Minor Cords

Nothing inspires rage more than the cage of Child Protective Services, which operates without explanation or instruction. I still have a vivid memory of being hauled through corridors by the school disciplinarian, her hand gripping the back of my neck to deliver me to underpaid and overworked social workers. I had managed to dodge them a few days prior by running down one-way streets in the opposite direction until I was sure their car was no longer following me. The respite I gained was short-lived.

I had no choice but to go with them. Being pulled out of class had become routine. I remember the bitterness of defeat as they shuttled me to the Albert Einstein Crisis Response Center in a locked van. I would spend hours sitting in a room with other corralled children, doodling on recycled paper with broken crayons under the dim glow of a blaring television as we waited to be evaluated. According to my release form, I was discharged at 9:20pm with the instructions: “May return in case of emergency.”

Child Protective Services is meant to protect children from abusive homes and provide safe alternatives with consistent monitoring but often the system fails children. I only knew that the institution was a machine, one capable of destroying lives and spirits in its rigid methodology. And I felt it had failed me. I resolved to do anything to avoid it. And after years of living under the spotlight of the Child Welfare System, I wanted to be free.

My chance came in the form of two law students. After an intense impromptu conversation on a park bench, they scribbled down a number for their professor and urged me to give him a call. When I did, he told me the person who could help me was Bob Schwartz.

Schwartz started the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center in 1975 with three fellow law school graduates to “fill gaps in legal services to children, both in and out of court.” In the late 1960s the Supreme Court granted children a constitutional right to lawyers at trial in delinquency cases. The Juvenile Law Center stepped in to fill in the gap at a time when children’s rights were still more of a theory than a reality.

I didn’t speak to Schwartz until 2000. By then, he had ceased to represent cases in court for over a decade. But he was willing to talk to me from the moment he took my first call. I was sitting in a closet, the receiver held close against my mouth. I couldn’t see once I closed the door but I remember damp palms and a heartbeat pounding my eardrums. I had intended to whisper but I didn’t need to try. My chest was tight, my voice barely audible as I forced out the words. I refused to give him my name. I didn’t trust anyone. If there was one thing I learned from the collusion of social workers, teachers, counselors, doctors and police officers: minors have no autonomy and little privacy. Hiding in anonymity was the only way to protect myself – to avoid being dragged away in another van – or so I thought.

His number became a lifeline in the months that followed. Schwartz even coaxed me into meeting in person, where he outlined my options: foster care, group home, independent living or emancipation. Schwartz was lanky, his white hair contrasting sharply with his ruddy complexion. He still didn’t know my last name. But his bright blue eyes met mine and held. For once, someone was looking me in the eyes and telling me I had choices.

He explained what each option entailed. Foster care was a gamble and the least appealing. A group home would be equally as confining. Independent living would allow me a longer leash but emancipation would give complete freedom. Once emancipated, youth are legally regarded as adults and are no longer under the guardianship of their parents or the state. Assuming complete responsibility of oneself means there is no semblance of a safety net, if there ever was one to begin with.

Emancipation would be difficult, Schwartz warned. I wondered what his definition of difficult was.

Becoming a legally emancipated minor is not an option in states like New York and New Jersey. I was lucky enough to live in Pennsylvania, where it was a viable choice. I was even more fortunate to know there was a choice. Although I cannot find reliable statistics on how many youth become emancipated minors each year, I think most do not know it is a possibility. Instead, they disappear into more immediate escape routes like pregnancy, marriage, suicide and running away.

If children are able to survive an abusive home long enough to make it to their teenage years alive, many end up turning to the streets, unaware that resources exist and alternatives are possible. The streets are not safer than the nightmares they are trying escape at home but they do offer autonomy. When you are trapped and afraid, there is no better promise than self-determination.

Perhaps it would have been easier to live as a runaway and cut all ties to authority, without having to prove myself capable of independence. But I was tired of living a life that felt out of control; waiting for things to happen to me; waiting to get caught. Emancipation was proactive and no one could take that freedom away once I had it.

In order to become a legally emancipated minor, I had to prove complete financial independence. That meant getting a paycheck I could support myself on, living on my own and staying in school until I was at least sixteen.

