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Thursday, October 28, 2004 - Page updated at 02:29 P.M.

Growing out of foster care

By Cara Solomon
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Tamelia Cormier makes the walk from the foster home behind her to Franklin High School in June, renewing her effort to become the first in her family to graduate from high school. Only half of foster-care youths in the state finish high school or earn a GED within a year of leaving the system.
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This is how it should have been:

A few minutes of glory on that Qwest Stadium stage, walking across to the thunder of clapping hands. Her hair back in braids, her eyelids brushed with color, her feet pressed into sandals she bought in eighth grade.

The green graduation gown billowing behind her.

But that's not how it was. Because with three weeks left in her senior year at Franklin High School, Tamelia Cormier went to bed.

And that's where she stayed most of May. She would get herself up to work her shifts at McDonald's. But the rest of the time, she just lay under the comforter, her hair all nappy, her mood not nice.

"Why be nice?" she would snap. "I ain't lived a nice life."

Tamelia's story


Hear Tamelia and experience her story through a narrated slideshow. Caution: Contains strong language.

Fostering hope (Quicktime)
In her South Seattle neighborhood, the facts of Tamelia's life are so common they can seem a cliché. A mother battling drug addiction. A father living most of his life in jail. A child separated from her siblings and living in foster care, in a house that never became home.

Sometimes Tamelia makes a joke of it, calling herself a crack baby. Sometimes she pushes her pain into poetry, trying to make it sound pretty. Most of the time, she uses the past as fuel, turning the anger to power, dead-set on being the first in her family to graduate from college.

But trying so hard takes energy. And one day last spring, Tamelia got tired.

"Just kind of gave up at the last minute," she says, looking down at the floor.

As she lay in bed, the phone calls trickled in: the caseworker at the YMCA, the counselor at the school, the social worker with the state — all the people who had seen her work so hard, for so long.

But these phone calls could not pull Tamelia out of bed. These phone calls were not from family.

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Tamelia has slept late on a July day, exhausted from working on her feet all weekend. She reminisces aloud about how her boyfriend, Leon, picked her up from work the previous day and drove to a shady spot by Lake Washington. While she rested there, Leon rubbed her feet.
And then one morning, it came back to her: what life could be. So a few days before the rest of her class graduated, Tamelia put on her makeup, ironed her hair straight, walked a few blocks and got the information on summer school.

She was ready to try again.

On any given night in Washington state, the foster-care system houses more than 8,000 children. Some stay in the system a few weeks. Some, like Tamelia, spend most of their childhood there.

Each child's care costs taxpayers about $5,000, excluding any medical bills, for every year spent in the system. When they turn 18, and age out of foster care, the hope is they will become independent, productive citizens.

The odds are not in their favor.

"Normal kids from well-functioning, upper-middle-class families aren't ready to be on their own at 18, let alone kids with this kind of baggage," says state social worker Karen Rall.

The state Department of Social and Health Services reported this summer that only half of foster-care youths had completed high school or earned a GED within a year of leaving the system. Only a quarter had started some college classes. Fewer than half were employed; of those, about 47 percent were making poverty-level wages or less.

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Tamelia scours the fridge at her foster home the day before her 18th birthday. On her agenda for the big day was a step toward independence: the written exam for a driver's license.
Recent studies identify teenagers in foster care as especially vulnerable to depression, substance abuse and pregnancy. Without intensive support, advocates say, teenagers leaving foster care will simply transition from one state agency to another. About one-third of former foster youths were enrolled in at least one public-assistance program within a year, the state's study found.

The state was sued in 1998 on behalf of 3,500 foster children, all of whom had been moved at least three times. Multiple placements often hit teenagers the hardest, says Uma Ahluwalia, director of the state's child-welfare system.

In settling that suit, the state promised several reforms, including creating a youth advisory panel and a "Foster Care to College" initiative.

"It will be a slow journey for us," Ahluwalia says. "Change and reform and improvement take time."

So Tamelia took it on herself to make mentors of her teachers and coaches at Franklin High. She earned herself an MLK Jr. Scholarship, one of 25 granted to students in the Mount Baker neighborhood. She got a job at McDonald's.

And as she neared the critical age of 18, she signed up for a YMCA program that helps foster children move into housing and on to college. It took calls to three caseworkers, but she got her name on that list.

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Laughter comes freely to Tamelia at McDonald's, where she thrives on her chats with customers and co-workers.
"She was the one who said, 'I'm going to be turning 18 and I need help,' " says YMCA caseworker Karlie Keller. "Kids never advocate for themselves like that — ever."

Through it all, Tamelia has stayed stable, living in the same house with relatives for more than a decade. In foster-care terms, that makes her lucky.

But a peek inside her life shows how hard it can be to help teenagers in foster care, and how tangled life can be for those children, how easy it is to trip and fall.

Because at the end of the day, the YMCA closes. The teachers go home. And what Tamelia needs most, the state can never give.

"Love," says her grandmother, Jacquelyn Nduka. "I don't think she gets enough."

What was

To hear her father tell it, Tamelia Cormier was just about the prettiest baby on the ward at Group Health Hospital in Seattle. She had a face made for magazine covers, all quiet and pure.

A visiting aunt thought she surely belonged to some other couple. Surely not to Thomas Cormier and Yvette McCullouch, two teenagers in love.

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
In the front yard of Tamelia's foster home sits a car whose primary function is a bench. This particular day in July is Tamelia's 18th birthday, but she says it's "just another day." She's joined by cousin Yanita Cater and friend Dyshaun Wray.
At 18, Yvette was already the mother of two sons. Thomas was 16 at the time, a charmer with a juvenile record stretching back years.

They came to their love with aches. Yvette's mother drank. Thomas' father was known to hit; his mother fled, leaving the kids with relatives.

The couple started using drugs when Tamelia was a toddler. And the state stepped in a few years later, placing Tamelia, her brothers and an infant sister in foster care. Soon after, Thomas was sent to jail to serve a 10-year sentence for felony assault.

Yvette got her children back a few years later, after she had given birth to another son and daughter. She had convinced caseworkers that she could provide a stable home. But instead, Yvette took the family on a year-long trip through South Seattle, moving from one man to another, and giving birth to another child along the way.

The family lived in abandoned houses, in friends' apartments, sometimes on the streets.

Tamelia remembers that time like this: Yvette would go all sleepy and sloppy from drugs. Tamelia would try to wake her up. If that failed, she would walk to the playfield in the neighborhood to ask for spare sack lunches left over from baseball games. If none were available, she made meals from the cereal, buttermilk and syrup she found in the kitchen.

It is a point of pride, all these years later: Tamelia played the mother to them all. It was a role she did not want to give up.

By the time she was 7, it was gone.

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
"You know I've got to wear a cap tomorrow, right?" Tamelia asks as her cousin Yanita braids extensions into Tamelia's hair before graduation in August.
Tamelia blames the whole thing on the state, saying social workers split up her family. But her case records say differently: A year after Yvette regained custody of her seven children, she began to shed them, a few at a time.

Joyce Johnson, a relative in South Seattle, took in Tamelia and her 5-year-old sister. She was tired of seeing the children wander around the city, their belongings in a plastic bag.

The rest of Tamelia's siblings, including another newborn, were separated into three different homes in the years to come. Joyce, who works for a government agency in the city, continued to care for Tamelia and her younger sister without state support. Later, she became Tamelia's legal guardian.

The girls stayed together for five years, close as sisters could be, posing in their ballet leotards, one in purple, the other in pink. Even now, that photo is taped into Tamelia's diary.

The closeness came to an end when Tamelia's sister turned 11. In a house with older cousins, she started mimicking their moves — skipping school, breaking curfew, ignoring Joyce.

