Runaways face tough life on streets
Kevin Kositsky,18, takes precautions so no one sees
him entering or leaving the meter room that was his home. He keeps the
lights off and peers out the slats of the door.
(Sun-Sentinel / Melissa Lyttle)
Every scar on 18-year-old Kevin Kositsky tells a story
about his life on the streets. The knife wound on his back, the lighter burn on his
forearm, the oblong marks on his legs from a beating with the butt of a
shotgun. He points to an L-shaped mark on his cheek, where a
stranger hit him with a brick and then stole his wallet. "That's the
second time my sinus was crushed," he says.
From the time Kevin began running from foster care at
age 13, he took shelter in trash bins, abandoned buildings, electrical
meter rooms in strip malls and under bridges. Much of the time he was a ward of the state, "I was on
the streets," Kevin says. "I thought I was better off."
As of last week in South Florida, more than 150
children were runaways from the state's child welfare system, like
Kevin, willing to take their chances on their own, on the streets. Of 2,905 runaways reported statewide, more than 13
percent or 380 as of Friday, are foster children, some as young as 9,
who have fled Florida's Department of Children & Families. In 2000, the most recent year for which there are
federal statistics, 2 percent of the state's foster care children were
runaways, about double the national average.
They run from homes packed with a dozen or more
children and from caseworkers too busy to call, visit or learn their
names. They tire of being constantly shuffled among foster homes, and of
the stigma that comes from having no family.
"These are kids first abused and neglected by their
parents and then bounced among God knows how many foster homes," says
Stephanie Solovei, executive director of the Miami Bridge runaway
shelters. "They are running to any kind of acceptance." With no money, few clothes and little hope, these
children often wind up homeless and on drugs. Some resort to
panhandling, mugging, shoplifting and trading sex to get by.
"Life on the street is a terrible, dangerous reality,"
Sister Mary Rose McGeady, national president of Covenant House, a
homeless shelter for youths, said at a White House conference in
October. "Street kids are highly susceptible to being recruited by drug
dealers, gangs or prostitution rings who are actually in places like bus
stations to look for lost, confused and wandering kids."
During the past five years, at least seven runaways
from Florida foster care have died, including 17-year-old Marissa Karp
of Broward County, who was found shot to death in the Everglades in
DCF officials admit they have done a poor job keeping
children from wanting to run or protecting those who have. The head of
the agency now says runaways must become a priority.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel spent two months
interviewing current and former runaways, including a 12-year-old living
on the streets of Fort Lauderdale and a 19-year-old stripping for a
living in Broward County, to find out why they left and how they
survived. Reporters talked to experts and relatives and looked at public
records to piece together their stories.
Kevin Kositsky's adoptive parents returned him to DCF
custody when he was about 12. During the next six years he lived in more
than a dozen foster homes, group homes and treatment centers from
Miami's Liberty City to Tampa. He was enrolled in more than 10 schools.
"The caseworker would just show up and say, `Pack all
your stuff; we're leaving,'" he says. "If we didn't have a garbage bag,
they'd tell you, `Throw all your clothes in the trunk of the car.'
"I never even knew who my caseworker was half the
time. This is supposed to be my guardian. They don't even know my name."
Something as simple as buying a pair of shoes or pants
became an ordeal. "They'd give you a $25 voucher, and you'd have to pull
teeth to get it," he says. "I was in foster homes with 13 other kids in
two rooms. They send you to the ghetto. You know no one. Then you get
moved in a month. Eventually, you just do what you want. You don't
He wandered the streets of west Broward County and
low-income areas of Miami-Dade County. He slept in an abandoned
warehouse in Liberty City, next to railroad tracks strewn with garbage,
and on the roof of a Lauderhill strip mall. He hung out with friends and
other runaways under a bridge over a drainage canal on Oakland Park
Boulevard in Broward County.
"At first I slept behind Dumpsters and lowered the
lid," he says. "Then I figured out most meter rooms are open. You look
for a place that's covered, warm, where there's no mosquitoes."
He bathed in pools at apartment complexes when no one
was around and befriended other homeless people. Outside a Discount Auto Parts store in Carol City, a
man called Castro let Kevin sleep on his cot and wash clothes in his
"I was just looking to be with people," Kevin says.
"The loneliness will kill you. You walk down the street at 3 a.m., and
nobody knows you. "You never look anybody in the eye. You're
aware of all sounds. I slept with one eye open."
For money, he discovered trucks making late-night
deliveries and helped unload goods for $5 or $10. He says he also stole
to buy food or drugs.
"If I saw a necklace or purse, I'd take it," he says.
"I could take a car in three minutes."
He was beaten in the head and knees with a shotgun in
a fight with drug dealers in Lauderhill when he was 17. "Every now and
then, you get beat down," he says. "That's just the way it is."
