Victor slouches into a bustling courtroom at Los Angeles County Children's Court. He would be tall, if he stood up straight, and broad, if his shoulders didn't follow his eyes to the floor. He doesn't look sullen or defiant. He just looks like a big kid, humble and out of place in this room full of busy grown-ups. When the judge glances up from her papers and smiles at him, he smiles back, just a bit.
At 19, Victor has already lived a life that takes a few tellings to get straight. His father has been in prison. His mother struggled with schizophrenia and the burdens of single parenthood, lost her children and eventually moved back to Guatemala. Since he started high school, Victor has been in eight different foster care placements. He has missed so much class moving from one school to another, and seen so many course credits fail to transfer, he would only be a freshman in high school if he were still enrolled.
Critics are quick to look at a case like Victor's and condemn the foster care system, with its overburdened caseworkers and overstretched resources. Victor's feelings are more complicated. He has had tangles with his foster parents, and plenty have been his fault (he is a teenager, after all). He is sick of his social worker (and Victor's case file, as thick as a dictionary, suggests the feeling is mutual). But in the quiet of court meeting rooms, away from guardians and social workers and friends, he has confessed to his lawyer: He is afraid to be on his own. He has given up on a diploma, but he wants to get a GED and a job. If the Department of Children and Family Services ended his foster care today, he would have no degree, no work experience, nowhere to live and no adult to fall back on. But in California, foster care ends at 18, unless the county makes an exception or a judge orders one, and Victor is on the clock. He looks up at the bench.
"Are you going to close my case?" he asks, so softly you can hardly hear him.
Foster care in California is state supervised but county administered. That means that all counties in California have to follow the same basic rules, but they have room to interpret -- including how and when they push foster kids out of their sometimes imperfect nests. The feds and the state team up to fund foster kids until they turn 18 (in some cases extending that funding when a child is working toward a high school diploma). But the law allows a county to hold a kid in care until he or she is 21. Not surprisingly, most California counties keep only a small number of kids in care once the money stops, and many counties keep none.
But Los Angeles County is different. Since 2001, when the state Department of Social Services began keeping reliable case data, Los Angeles has appeared as much as twice as likely as the rest of the state to hold foster kids in care after they turn 18, and as much as 10 times more likely to keep those kids in care after they turn 19.
The biggest reason for this is Michael Nash.
Nash has thick white hair, intense brown eyes and a gruff but warm manner. His resume is typical for a judge of children and families. In the early 1980s, as a young public prosecutor, he helped convict the Hillside Strangler. Later, he was a criminal court judge in Hollywood. ("He was so mean," laughs Lisa Mandel, former legal director at the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles. "They would do these sweeps and pick up all the prostitutes and drug dealers, and he would put everyone away.") All of which is to say, he had no experience with kids and the law. When Nash was appointed to dependency court in 1990, he had never even heard of it. "Seriously," he says. "I didn't know what it was."
Dependency court is where a judge decides which parents are fit, which households are safe, which social services are necessary and which teenagers are ready to be independent. Yet few judges want to be there -- presiding over thousands of obscure, low-status cases, where every decision could break up a family or put a child's life in danger, and there is no jury to share the blame if a decision goes bad. In some counties, judges are actually assigned to "kiddie court" as punishment. When the state conducted a survey of dependency court officers in 2004, the average judge had only three years of experience there.
Now in his 17th year, more than 10 of those as supervising judge of the dependency court or presiding judge of the Juvenile Court, Nash is a rarity: a steady presence on the bench. The walls of his chambers are covered with crayon drawings. Teddy bears nearly outnumber file folders. "Judge Nash has been fantastic," says Judge Emily Stevens, a 15-year veteran of the dependency court. "He gave us continuity in our leadership."
With that has come a new approach to the question of when it's appropriate to release kids from the system, one that is being closely studied across the country. After all, one in five of the nation's 500,000 foster kids live in California, and Los Angeles minds the largest share, about 22,000 kids in any given month.
"It had become increasingly clear that kids were leaving the system at 18 just because they were 18," Nash says. He remembers one emancipation ceremony at the Kodak Theatre, honoring high-achieving kids who were about to leave foster care. The host asked the kids in the audience to raise their hands if they knew where they were going to live now.
"I was surprised," Nash says, "at the number of kids who didn't know."
Until recently, most foster care reformers focused on getting kids out of the system, not leaving them in for longer. It seemed to make sense. Social workers can be too quick to pluck kids from their real families, judges can be too quick to terminate parental rights and hundreds of thousands of kids -- especially minority kids -- languish in care that leaves them ill-equipped for adulthood.