Joyce says she asked the state to transfer the girl for her own good. Tamelia's sister was sent to a foster home north of Seattle.

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Tamelia gets a kiss and flowers from boyfriend Leon Pittman Jr. at graduation. "Leon, he pushes me to be a better person," she says.
What is

Late at night, in a bedroom at the back of a tired South Seattle house, Tamelia writes poetry. She writes on the backs of homework assignments, on spare scraps of paper. She writes her life out, trying to make it rhyme.

Sometimes she reads her poems aloud at open-mike nights. Sometimes she records the words over music. Once she was invited to Las Vegas to perform, but didn't have the money to go.

"It feels good because I have a talent," she says. "I can make people sad from reading my poetry."

She writes propped up in bed, her ragged bookcase on the floor, her sketches and paintings tacked to the wall, her clothes in plastic trash cans.

She tries to write her anger out here. But sometimes, it gets too big for words.

Under the wall calendar, right by the light switch, two fist marks strain the plaster.

Tamelia put them there one night last spring after a fight with Joyce. They were bickering, again, over who owned what food in the refrigerator, when Tamelia screamed a question:

"Why did you take me in?"

Joyce didn't answer. She just walked into her bedroom and slammed the door behind her.

So Tamelia did the same. And then she smashed her fists, one after the other, into the wall of her bedroom. She cracked the plaster with her knuckles, then left the blood there to turn brown.

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
With her graduation from Franklin High School minutes away, Tamelia adjusts her cap, admitting her excitement.
Tamelia struggles sometimes with the simple things, like spelling or grammar. But Janine Brodine, her sophomore English teacher at Franklin, saw past that. Sure, it may take Tamelia longer than most to read a book — but when she's done, she understands it.

So it was Brodine who nominated Tamelia for the MLK scholarship. And it was Brodine who gave Tamelia an old school computer that was destined for the dump. Together, they dragged it on a tin trolley to Tamelia's house a few blocks away.

"There's just something about her," Brodine says. "She has this sense of impending greatness."

But in her last semester, all teacher Dale Haefer ever got was attitude.

Tamelia decided early on that his U.S. history class was a waste of time. The homework was too hard. And what idiot decided to schedule a class at 7:40 in the morning? On the days she bothered to show up, she didn't even pretend to listen.

Haefer knew Tamelia had challenges at home. But so do lots of students. He cares about them all, but invests in the ones who are willing to work.

"One of the advantages to getting older is you know which things to fight for," says Haefer. "Ultimately, it's their responsibility."

At McDonald's, life is clear: Rush here, rush there, hand the food over with a smile. Tamelia flirts with the boys, teases co-workers, puts extra sprinkles on the ice-cream cones for the children who watch her, wide-eyed. The managers support her, the customers thank her, the eight hours fly by.

But when her shift is over, Tamelia's shoulders sink down and her face goes back to stoic. There are so many things to do to make life the way it should be.

And in the middle of all those things, there are the funerals.

It's so hard to keep track of them that Tamelia has stopped going. There was the triple murder of her aunt Pat, her cousin T.Z. and her cousin's daughter Champagne. That made the front page of the newspaper a few years ago.

Then there were the others, barely mentioned in the newspaper: Uncle Ricky, Uncle Antwone, her friend Mike, all of them shot dead or stabbed.

"This last year has been the hardest," Tamelia says. "So many people dying, so many things to do."

By the end of July, the month that brought her 18th birthday, she has done all this: caught the bus to summer school two mornings a week, then caught the bus back in time for work. Called an apartment manager, made an appointment, filled out the paperwork. Passed the written driver's license test and bought a used car, or "bucket," with two weeks' pay.

She has done all of these things, but it has taken a toll.

"One minute I'm nice, the next minute I'm mean, the next minute I don't make any sense," she says.

She decides to move to Florida with her father, then rejects that plan. She wants to study cosmetology, then signs up for a course on day care. Three times she tries to end it with Leon, then swings back and calls him her husband.

