Adrift in society - how one young life was salvaged

`WHEN I was little, all I wanted was a mommy and a daddy and brothers and sisters to play with in the park, like everybody else.'' That's how Maria Motta, now in her early 20s, summarizes her childhood hopes and dreams - dreams that were never realized.

Maria's experience typifies that of many thousands of young people who've gone through a child welfare system that is often stretched to its limits, and where personal concern and tender care - of the kind needed by any child - can be rare.

Her story, unlike that of many others who have languished in foster care or group homes, has had a relatively happy ending. She's now on the staff of the Youth Action Program, a New York-based agency, helping other young people glue their lives together.

Maria shared her experiences at a recent symposium here on children's issues. It was sponsored by Children's Express, a news service whose reporters are 13 or younger and whose editors are teen-agers. Adults do the final editing and help administer the program. Much of the coverage by Children's Express is devoted to such concerns as foster care, legal rights of children, and war toys.

The saga related by Maria brought a human dimension to the discussion of issues by the experts gathered here.

For her, foster care began at age 3, alternating with group care in state-supported institutions. Education, says Maria, was forgotten. ``I was always told you got the best care because the state is taking care of you - that's like totally garbage.''

When she reached her teens, she moved in with another in a succession of foster families. This proved a disaster. Her foster mother beat her, said Maria, and an uncle sexually harassed her. She tried to get help from the people at the public school she was attending, to no avail.

Finally, she decided to run away. ``But try to find a place to live at 16 with no job and no education. And I didn't want to live on the streets and become a prostitute,'' she says. So she went to a homeless shelter where the staff advised her to go home - an option she rejected.

Her foster mother was called, however, and came to get her. Determined not to go back, Maria relates how she got the woman to hit her on the premises of the shelter. That worked. She wasn't forced to leave. Instead she was referred to the welfare agency that had handled her case.

A case worker - whom she hadn't met before this ``crisis'' arose - talked with her and her foster parents. According to Maria, this individual wouldn't believe her pleas to leave the foster home.

Finally, she was told that the only alternative was to return to group care, an option she accepted. But her troubles followed her - nightmares about the beatings she had endured and thoughts of suicide.

She was referred to a mental institution for three months, feeling all the time that she ``just needed someone to help me, to hold me.''

She stayed in the group home until she was 18, when she was put out on the street with $500 from the state. After a couple more years of wandering in and out of shelters, she finally found the help she needed at the East Harlem branch of the Youth Action Program, a New York agency that draws on both private and public funds and offers services to young people of all ages. The staff there taught her ``how to be empowered'' - how to start making sound decisions about her life. For the first time, she says, ``I felt like more than a statistic.''

At first she didn't trust the people there either. But nobody tried to force her to talk, and eventually her story ``all spilled out.'' Maria is now on the staff of the agency, helping other people adrift in society.

``I don't feel sorry now for what I've gone through,'' she said. ``I use it to help the people growing up in that society now.''

In her view, the strength of the Youth Action Program is its commitment to consulting the kids themselves before plunging into a project. Many of the projects spring from the youthful participants, she says. An example: Maria's own idea about peer counseling for young women who have been through situations similar to those she had known.

Maria was fortunate to find a place like the Youth Action Program, according to William W. Treanor, executive director of the American Youth Work Center in Washington. ``Most of these kids don't find agencies like that,'' he says. ``They don't connect.'' Too often the result is homelessness, crime, alcoholism.

``Like Maria, they're dropped off a cliff at age 18,'' says Mr. Treanor, one of the participants at the Children's Express symposium. What can be done to help more of these people? Treanor emphasizes better support for community-based youth agencies which, he explains, live a hand-to-mouth existence year in and year out.

Independent living programs, designed to help teen-agers emerging from the child welfare system acquire such basic living skills as job-seeking techniques and sound ways of handling money, are another note of hope, he says. Congress appropriated $45 million for such programs last year, money recently made available after having been bottled up by the administration for nearly a year. It will be next fall, at the least, before local programs made possible by the federal funds actually start up. Linda Greenan of the Child Welfare League points out that the United States foster care system includes 67,000 16- to 20-year-olds, many of whom could benefit from such programs.

What are the stakes for society in helping young people like Maria Motta become productive citizens?

Another symposium participant, James Lardie, founder and director of the Association of Child Advocates, says that when people hear about concerns like poor foster care, homeless kids, or children being held in institutions, ``It's like, it's just another social issue.

``It's not,'' he asserts. ``It's the future of this country.''

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