By Donna Myrow
On a late afternoon I heard a knock on the office door. It’s usually a teenager scheduled for a meeting to work on a story with one of my editors, but I didn’t recognize the person who walked in. Her name was Batya Brummer, a pretty girl with brown hair and startling blue eyes. She asked for Amanda, the editor assigned to our foster youth writing project.
Batya dressed in long skirts to accommodate her religious parents’ values, but added her own rebellious touches with rows and rows of silver bracelets, necklaces and high black boots. Batya had a complicated childhood. Born to a drug addict, she was placed in foster care until she was adopted at age two by an orthodox Jewish family. She was always combative with her parents, teachers, therapists — pretty much everyone in her life. She was expelled from kindergarten. Batya bounced from one special education facility to the next, and was even placed in a group home when she was too disruptive to her family. She became involved with drugs and promiscuous sex as a pre-teen. Consequently, her parents sent her to a locked facility in Utah that specialized in hard-to-handle teens — to me it sounded like military boot camp with limited freedom. When she returned to Los Angeles after two years in Utah, she lived in a group home before being transitioned back to her family home.
Many children, permanently damaged by being born to drug-addicted mothers or alcoholic parents and tossed aside like garbage, enter into the foster care system under the so-called protection of children’s services. In group homes or large residential facilities, they often express their frustration with medication, violent behavior, or retreat into silence.
As the publisher of L.A. Youth, a newspaper by and about teens, I felt that youth in foster care needed a voice, realizing how important it is for our readers to hear directly from those teens. Los Angeles County continues to have the highest number of children and youth in the foster care system than anywhere else in the country. In this system, children are removed from neglectful and abusive homes, and placed in temporary shelters while social workers search for a group home, where abuse can and does continue. To some adults, fostering children means nothing but money. And some private facilities have contracts with the state to “warehouse” children. There is a growing community of grandparents that act as surrogate parents, after finding their grandchildren on their doorsteps when the parents disappear to feed unhealthy habits or are incarcerated for criminal activity.
These are the teens we wanted to hear from and give a voice to.
Los Angeles County’s size and tremendous distance between residential facilities, group homes, and our office made it difficult to attract youth interested in writing. This project was a challenge in different ways, and we needed another editor, especially one who would be dedicated to working with foster youth, and gaining the cooperation of those who worked in the foster care system.
The editors and I discussed the foster care project for two years before we were ready to plunge into an area rife with problems. We concurred that L.A. Youth was not reaching teens with dire needs. I suggested that we reach out to foster youth via an announcement in the paper, to which no one responded. Kids in the foster care system weren’t looking for extra-curricular activities or ways to enhance their college applications. We needed a strategic approach to reach foster youth and financial backing to sustain it.
The California Endowment, the nonprofit foundation established by Blue Cross in 1995, believed in our vision of a foster youth writing project in Los Angeles. They gave us the seed money for the project. In the Fall of 2003 I hired Amanda Riddle, a former reporter at the Associated Press. She was new to Los Angeles and looking for a way to match her journalism skills with teaching.
We announced our foster youth writing project to dozens of group homes, social workers, judges, probation officers, and lawyers. At first I thought they’d be resistant, not willing to let their clients talk and write about their experiences with problems in the system. Their unexpected enthusiasm about our new program proved me wrong. Our phone began to ring with invitations to visit the group homes and residential facilities and speak to the foster youth.
Amanda traveled from one facility to the next, recruiting teens. She was a hit. A few of the foster youth were able to come to our office, some with counselors in tow, others by themselves. We learned about the foster care system and the different kinds of treatment and residential facilities available to children based on their emotional stability and family history.
We hosted a coffee in our office for social workers, therapists, and teachers who work with foster youth to introduce them to our staff and to hear from one of our new writers. Actress Amy Brenneman, star of the TV series Judging Amy, was our special guest speaker. There was standing room only in our conference room.