I was a terrified teenager, prone to bouts of invigorating panic. I trusted nobody and yet I clung to anyone who noticed me. Anyone could become my savior in an instant because I considered myself in great need of saving.

I wrote letters for court, addressing them to whomever it may concern. “Please, I am sixteen years old,” one read. “I am standing up and representing myself and my rights as a minor and as a human being. This is my testimony.” The desperation in those early letters still makes me cringe.

Without the legitimate guise of emancipation, renting a place of my own hadn’t occurred to me as a viable endeavor. Prior to meeting Schwartz, my scope of living options was limited to sleeping in shelters, playgrounds or alleyways.

It was difficult to talk someone into letting me sign an apartment lease without a co-signer. Fortunately, I discovered any written contract would hold up in court as proof of a rent receipt. So I bargained with co-workers, friends and drug dealers to let me stay on couches or empty rooms for brief stretches of time. In exchange for cash, I accumulated a stack of crumpled scrap paper with rental agreements scribbled on the back to prove I was capable of self-sufficiency.

My first attempt to rent a room led to answering an ad that didn’t require a credit report or photocopied paystubs. I arrived at the dingy West Philadelphia apartment with the requisite cash in hand. The man who answered the door invited me in to scope me out. A few of his buddies were sprawled on the sofa, stoned. Once he determined I was gullible or desperate enough, I toured some of his slums.

The first room was located on a desolate strip in an industrial neighborhood. It appeared recently ransacked and the door lock seemed to be busted. He told me I would be sharing the room with an older woman who wasn’t there. I looked at the bare mattress, streaks of lipstick competing with darker stains, and requested an alternative.

He drove me to another rowhome with a less chaotic interior. Although he said the room was fully furnished, there was very little in the way of furniture. The house contained a refrigerator, two dumpy sofas, a large TV and a play station. The room I was offered came with another stripped down mattress, lying cockeyed on the wooden floor. I would be sharing the house with three grown men, all upstanding guys, he assured me. Although I ultimately declined the housing he had to offer, he held onto the cash I had given him.

Some of my housing endeavors were more successful than others. For a few months, I paid my boss to sleep in his 3-year-old daughter’s bed four nights a week, alternating with the couch every other night to accommodate his joint custody agreement. Another time, my friend, Jackie, bargained with her dad to let me stay at her house for two weeks in exchange for 50 bucks.

I had no fixed address, cycling through more than a dozen residences over the course of a year. I traveled relatively light, investing in my first suitcase and learning the delicate art of stashing it under counters at work, in basement corners or behind sofas. Sometimes I got lucky and other times I was robbed or ripped off.

I worked a lot of odd jobs, enthusiastically embracing my new roles as a waitress, daycare assistant, receptionist, nanny and typist. I was ecstatic when I landed a job at the Nifty Fifty’s Restaurant. Keeping my own cash tips at the end of every day was my daily reassurance that I was working my way out of there. The growing pile of money was proof that it was all worth it.

I was grateful for a job and clueless about labor laws that protected workers from unfair wages, overtime, discrimination and harassment. When my manager grabbed me by the hair, forcing me to bend backwards while he slobbered on my neck for the bemusement of regular customers, I said nothing and pretended to laugh along. Later, when I went down to his office to ask for my paycheck, I didn’t know how to respond when he hoisted me onto his desk and pulled my knees apart. So I pushed him back and joked about his fiancé.

I had no idea how to navigate the workforce. There was only one truth that I hung onto: I needed my job to become emancipated.

I prioritized my job over school, working doubles as often as I could. One morning, I arrived at work at 5am after closing at 2am. I was slicing loaves of bread when the knife missed and hit my hand. When I fainted, the back of my head caught the corner edge of a stainless steel counter, earning a deep gash that required stitches.

I was afraid to go to the hospital without the safeguard of emancipation papers and asked my manager, Lynn, to help. She arrived in the hospital to lie on my behalf, professing to be an aunt. I was sewn up amid the bustle of the emergency room and released. Lynn stuffed me into a cab to take me home. I crashed on her couch and bled over a sacrificed pillow as I waited for the wound to scab over.

