No papers -- and little hope of advancement

Many days, Jamal King stands at South Vermont Avenue and West 46th Street in South Los Angeles, his muscled arms covered with tattoos flaunting his membership in the Rolling 40s, a drug-running criminal gang.

His former foster father often drives past slowly, wagging his finger.

"I know people look at me and just see a gangbanger," King said. "It's not really who I am. It's just temporary."

But King's hope for a better life is hobbled by more than poverty and his surroundings -- he lacks a birth certificate.

He was born in a car 20 years ago as his mother tried to get to a hospital. By age 2, he was being raised by Los Angeles County's child welfare system. At 18, he was sent by the system into adulthood without a single form of identification: no driver's license, no Social Security card, no way to prove who he was.

Unable to qualify for even an individual taxpayer identification number, he has less ability to navigate through society than an illegal immigrant. He can't open a bank account, obtain a job, receive government benefits, enroll in higher education.

"It's like I don't exist," King said. The only form of identification recognized by authorities is his fingerprints. "In jail, they know exactly who I am."

Not long ago, a state assemblyman wanted King to travel to Sacramento to testify about a bill designed to help get papers for people in his position. King couldn't make the trip. No one could figure out a way around identification requirements at the airport.

King is among a small number of people in their late teens or early 20s who have sought help establishing their identities from the Alliance for Children's Rights, a nonprofit law firm that works for abused and impoverished youths out of a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise.

Those without basic papers, like King, were usually born outside of hospitals. No birth certificate was automatically generated, and their parents never filed for one.

State officials say it is difficult to know how many young people are affected. At the alliance, managing attorney Lara Holtzman said her organization typically hears about one new case a month.

"And these are just the kids who somehow find us," she said.

Eighteen-year-old Dominique Freeman of Los Angeles was born in a hotel room. When she was 3 days old, the county began caring for her after her mother tested positive for cocaine.

The county eventually placed her in the care of her maternal aunt, whom she credits with keeping her focused in school and ambitious about her future. When she was 16, Freeman wanted to pursue a summer job, but her aunt told her that the absence of a birth certificate would prevent that.

"My aunt told me that the Department of Children and Family Services assured her that they were going to do it for me," Freeman said. "My aunt said she didn't know how to go about doing it because she was not the mother."

Last year, Freeman was forced to turn down a scholarship to Cal State Northridge and delay her admission for one year while she waited for her papers. Now she spends most of her days watching television in the home of extended family members. Freeman said she feels cut off from the world.

"I have a lot of friends," she said, "but it's been hard because I can't work, and I have no money and that means I can't go out with them."

With help from the alliance, she received her birth certificate this summer and will be able to start school in the fall. But it's been a terrible year waiting. Her aunt died shortly after she lost her scholarship, and she has survived on the good graces of relatives who offer her small amounts of cash and a temporary place to sleep.

In Panorama City, former foster child Sergio Romero, 18, also waits. Lacking identification paperwork, Romero said, he cannot drive and doesn't qualify for Native American benefits he believes he should be entitled to. He was born in a hospital, and a birth certificate should have been issued, but it has inexplicably disappeared.

In all of the cases, Holtzman said, her firm has struggled to find a way to expedite paperwork with the state, and she fears the process will drag on for up to a year. For a delayed birth certificate to be issued, each client must convince a judge that they were born in the U.S. and then wait for the state to issue a certificate.

In King's case, foster care officials and, later, juvenile probation officials were long aware that he lacked basic identification documentation. Although both agencies have procedures to obtain birth certificates for children before they leave their systems, King was among an undetermined number who fell through the cracks.

Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) is sponsoring AB270, a bill in the state Legislature that would strengthen the mandates that no children leave the system without basic documents. It is currently stalled because of the state's budget problems.

"These situations offend our sensibilities because foster children are, in essence, children of the state," De La Torre said. "We are being really horrible parents in carrying out these basic aspects of preparing our young people to be an adult."

In King's neighborhood just south of Exposition Park, job openings at fast-food restaurants attract lines that wrap around the block. Men his age roam the streets aimlessly, drinking beer as they ride their bicycles, crowding the basketball courts for hours at Vermont Square Park.

King's final foster home is steps away from the corner where he now hangs out. He was sent there at age 9, his 26th placement in seven years. Aubrey Manuel, now 51, said he knew the young boy he was taking in had a violent temper. King's outbursts against other children had led other foster parents to ask that he be removed.

But Manuel refused to send him away, and he eventually found ways to help King work through his anger.

"My mantra here is stability," Manuel said. "All of my children come from multiple failed placements."

Manuel said that when King turned 12, he began pressing social workers in the Department of Children and Family Services to file for his birth certificate.

"The answer," Manuel said, "was always: 'We're working on it.' "

At age 14, King committed a robbery that sent him into the county probation system. Over the next few years, more violations kept him a ward of the Probation Department for the rest of his childhood.

Records indicate that the department was aware he lacked a birth certificate, but show no evidence of efforts to obtain one for him.

"You can imagine how difficult this problem would have been for a probation officer with a caseload of 70 problematic kids, trying to file this all alone," said Jed Minoff, a probation official.

Manuel said his foster care licensing agreement required him to prohibit King from staying in the house after he turned 18 because of his criminal past. He regretfully turned King away.

King began to sleep on a small couch in a cramped backhouse across the street. His friends there -- members of the Rolling 40s -- were themselves kicked out of their families' homes or left behind when their parents moved away.

"All of the sudden, I look up and Jamal has all these gang tattoos," Manuel recalled. "I said, 'What did you do?' He says, 'It's the only thing I got right now.' It was just total desperation."

King describes gang life as oddly nurturing, and most people he passes on the street nod in recognition as they step across his gang moniker spray-painted on the sidewalk. The territory of the Rolling 40s and its allies, he said, is "so large you couldn't walk a circle around it in an afternoon."

He is also mindful of his confinement and how much peril he is in. He has dodged gunshots. "Those are my enemies," he said, pointing to men standing on a corner two blocks away. "So that makes it a little dangerous to stand here."

Although he walks the streets with emblems of prosperity -- new Nikes, a flashy smart phone -- it's not hard to see how poor he is. Despite the small payments he said he receives from his patrons in the Rolling 40s -- "$5 here, $10 there" -- he buys his cigarettes one at a time. He goes out of his way to avoid stores charging 50 cents in favor of the store asking 35 cents.

"Somehow I eat every day," King said.

He has an on-again, off-again relationship with the mother of his 2-year-old son, Jamal Jr., but he struggles to pay for the train ticket to Riverside to see them. Meanwhile, he and his friends meet women by shouting "eh!" as they drive down Vermont Avenue with open windows.

"We take care of ourselves," he said. "And sometimes a little girlfriend will give me $5."

He sometimes gets offers of legitimate work, but with no Social Security number or way to cash paychecks, he has to turn them down. "The lady next door wanted me to take down her roof, but she was writing checks," he said.

A girlfriend wanted to move to Las Vegas and start a new life, but he didn't want to go until his papers arrived. A friend's father offered a job installing computer network wiring, but it too required identification.

King first asked the Alliance for Children's Rights for help last November. The firm, after struggling to navigate a judicial maze, finally persuaded a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to act last month. The judge, using statements from King's aunt and grandmother, verified his birthplace and identity, and he ordered state officials to issue him a birth certificate. King hopes to receive it before his 21st birthday in September.

Until then, he lives with a short-term, day-to-day horizon. "I just try to live in the present, come what may."

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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