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Saving Isaiah
Comments () | Published March 1, 2010

Isaiah now has an apartment with a roommate. The first night in his new place, he found it was too quiet to sleep. Photograph by Matthew Worden.

He adored his mom. When she was doing okay, they’d go to the movies together or watch the dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. He’d ask Aunt Angie if his mother could spend the night in his room, and he’d offer to sleep on Angie’s floor. Once when he took his mother’s cigarette lighter and burned a pile of napkins, she put his hand over the flame to teach him not to play with fire. She’d often tell him, “There’s no point to lying.”

Isaiah was visiting his mother the first time he saw someone overdose. He was watching Power Rangers in the living room, and a male friend of hers was sitting on the couch. Isaiah looked over and saw the man struggling. His mother kept screaming at her friend and touching him, but he was gone.

He was seven when his mother started getting so sick from AIDS that she had to stop taking him places.

“Isaiah, I can’t do it no more,” she told him.

Aunt Angie would take him to the nursing home after school, and he’d lie in bed with his mom.

“When you get better,” he asked, “you gonna take me to Chuck E. Cheese?”

Isaiah is planning to get a tattoo of his mother’s name, Gwendolyn, on his arm. Rinker doesn’t like it when the teens get tattoos. “One of our kids got a gang tattoo of a gang he’s not even in, just to defy me,” she says.

Rinker thinks about what will happen when they’re trying to get jobs. Maryland teens age out of the foster-care system at 21; about a quarter nationwide spend at least one night homeless. Because Isaiah got in trouble with the law, his case belongs to the Department of Juvenile Services, not the foster-care system, so he could lose state services sooner.

Rinker calls them “our kids” because she often feels like a parent. She was at the movies on a Friday night when Isaiah called to ask for a curfew extension. When she hands out $150 gift cards for the youths to use at the mall, she reminds them that they won’t get much if they buy the most expensive brands. But they’re teenagers: Isaiah would rather have a pair of New Balance shoes and a couple of polos than a bunch of cheap shirts. “I’m obsessed with horses,” he says.

The FutureBound staff has two offices in Village Square West, the same Rockville apartment complex where the teens live. The kids walk into Rinker’s office all the time, often without knocking. One afternoon a teen threatened to beat up his roommate, a girl refused to go to tutoring and stormed out cursing, and a young man with a four-year-old daughter failed a drug test.

When the guys have a question they can’t ask a woman, they ask “Mr. Deon,” the assistant coordinator. Deon Smith, who grew up with a single mother in DC, often drives one of the staff’s white vans, taking teens to therapy appointments and court dates. Kids go to Rinker when Smith says no.

“She gives them the time to cry or beg—I don’t entertain it,” he says. “People aren’t going to show you any sympathy when you get older because of what you went through as a youth.”

When kids turned in their savings money late, Smith sent them to talk to the manager of the apartment complex. “Ask her, ‘What’s an acceptable excuse for not having the rent on time?’ ” he told them. “There is none.”

The Baltimore Isaiah knew as a child wasn’t all bad. He heard a lot of sirens and avoided certain street corners, but he felt safe walking to the store to buy gum so he could blow bubbles in class. Not much happened on Aunt Angie’s block, because older neighbors called the police. At night she kept him in the house.

One day Isaiah’s father told him to wait outside Aunt Angie’s after school so he could pick him up and they could spend the afternoon together. Isaiah got dressed and sat out on the steps. His father, who ran a home-improvement business, didn’t come around often—Isaiah’s aunts didn’t like the way he’d treated Isaiah’s mother when they were together.

He waited five hours, ignoring the kids who asked him to play, but his father never showed.

Isaiah had always been a challenge for Aunt Angie, and he became angrier after his mom died. He eventually ran away. He knew people who sold drugs, and he needed money, so it wasn’t hard for him to start.

My mother and father were into drugs, he thought. Might as well.

He learned the rules of street life: Never put your hands on a white woman. Never hit a young girl. Never shoot a kid. Never steal from your own family.

If he did all that, he was told, he’d stay alive.

When Sheryl Brissett-Chapman joined NCCF in 1991, one of the first things she realized was that kids in the group home were staying too long. Some had been there more than five years—a year was enough. It’s hard to find foster parents who want to take in teenagers, and some kids can’t be reunited with their own families. The teens’ behavior was regressing.

Chapman started FutureBound in 1995 and rented a group of apartments in Lanham, but she soon discovered that the complex was overrun with drug dealers. One boy in the program was found growing a marijuana plant in his bedroom.

She moved FutureBound to Aspen Hill, but after several years the area became a hot spot for crime. Some teens in the program started getting mixed up with troublemakers in the community. “The police said, ‘You are really in the wrong neighborhood,’ ” Chapman says. “So we moved to a more expensive community.”

The apartment complex in Rockville, where rent for a two-bedroom apartment like Isaiah’s is about $1,500, is filled with families. Roberta Rinker worries when her phone rings and it’s the rental office. Counselors do apartment checks every three to four hours—including overnight—but she and her staff are responsible for 18 teenagers. She’s received calls about loud music and clutter on balconies. A woman who lived below a FutureBound apartment complained so much about the music that Rinker moved the youth who was living there.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 03/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles