Opportunities Just Beyond His Grasp

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The case of Erwin Celes, a 19-year old Hawaiian youth who committed suicide six months after aging out of foster care, where he had spent 14 years, was shocking to the Hawaii social services system, but Celes’ life in state care illustrates almost every finding of a 2004 Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago study of foster children as they were about to age out of care.

The study results are drawn from the first report of the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Conditions of Youth Preparing to Leave State Care, which has tracked former foster children to age 23 or 24. One more evaluation at age 25 or 26 is scheduled.

Celes received numerous services from Hawaii programs, but never was able to thrive. The remarks in his case files, made public after his death, are often repetitive in language and substance.

Each time Celes seemed close to breaking out of the anger and failures that marked his life, the opportunity slipped just beyond his grasp.

Erwin Celes

On Sept. 7, several weeks after his former girlfriend hanged herself, Celes was found hanging from a rafter at his mother’s workplace – a mother with whom he had had only scant contact since he was 6.

This is a reconstruction of Celes’ life, based on the redacted case file, which was released by the state Department of Human Services in November, after questions were raised about how Celes had been treated in state care.

1997

Erwin Viado Celes came to the attention of child welfare officials in early December after teachers at his older sister’s school were worried because she missed school often and was performing poorly. Called in to discuss the matter, the 14-year-old girl told authorities that she was no longer living at home and had moved in with a friend several weeks earlier to get out of her mother’s house.

The girl told authorities that her mother was using crystal methamphetamines and left the children – there were four in the home – to fend for themselves. The girl said the children ate “whatever they could find.” She reported that several men periodically lived at the house, which police later said was a suspected “drug house.” The father was largely out of the picture. Erwin, born March 12, 1991, was well past the age to begin school but was not enrolled; he spent the days, instead, at home with his mom.

Almost 43 percent of youth surveyed by Chapin Hall said their parents regularly abused drugs. More than half (58.7 percent) of the youth in the survey were removed from their homes due to reported neglect.

1998

The Hawaii Department of Human Services took custody of Erwin, his 14-year-old sister and his two brothers and placed them with their paternal aunt and her husband on Jan. 23. Although the relatives initially expressed interest in adopting the children, Erwin and his siblings were later removed from the home because “there were concerns of emotional and physical neglect, and lack of appropriate supervision and use of physical discipline by their cousin.”

Almost one-third (32.7 percent) of surveyed individuals had at least one brother (including half- and step-siblings) who was in foster care at the same time as they were; 21.4 percent had two; 32 percent had at least one sister in foster care.

1999

Permanent custody of Erwin and his brothers was awarded to the DHS on Jan. 28. His sister was to stay in long-term foster care without permanent custody, because she continued to have a strong emotional attachment to their parents. Another sister was already living with maternal relatives in the Philippines and was unaffected by the developments in Hawaii. Although officials wanted to consider Erwin for adoption, they feared for the health of his mother if her parental rights were terminated.

Celes remained under state supervision until his 19th birthday last year.

2000-2001

Though another uncle expressed interest in adopting Erwin, he was unable to meet unspecified requirements, and Erwin and his sister were given a new placement on Jan.7, 2000. His brothers were placed in a separate home, partly because one said he didn’t want to live with Erwin, because Erwin had embarrassed him in the past.

Despite a more stable home situation, Erwin, who was in third grade, struggled academically, and case workers requested that he be evaluated for special education. Erwin’s sister was in and out of the home and frequently ran away and/or refused to attend school.

Nearly half of all foster youth (47.3 percent) had been placed in a special education classroom at some point.

2002

Erwin’s sister aged out of the foster care system in May.

2004

The next entry in Erwin’s case files, dated September, notes that Erwin, now in seventh grade, had been in trouble for fighting at school and was falling behind in his classes. In what would become a common theme over the following years, Erwin was remorseful for his actions, said he knew he could “do better,” and told caseworkers he wanted to stay with his family even though he knew his “auntie” and “uncle,” terms of endearment used even though the adults were of no direct relation, were angry with him.

Based on statistics of academic achievement for all youth nationwide, over a third of those in the foster care system consistently receive lower grades than their peers. The survey noted that other students “report approximately two times more instances of A’s in their academic classes than foster youth,” with little differentiation across subject matter.

2005

Erwin’s see-saw relations with his caretakers intensified in 2005. A February report stated he was back in school with a more structured after-school regimen and his foster parents tried to give him a bit more freedom while still monitoring his whereabouts. But the next month, he ran away for nine days after testing positive for some type of drug.

He turned himself in and was taken to the Hale Kipa Shelter for Boys, having decided he should “get cleaned up and get some services for his drug use.”

Though reluctant to move away from “his friends and his comfort zone,” Erwin agreed to consider a new placement with his former foster mother’s daughter and her husband. He was officially placed with them on March 17. By May 21, he had run away, after becoming angry with his foster father because he was not allowed to go to a movie.

A June 27 entry reported significant improvement in Erwin’s behavior, noting that he had been “compliant, helpful around the house without too much prompting, a self-starter with his home schooling assignments, continues to love paddling for … canoe club, is lovingly interactive with the … three children, and has responded very favorably to church instruction and participation.”