No caseworker ever came looking for him, he says, but
occasionally, a police officer stopped him and asked, "What are you
doing here? Where's your home?" "I'd say, `I don't have a family. I don't have a
Last year, an officer looking for youths missing from
DCF came to a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Sunrise, where Kevin was
working, and led him away in handcuffs, he says. DCF sent him to the
Admiral House, a Pembroke Pines shelter with a history of fighting,
assaults and other problems severe enough to bring in DCF investigators.
"That's their help?" Kevin asks. "I ran that day."
He was committed several times to psychiatric
hospitals under the Baker Act, which allows children and adults to be
held involuntarily for up to 72 hours if they are a danger to themselves
or others. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness
characterized by extreme mood swings, and spent nine months locked in a
psychiatric center in Palm Beach County.
Kevin says he was on so many medications, "I
twitched." "They labeled me as crazy," he says. "It was just to
His lawyer, Andrea Moore of Coral Springs, says, "I
think they didn't like his behavior and attitude, so they put him on
medications and called him bipolar."
Broward Circuit Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren held a
hearing on his case in September 2000, while he was missing, and blasted
DCF. "I'm absolutely appalled," she said. "It looks like
nothing was done appropriately for this child. And as a matter of fact,
everything that was done, quite frankly, in this court's view,
contributed to his running away."
The state first took Kevin from his mother, a drug
addict and prostitute, when he was 3. He never knew his father. After
three years in foster care, Robert and Francine Kositsky of Sunrise
adopted him and his two sisters. Kevin's twin left the house at 15;
their younger sister remains with the family.
His adoptive father says Kevin was "a loner" and began
smoking marijuana at 9. He cursed at his mother, argued with his parents
and was repeatedly suspended from school, Robert Kositsky says. The Kositskys say they gave custody back to DCF to get
him help. He'd been caught throwing rocks from the roof of an apartment
building at girls in a swimming pool. He frequently wouldn't come home
or tell his parents where he was going. When he did return, he would be
high on drugs, Francine Kositsky says.
By 15, Kevin had been in several programs and group
homes, and his parents refused to take him back. "It was a horrible decision," Francine Kositsky says.
"We'd reached our limit. Drug dealers were coming around the house."
Kevin says, "I never felt like a son. I felt like a
Brittany, whose mother died in a car accident in 2000,
fled DCF care in October, the day her father dropped her off at a Fort
Lauderdale shelter, saying he couldn't handle her. She is 12.
"She learned the ways of the street very quickly,"
says her uncle, of Pembroke Pines, who has driven around Broward County
at nights searching for her. Sometimes, she and friends stay in vacant motel rooms. For a time, she lived with three brothers in a neighborhood near Sistrunk Boulevard and Sixth Avenue. "It's a known crack-buying area," he says.
He's found her hanging out at Fort Lauderdale's main
bus station and loafing with other teens at Huizenga Plaza, a park near
Riverfront mall. Each time she goes missing, her uncle passes her
picture around and asks other street youths to hold her and call him.
"That's how I keep track of her by going out in the
street and asking people about her, telling kids, `If you show me where
she is I'll give you $10,'" he says. "The kids bring me to her. They all
know where she is."
His night trips on the street give him reason to worry
about his niece. Teens have told him about "hunching," a practice where
boys encircle a girl and have sex with her. "They have these cute little names for rape," he says.
"She is under direct pressure to do this. She's [staying] with boys who
are 17 or 18 or 19 years old. She's been taken advantage of. She's had
to do things to survive that a 12-year-old should not have to do."
The uncle has tried taking Brittany home with him, but
she runs from there, too. "She just wanted to be back on the street with
her boyfriend," he says. "She needs professional help that we can't
provide as a family. She doesn't want to go to school. She doesn't want
to follow any rules."
Returning her to DCF does little good.
"There were days I'd bring her in the front door, and
she'd walk out the back," the uncle says. At least four times, Brittany
has been committed to psychiatric hospitals under the Baker Act.
On Jan. 30, she was released from Memorial Regional
Hospital in Hollywood and sent to a DCF shelter.
"She ran away immediately," her uncle says.
A sheriff's deputy found her within hours at the bus
station and returned her to DCF, where she ran away. Since then, she has
been hospitalized again, run away again. Most recently, she's been
living with her grandmother in Pompano Beach. On Friday she ran from
"I'm just absolutely disgusted," the uncle says. "DCF
can't put their hands on the kid. They can't lock her up. Once she
commits a crime or starts using drugs, then they can.
There's a hole
in the law that doesn't provide for kids that have behavior or mental
Brittany occasionally shows up at the Fort Lauderdale
home of Beatrice Rinehuls, whose 14-year-old daughter regularly runs
away from home, too. "I'm scared for these kids," Rinehuls says. "Adult
males are preying on them routinely." The two girls met at the Fort Lauderdale bus station,
dubbed "Club Terminal," by runaways, who lounge on the benches, dance
and play loud music. They walk two blocks to the main library, where
they use e-mail on the free computers.