Batya Brummer was one of the first teens we recruited from the Linden Center, a private school. Every Tuesday afternoon Batya met with Amanda in our office. She was always hungry so we let her walk to the nearby convenience store where she bought sushi rolls, a bottle of iced cappuccino, and cookies — a curious and somewhat nauseating combination. Occasionally, her attention span would falter and she would get up and leave. Some of the foster youth had trouble sitting for long periods of time, as certain medications and some mental illnesses, like ADD, Schizophrenia, and Bipolar Disorder, can cause distraction.
L.A. Youth provided their stressful childhood with a few moments of genuine happiness in a comfortable environment.
For the next 10 months Batya wrote and re-wrote her story about her childhood. Sometimes she wouldn’t show up for a few weeks and Amanda would call her teacher, her therapist, or her parents to find out her whereabouts. Batya was rebelling at home, her mother found drug paraphernalia and suspected she was using drugs again. In a fit of anger Batya lashed out at her mother and chased her around the house with a knife in her hand. Batya would turn 18 in June which meant that she could legally leave home and make her own decisions. Her family and social worker began making plans for her to move into transitional living, an apartment building with other young people emancipating from the foster care system. It sounded like a good idea. Batya would attend hairstyling school, work part time, and take responsibility for her life.
In early May, she was close to finishing the final draft of her story for publication in the May and June 2004 issue when she stopped coming to the office. We called the school and her home, no one knew where she was. Batya had run away. The days stretched into weeks and we decided to publish her story the way she left it. Amanda and I talked about this decision and realized Batya had nothing more to say and we’d probably never hear from her again. Batya didn’t hold back writing her personal story:
When I was nine, I found out I was adopted. My biological mother was a prostitute and drug addict. When she was pregnant with me, she continued to do drugs. So when I was born, I had a chemical imbalance in my brain.
Before coming to Utah [a high security, lock-down therapeutic center for troubled kids] I had started fires, locked family members in rooms, stole, lied, had sexual relationships with boys, ran away, got into fights, was abusive toward people and tried to commit suicide a couple times.
I’ve spent a lot of time ruining my family’s life. Looking back, I wish I had a rewind button. At first I didn’t want to change because I was more comfortable in the behavior I was used to. But now I see things better. I’m thankful my family gave me the chance to change.
Her story was compelling, and our readers responded with letters and e-mails wanting to chat with Batya, but unfortunately, she still hadn’t returned home.
One afternoon in early June there was a knock at our office door and there she was, looking thin and disheveled, having grown her hair long and wearing clothes more to her liking and the youth culture. We were surprised, and worried. What if she didn’t like the fact that we published her story and she wanted to change something at the last minute. It turned out that she just wanted copies of the issue and sat down to visit with us.
“I’m engaged and getting married this summer in Paris,” she said to our stunned group.
“Who’s the lucky guy?” I asked.
“I met him at this place in Hollywood and we moved to his apartment. He’s 20 and he loves me.”
Batya hadn’t graduated high school, let alone prepared for a trip to Paris. She was working in a bakery, “Somewhere in West L.A.” She couldn’t recall the name or location of the bakery and finally had to admit that she lost her bus pass and didn’t have money to get home. We gave her a few dollars, asked her to keep in touch and out the door she went. That was the last time we heard from her.
A few months later I called her house and left a message for her mother wondering if there was any word from Batya. Her mother didn’t return my call.
One year later, May 2005, editor Mike Fricano Googled Batya’s name, trying to find the missing alum. The search resulted in a provocative photo of Batya, posing in a pink bra and low-slung jeans and a sullen look on her face. She proudly wore a tattooed cross etched into her upper arm.
I felt like I’d been hit in the stomach, unable to speak, trying to catch my breath. Her boyfriend had taken this photo and now he posted it on the internet for the world to see. He asked if anyone had seen his ex-girlfriend and to tell her to come and get the three bags she left behind.
I’m still searching for Batya. Once in a while I Google her name and dial her old phone number, only to get no response. I’d like to write a happy ending to my story about foster teens but problems still haunt the system and too many young people, like Batya, need help. Where is Batya?