But a growing body of research suggests that a quick exit from the system may not, in fact, be the best answer.
Four years ago, the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children embarked on the first rigorous study to determine what happens to kids when they leave foster care at 18. Researchers interviewed hundreds of them after a year on their own, and the results were ugly.
Nearly 70% had dropped out of high school, while only about 4% had gone on to a four-year college. (Another 8% enrolled in a two-year college.) Only 47% were employed, and three-quarters earned $5,000 or less annually. About half lost their health insurance, and one in five went untreated when they needed a doctor. Forty-four percent of the girls had gotten pregnant. Seventeen percent had moved back to the troubled home they left for foster care. More than 10% reported "sometimes or often" not having food to eat, and nearly 15% had been homeless. One in five had spent at least a night in jail.
When the Chapin Hall researchers compared those 19-year-olds out of foster care with the experience of 19-year-olds still in care, the difference was startling: One extra year of foster care nearly halved the high school dropout rate and almost tripled the likelihood that the kids would go to a four-year college.
"If you look at kids at 18," Nash says, "they're still pretty young."
When Nash arrived at the dependency court, lawyers from the Department of Children and Family Services represented both the department and its foster kids (who were given a legal status akin to disputed property). Child advocates began drawing attention to this built-in conflict of interest, and dependency court officials tended to agree.
Nash wrote a local court rule, enacted in 1996, that had wide repercussions. All children must have independent counsel, the order declared. After the county took the matter to a higher court and lost, the Legislature stepped in and made the rule a statewide policy.
But the subsequent shift in judicial culture may have been more important than any shift in the law. Just as everything else about foster care varies from county to county (including the local budget), independent counsel means different things in different places.
In Los Angeles, most foster kids get an attorney from the nonprofit Children's Law Center and stick with the same lawyer for years. Caseloads are held to a relatively manageable 150 to 170 cases per attorney, compared with 500 or more in some corners of the state.
Courts also differ over how often kids should appear. Some counties all but ban kids from their hearings, and discourage them from showing up when the county proposes to end their time in care. Some judges believe kids slow down an impossibly full docket. And some experts believe a visit to court is simply too traumatic.
But Nash's judges and the Children's Law Center encourage kids to appear at every court date, usually one every six months, and when they show up they often find the same person behind the bench.
In a life with few constants, Victor has seen only one judge since elementary school, longer than he has known his current social worker or any of his foster guardians.
"You get to know what they want," Nash explains. "The report from the social worker may say, 'Johnny is OK with this,' but you don't know how it was presented to Johnny. You start asking all these questions: 'Do you know where you're going to live? Did you know you can have access to these services if you stay?'"
Even if an 18-year-old's social worker is recommending closure, Nash and the 20 judicial officers in the dependency court are inclined to be patient if the kid doesn't appear ready to handle life on his or her own. "We tell the department to take a hike," he says. "We're not giving up jurisdiction until there is a plan in place."
And if the county has to cover the expense? "It doesn't matter to me if the funding comes from the feds, the county, the state," Nash says curtly. "That's irrelevant."
Keeping kids in care does come at a cost -- and that is usually the justification for closing cases at 18 in all but the most extreme circumstances. Yet Nash's calculus may turn out to be a bargain in the end if an extra year or two of foster care helps reduce incarceration, poverty, unwanted pregnancy, emergency room care and homelessness.
Victor is still waiting for an answer. Will the system spit him out?
"No," says his judge. "I want to keep your case open. I want you to stay with us."
She asks him questions about his life, more like a parent than an officer of the court. "We need to get you back on track," she says. His medical and dental care have lapsed. She orders the Department of Children and Family Services to help. She asks him if he has a Social Security card or certain other forms of ID. He shakes his head no, and she adds more tasks to a list.
"Have you thought about getting a job while you're getting your education back on track?" she asks. When he mumbles something about picking up applications, she chides him. "I don't mean picking up applications. You have to fill those applications out. You can also practice talking to people, asking about work. Looking for a job is a full-time job." He nods. She schedules another hearing in a month to check on everyone's progress.
"Some kids, the concerns are always the same," she says after Victor shuffles out. "With young people, we can be talking to a wall for 15 years. They may not be processing it at the time, but at least they're listening. And then one day, they'll think about it. One day a kid will come to court, and he's started to turn it around.
"Victor's not there yet," she says. "He's still going through some tough times."
But nowhere does the law tell her to give up on him. And Judge Nash wouldn't. So why should she give up? Why should anyone?