It started with a piece of paper. She walked by one day in eighth grade and he had covered a page with the words "I like you."

The real romance waited until her junior year. Kisses and cuddles and bus rides across town to see movies. Leon Pittman Jr. was not into all that flashy stuff that brought people down. He was good and solid and sweet. But not too sweet.

"Leon, he pushes me to be a better person," Tamelia says. "He tells me what I do wrong."

On the good days, Leon is the man she wants to marry. On the bad days, he is just another thing on her to-do list. She pulls away sometimes, suggests they break up. But Leon starts to cry. He gives Tamelia a list of all the reasons he loves her, right down to the size of her earlobes. And he reminds her: He is the one who loves her unconditionally.

"Where else you going to find that?" he asks.

What should have been

When Tamelia rose to accept her $3,000 MLK scholarship last winter, two people were there to clap for her: Brodine, the English teacher. And Keller, the caseworker at the YMCA.

Tamelia plays down the award now, calls it the scholarship for "broke, black people from the Mount Baker neighborhood." But she talks about the ceremony like it's proof of how her parents always let her down.

To be fair, Tamelia didn't invite her mother. Without a permanent home, Yvette is hard to reach. She has been trying to pull herself out of addiction for 18 years now — but if you ask Tamelia, she is not trying hard enough. Yvette could not even clean up for her own brother's funeral last year. Tamelia watched her fall asleep during the service.

"She looked like she was in so much agony," says Tamelia, who picked a fight with her after the funeral. "I was like, 'Aren't you tired of this yet?' "

Sometimes Yvette will show up unannounced at Joyce's house. She will wait on the couch for hours to see her oldest daughter. But the reunions never last long. And they don't really stay with Tamelia — not like the years spent apart.

Tamelia did invite her father to the scholarship ceremony. Thomas has been trying to make things good with Tamelia since he got out of jail three years ago.

"She feels like she has to raise herself," says Thomas, who lived with distant relatives most of his childhood. "That's the way I always felt."

Thomas lives on disability insurance, and he splits his time between his girlfriend's apartment in California and his mother's in South Seattle. He tries to give Tamelia advice, to play the father she missed for so many years.

Sometimes he gets it right, singing "Happy Birthday" over the phone, charming his way through a parent-teacher conference.

Sometimes he gets it wrong. The scholarship ceremony was one of those times.

"I didn't feel like going, and she said it was no big deal," he says. "I knew it was important, though, so I drove her there and picked her up."

If you ask Joyce, it seems pretty clear: Tamelia asked too much of foster care. Didn't she have a roof over her head? Her own room? Even a washer and dryer to clean her clothes?

"She shouldn't have been so bitter," Joyce says. "To me, she was whining too much."

But Tamelia wanted more. She wanted the same praise, worry, encouragement, inspiration and support she saw Joyce give her own. If Joyce could invest so much time and money helping her grandson through college, couldn't she show up at Tamelia's scholarship ceremony?

But Joyce was working two jobs, sometimes coming home past dinner, sometimes working weekends. She was busy with court dates, trying to get one of Tamelia's cousins out of trouble. She had better things to do than hold Tamelia's hand.

"Nobody gave me nothing," Joyce says. "I done it on my own."

So when calls were made to school about Tamelia, they usually came from a social worker, not from Joyce. Social workers taught Tamelia how to hunt for jobs, how to save money, how to prepare for life after foster care.

"Joyce has got a lot on her hands, but she's a good woman," says Tamelia's grandmother. "She really cares about them kids. She might not show it in the way the kids want her to, but she cares."

But the way Tamelia sees it, Joyce would never have sent her sister away if she really cared. So Tamelia strolled right on through that house, eyes straight ahead, no respect for anyone. She didn't wash the dishes, didn't sweep the floor. She screamed and yelled and sometimes threw things.

"I got nothing to say about that girl," Joyce says. "And that should say everything."