I returned to work as quickly as possible. No one mentioned the incident but I still apologized for causing a scene. The hospital bill would be mailed to me later.

Enrolling in school without a guardian was more difficult than I anticipated. I tried schools with less violent reputations, turning over notarized affidavits declaring my independence. But ultimately I had to resign myself to attending South Philadelphia High School. It was the designated public school serving my last legitimate residence as a dependent minor and one of the worst in the city.

Although it seemed pointless, I attended school on a semi-consistent basis. It was a wild, restless holding pen full of anger. It was the perfect petri dish for a frustrated teenager and the only time I was suspended for fighting. I stayed in school after turning sixteen because I wanted stability. Although emancipation could give me greater autonomy in the present, education was an investment in the future.

Once I was officially an emancipated minor, I transferred for the third time to a school without metal detectors and a soaring drop out rate. I liked the structure it offered and struggled to catch up academically. I signed my own absence notes, talked frankly with teachers about my academic performance during parent-teacher conferences and tried my best to understand the importance of algebra and chemistry. As my confidence rose, so did my grades. Guidance counselors helped me submit college applications and my world opened up.

The first time I walked into a courthouse, I went alone. I still doubted that I was capable of carrying through with the legal requirements for emancipation. Walking up the steps of Philadelphia’s Family Court was intimidating. My fingers curled around the straps of my backpack, bracing my shoulders and serving as an anchor. I felt dwarfed by the massive columns and forced myself to walk through them. After spending so much time avoiding cops and social workers, it felt counterintuitive to initiate negotiations for my freedom.

No matter how much certainty backs your ascent into court, there’s something that changes a child when they stand for the first time to testify. The change is irrevocable.

Amid the chaos, the Juvenile Law Center became a safe space for me. Whenever I had a free afternoon, I would visit the office to read pamphlets and ask an endless stream of questions to whoever would listen. And when I wanted to give up, Schwartz would reiterate my options. Although he traveled a lot, I leaned on him for stability. On June 15, 2000, he sent me an email. I printed it out and folded the paper into sixteen squares to carry around in my wallet as a reminder.

“You’re no bother to me at all,” he wrote. “I live to help kids in your position – I’ve been doing this for 25 years… Even if you “disappear” as you put it, you should stay in touch with me. And if you disappear in Philadelphia, you can walk right in… I’m around.”

I wanted to write about other emancipated youth and hide behind their voices. I have searched for them, posting on message boards and public forums. I’ve cast about for a tether, someone else with a shared experience, searching the way a person might look for their birth mother after finding out they were adopted. I wonder how many of us are out there? I know I am not the only one. But we are hidden, our legal histories fade behind us as we age past eighteen. And our struggle for freedom in those early years become boxed up memories as we teach ourselves how to drive, open up our own bank accounts, argue with slum landlords and fumble through 1040EZs.

Still I wonder, what were the outcomes for other emancipated minors like myself?

Some people say emancipation does not serve the best interests of youth, claiming it only benefits parents by letting them off the hook.  It is not an easy process and I honestly don't know if it's better than foster care.  I've met a lot of foster youth who continue to receive financial & emotional support as they forge their way through college, after aging out of the system.  Once emancipated, youth don't receive any help. There are no support groups or guidelines.

As I write this, several emails sit in my inbox - inquiries from high school counselors seeking to help students who are considering emancipation. “One of my former students is living on his own and trying to revise his FAFSA to qualify for more financial aid,” one reads. “But when he called the federal court in NJ, they said the ‘emancipation law doesn't apply to NJ.’” They ask me for help, lacking a better roadmap.  

Without information, I would never have known how to dream. Sharing information and resources opens up choices. With choices, you can alter the course of your life. If I do nothing else, I want to at least give the choice to someone else. I am living proof that information is power; information is choice. As we continue to address the rights of children in the future, perhaps we can add emancipation to the public dialogue.

Freedom brought courage and fear into my life, two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. Both are vital for thriving. I had no idea how much that one call would change the course of my life. I hope this knowledge gives someone else the strength to pick up the phone.