In August, Erwin was picked up by local police and again taken to Hale Kipa Shelter. By Aug. 23, he was back in school and entered therapy to deal with his “anger skills and his fight or flight response.” By the first week of September, however, he had already been suspended twice for fighting, and he was asked to leave school on Sept. 8.

Erwin was placed with a therapeutic foster family in October.

More than half (53.8 percent) of the Chapin Hall survey respondents reported that they had had three or more foster placements. Forty-six percent said they had run away from a placement, and more than two-thirds of those (64.7percent) had done it multiple times.

Less than a third of all foster youth regularly got in trouble at school, with 27.8 percent having received an out-of-school suspension. For those who were reprimanded, failure to pay attention was the biggest culprit, with 32.9 percent reporting they had been in trouble a few times; 21.7 percent said it was a weekly occurrence.

2006

At the beginning of February, Erwin was again suspended for fighting, but by the end of the month, he had returned to school and counseling. By May, Erwin had managed to achieve Bs and Cs and was doing conditioning for kickboxing and football.

2007

A quarterly report noted that Erwin, now 16 and a freshman in high school, had “stabilized considerably” in his placement and therefore would have to leave the therapeutic home at “some point.” His caseworker suggested that the positive placement in the therapeutic home resulted from the fact that Erwin shared his new family’s Filipino heritage. Erwin had become very active with his school’s kickboxing team, had found a mentor and role model in his coach, was in good health, and remained in therapy. He continued to struggle with schoolwork, however.

“His low performance remains inexplicable,” wrote his caseworker. “Erwin is very capable academically and continues to acknowledge that he must be consistent with his homework, not a distraction in class, and avoid the challenges from the other provocative youth in school.” Erwin continued to have some contact with his birth mother, sister and brothers, connections he had maintained over the years.

Though half (51.6 percent) of surveyed individuals regularly saw their birth mother and a quarter (25.8 percent) had seen their birth father in the past year, almost two-thirds (65.5 percent) had seen their siblings at some point during the previous 12 months. Just 37.4 percent said they felt very close to their biological mother, while 61.7 percent said they felt very close to their current foster family.

2008

Erwin remained in DHS custody, but caseworkers were exploring the possibility in February of awarding co-permanent custody to his foster family, after a new placement with his sister “failed to materialize.” A sophomore in high school, Erwin had been picked up by police who had found him sleeping in a stolen car. He continued to maintain grades in the B to D range, but he was no longer in therapy.

In assessing his ability to live independently, his social workers wrote: “[He] is very capable of making useful decisions, … his sensibilities are basically intact and he knows how to self-regulate and the difference between right and wrong.”

In May, Erwin told a counselor that he was finding it increasingly difficult to avoid fighting at school. Erwin told his caseworker in September that he would try to do better academically, as his final grades from the previous academic year had been poor. Erwin also expressed interest in joining the military and was employed part-time at Burger King.

His grades continued to be low and his attendance erratic throughout the rest of the year, though Erwin again said he would try harder and believed he could improve. He declined counseling.

In December, Erwin decided to join the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program, because he had fallen a year behind in school academically and said he no longer had interest in coursework. Through Youth ChalleNGe, he could receive his high school diploma while preparing for active military enlistment. “[He] is a well- intentioned youth who respects his elders and his goals and wants to succeed,” his caseworker wrote. “He rarely blames the system and intends to succeed. He believes Youth ChalleNGe is a more practical route to achieving a future.” Erwin again declined counseling.

Almost half of all survey respondents (49 percent) said they aspired to graduate from college, and 45.4 percent expected they would graduate from college.

2009

Erwin began Youth ChalleNGe orientation on Jan. 20; his caseworker reported that he was “excited” to start the program. But he left without authorization for several days in mid-February, allegedly because he’d had a fight with another cadet and was trying to control his fighting by leaving. He turned 18 in March; state custody was continued for a year to allow him to complete the Youth ChalleNGe program.

He returned to the foster home for the Easter holiday in April, after 12 weeks of the program, and continued to meet with his caseworker, who noted that he had already “received awards for good conduct and excellent school and physical fitness achievement.”

In May, Erwin was on track to complete the program, would receive his GED in June, and expected to enlist. His program mentor would be responsible for monitoring him for one year. He was given some instruction on independent living.

The last comments in Erwin’s case file state that it is being closed officially in August, but that his current foster family would “allow him to stay with them when he completes Youth ChalleNGe, and he considers them family.”

Between 40.6 percent and 50 percent of foster youth said they would turn to someone in their foster care agency after they had aged out if they needed help with a variety of issues.

2010

Erwin formally aged out of foster care on March 12. Though he talked of joining the military, he drifted among several different living situations and took a job as a shift manager at a local Little Caesar’s pizza parlor, where he was well-liked and a good employee.

He hanged himself on Sept. 7. The autopsy report stated that toxicology tests found he probably had used methamphetamines about the time he died, and he also had traces of marijuana and nicotine in his system.

Of the 732 individuals interviewed for the survey, only 21, or 2.9 percent, said they had ever been depressed. The majority of youth (58.2 percent) said they were very optimistic about the future, compared to 3.8 percent who said they were not optimistic at all.

According to 1999 federal data, 20,000 foster youth nationwide leave the system each year and attempt to live independently. Of the 732 individuals surveyed by Chapin, only four fit Celes’ Asian/Pacific Islander demographic.