws. One egregious instance is that of Corey Feldman. After a string of hit movies in the 1980s (among them The Goonies and Stand by Me), Feldman discovered his parents had spent all but $40,000 of his $1 million fortune. The parents failed to stop his emancipation at 15, but they did win a court award for the $40,000. (Go figure.) He restarted his career in debt but, at least, done with mom and dad’s pilfering. Courtney Love, wife of Kurt Cobain, won emancipation from her parents, and her daughter has done the same from her.

Sometimes Kids Have Nothing

Among the myths, Davis says, is that bad parents are either drug-addicted or flighty or abusive — and, therefore, bad and incompetent. “I hate to say it, but, yes, there is a lack of parenting ability. But,” she cautions, “so many of the parents themselves are struggling. I have one [client] who is living at home with her baby, and there are eight more people in a two-bedroom house. That’s not good. My point to her was, ‘Is there someone your mother will allow you to stay with while you apply for emancipation?’” The mother’s pragmatism was understandable: “Two less in the house.” An adult friend took the daughter and child in, and their lives improved.

Davis has even had parents call: “They want to get the child emancipated. And I’ve had to tell them,” to me, she raises an ironic eyebrow, “‘No, that’s not your call.’ It’s not their call. The minor is entitled to that parental support, things money can buy — food, clothing, shelter, emotional support.” Emancipation is designed to support kids, not to relieve parents.

Here Davis recalls one case that sticks in her craw, a tragic situation in which she had to act as attorney and advocate.

“Basically, she had nothing. Basically, she was, if you will, under her parents’ thumb.” Her choked pauses, recollecting this girl, still convey the soreness. “A police officer called me and her school counselor from Hoover High called me. No doubt in my mind that she was being abused at home. She had a job, but because of the abuse she’d lost that job. Yeah, I remember. I got that petition up to Juvenile Court; judge didn’t even set a hearing because I had the information.” Her voice grows stronger the closer she gets to the ending she and the girl wanted. “The judge looked at the paperwork and he signed an emancipation declaration. She never had to go home again.”

Emancipation is often viewed as a last resort. Prior options — which attorneys with Legal Aid and counselors with youth outreach programs suggest — include family counseling or mediation services between an adolescent and a parent; living with a responsible relative; seeking aid from a private agency; and making an agreement with a parent to live outside the home but to remain supported by the parent — a kind of win-win for both when the two are at loggerheads.

Davis says that the emotional states the kids bring to her run the gamut — angry, frightened, timid, guarded. But often surprisingly self-possessed. “They come in here,” to her office, “and I think this person is more mature than someone 30 years old. Then you look at their transcript and they’ve got A’s and B’s. They have a baby in their arms, and they look like babies themselves.” She sometimes jokes: “I’d like to be un-emancipated. I’d love to have someone take care of me for a while.”

I ask what she’ll miss and not miss about her Legal Aid job.

“I’ll miss knowing I made a difference in somebody’s life. I get high on that. I won’t miss the pain of knowing that you can’t help.”

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Comments

"she won the right to adulthood in juvenile court. Why was it needed? Reasons abound. She had given birth to a daughter, was overstressed by motherhood, was tardy or way behind with classes, and had to search, often weekly, for a safe place to sleep. In fact, she dropped out of high school for a semester just to get her bearings."

She had to become an "adult" because she acted like a child??? Unbelievable.

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