A magazine photo of a sonogram is taped to a page deep in Tamelia's diary. Beneath the photo, she has drawn a headstone, and written "R.I.P." on it.

Below that she wrote the date of her baby's birthday. Or the day that should have been her baby's birthday: February 28, 2004.

When the sex started, Tamelia insisted on condoms. She would not end up like her mother, with children she could not afford. But one night, she and Leon made a mistake.

Tamelia could have started a family. She had played mother at 7 — why not at 17? She knew where to find resources, which counselors to call.

But it would mean losing Leon. Who could raise a child with a father who wasn't ready?

The baby was not the first thing she gave up for Leon. Months before, there was the opening at Job Corps, a free program that would have taught her a trade.

But she heard it would mean moving to Portland. And Leon said he could not stand to be apart.

What could be

Nine-year-old Zakarrah dangles her legs over the side of a booth at Denny's restaurant in Renton, her head bowed over her older sister's diary.

So many diaries through the years, but this is her sister's favorite. Sturdy and strong and unwilling to fall apart. And the cover is so fine — all fuchsia and furry, with plastic crystals at the center of blue-stitched flowers. There are girly doodles of Leon's name on one page, blue-inked tears on the next.

On the last page is a photo collage Tamelia has made of six of her seven siblings. She writes poems with them in mind, promising to stay strong, to never let them down. But truth is, if she passed some of them on the street, she would walk right on by, not knowing they were kin.

Zakarrah has lived in a foster home, with other relatives, for years now. She doesn't complain, but Tamelia is determined to get her out anyway, to piece back what she can of her family.

So this is the plan: Enroll in parenting classes, get licensed as a foster parent and take Zakarrah to live with her in some quiet neighborhood — someplace like Queen Anne Hill.

She already mothers the girl as much as she can from miles away. She gives her pencil cases in the fall and new shoes for Christmas. She buys Zakarrah a pink bike and teaches her to ride. She puts in tutoring time after school. She forces Zakarrah to read out loud, so she knows the girl is not cheating.

"I'm going to raise her, before I have any children of my own," Tamelia says.

It sounds like a fairy tale to Zakarrah. She has never spent a whole weekend with her older sister. It's hard to imagine having entire years together.

And there's this question: What if I miss my foster family?

"You have to deal with missing people," Tamelia tells her. "It's a part of life."

What she did

Graduation day finally arrived in August. It came in a smaller package than Tamelia had hoped for, with only three other seniors beside her at the John Stanford International Center. The anthem was played on a boom box.

Her parents were not there. Her foster mother was not there.

But Leon was there. So was Zakarrah, and their two older brothers.

They all stood smiling at Tamelia in her cap and gown, the first in the family to graduate from high school. That got the brothers talking — maybe they would try for that GED, maybe even college.

They posed together for pictures, taken by cousins with disposable cameras. There was a suggestion: how about one of just Tamelia and her brothers?

"No, I want my sister in this picture," snapped Tamelia, pulling Zakarrah back into the frame. "These are my siblings — they all go together."

When it came Tamelia's turn to give a short speech, she stood at the podium and smiled her sweetest smile, her lips all dressed up in gloss, her hair braided back, her eyelids lined in green to match her gown.

"I'm finally graduating," she told the small audience. "It wasn't the way I wanted it to be, but I'm grateful."

Then she stepped down from the podium to start the rest of her life.

Postscript

Tamelia Cormier began cosmetology classes last month at Seattle Vocational Institute. She works the night shift at a McDonald's in downtown Seattle, spending much of the $7.16 an hour on bills, groceries and car repairs.

She is still dating Leon.

And in late August, she moved out of her foster home and into a village-style apartment complex in South Seattle. She pays about half of the monthly rent, and the YMCA Independent Living Program pays the rest until she graduates from school.

Outside the apartment building, there is a tall, sturdy tree in the yard; if all goes according to plan, Tamelia's children will one day play in its branches.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Betty Udesen: 206-464-8146 or budesen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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