Claudia Jacqueline Benjamin was one of hundreds of Los Angeles County foster children who preferred life on the streets to living in the homes of strangers. Matters took a turn for the worse when she went on the lam from a foster home for three weeks and landed in juvenile detention. The Los Angeles Times reports:
“After that, I just kept running away,” said Claudia, now 18. She would live on the streets for weeks at a time, sleeping in cars, at bus stops, on sidewalks and crashing on friends’ couches.
Authorities moved her through almost a dozen placements — group homes, foster families, detention facilities.
She felt restless, rootless and angry, she said. The least little thing would set her off. “I was like, ‘They don’t care. So I’ll just leave.’ It was easy to feel neglected.”
However, a scandal over the hundreds of unaccounted-for children in Los Angeles’ Department of Children’s and Family Services (DCFS) led to the formation of a small Runaway Outreach Unit. Instead of trying to pull kids off the streets, the unit relies on building trust with runaways to bring them back. This unconventional tactic has yielded impressive results:
“The old way wasn’t working,” said the unit’s leader, social worker Eric Ball. Since 2008, his team — using Facebook, family connections and foot patrols — has located 1,500 missing youths and eased 500 into independent living and out of foster care, he said.
“The important thing is to make contact and begin to earn their trust,” Ball told me Saturday, from a crowded downtown community center, where his team had gathered hundreds of their teenage wards for a daylong conference on healthy living.
“We’re trying to empower them,” Ball said. “Nobody likes being told what to do.”
Val Cacatian, one of the unit’s six social workers, is the person Claudia reached out to when she decided to get off the streets. She wanted to get back in touch with her birth family and find a home of her own. Despite some bumps along the road, Claudia remains grateful for Val’s help after years of being in a system she felt didn’t care about her:
“Val wanted to see if I was safe, if I was doing all right,” she said. “I wasn’t even her case no more. But she came to check on me … said ‘I’ll pick you up whenever you want.”
There’s a sense of wonder in Claudia’s voice as she shares the memory.
It’s more than the offer of caseworker to client. It’s the kind of promise a mother might make, if she wasn’t out of reach.