"There are two phones they can use for free" at the
bus station, Rinehuls says. "They dial some code. These are the little
things they do to survive." Teens at the bus station found an 800 number that
gives them an open line anywhere in the country. The number no longer
appears to work from the station's pay phones.
Victoria Randolph, now 19, ran away from foster care
"every chance I got." When she was 13 she ran from a group home in
Broward County, where she'd been for three years.
"I was only supposed to be in a group home a year,"
says Victoria, whose mother died in 1988. "I was supposed to be moved to
a regular foster home. They wouldn't move me, so I ran away."
She stayed in vacant houses with no electricity or
water. She slept on the beach near Galt Ocean Mile, and used the outdoor
showers there. She passed the time looking for places to stay, smoking,
drinking and taking acid, she says.
"It just makes you forget about everything," she says
of the drugs. "You feel grown."
She kept in touch with her DCF caseworker.
"They always knew where I was, but nobody ever picked me up," she says.
Often, she says, the police found her and returned her
"Fifteen minutes later, I'm back out the door,"
Victoria says. "One day they picked me up like five times. Every time I
made it away again."
When she returned to DCF time after time,
she had eye infections from dirty contact lenses. "I rarely ate, when I
did, it was because someone bought it for me." At 5-feet-6, her weight
dropped to 88 pounds." I made it to the first nine weeks of the 10th grade,"
Victoria says, then she dropped out.
She works as a stripper for an escort service, earning
$100 plus tips for every party she attends. She found the job in
newspaper classified ads.
"If I could get a decent job, I wouldn't be doing
this," Victoria says.
Until recently, she lived with her boyfriend, Antron
Cobb, a telemarketer, at the Motel Sheridan Beach in Fort Lauderdale,
where a room rents for $200 a week. They kept two rabbits, Cotton and
Playboy, in a nightstand. Rabbit feces covered the floor. They often
cooked Hamburger Helper in the motel microwave.
While under DCF care, Victoria was hospitalized and
prescribed medicines for psychiatric problems. "I was always on an anti-depressant," she says. "I
just needed them to give me a good family I could stand a family that
wouldn't hit me and would listen to me and treat me like a normal kid."
Melinda Green has spent 17 of her 18 years in foster
homes, group homes and treatment programs from Palm Beach County to St.
She ran away the first time when she was 12 and living
at the Haven group home in Boca Raton.
Something as simple as going to a friend's house to do
homework required approval and a background check. If I needed stuff for school, I couldn't get it," she
says. "They expose that you're in foster care. I couldn't stand it."
She had a caseworker who was supposed to visit once a
month. "I really never got to see [her]," she says. She says her grandparents wanted to visit but couldn't
get in touch with her caseworker for approval.
Melinda ran to a friend's house. About a week later, a
DCF worker came to her school and asked where she'd been.
"I told him I felt like I was being mistreated, [my
caseworker] never came to see me, I was depressed." DCF sent her to a therapist and returned her to the
"I had to face consequences: No phone calls, I
couldn't go on any of the outings for two weeks, I couldn't get any
allowance," she says.
At 14, Melinda says she ran away from the Haven again,
this time for a month. "I was so depressed. They had just terminated my
parents' rights. I wasn't going to school.
I would just go to a
She ran to an older sister. "DCF never came. My
sister's boyfriend called the police," she says. "The police picked me
up and took me back to the Haven."
At 16, Melinda joined Job Corps, the federal
government's job-training program for at-risk youth, and went to
Morganfield, Ky. She lived on campus and trained as a medical office
She returned to her sister's in Palm Beach County in
July 2001. "I was still in the system," she says. "Foster care
didn't even know I was back." A friend's mother notified DCF, however, and Melinda
was taken from her sister's. She spent time in three DCF centers before she turned
18 in December.
Turtle Nest Village, a nonprofit organization for
former foster children, helped her find an apartment in Lake Worth.
She is studying for her General Equivalency Diploma,
or GED, hoping to go to vocational school for massage therapy.
In Miami in January, DCF Secretary Jerry Regier told a
special panel investigating DCF that he is "very concerned" about the
services the agency provides for teenagers and is examining what can be
done to lower the incidence of runaways. Should the agency create
additional group homes? Provide better self-sufficiency training so
teens can live on their own?
"That's the challenge we have," he said.
DCF spokesman Bob Brooks says: "One of the things that
we are trying to understand
and sometimes I don't think we do a good
job is what causes them to run away and how do we stop it."
Every state is struggling with runaways. "This is a
nationwide problem. It's not only foster care kids
It's all sorts of
kids, from all sorts of families," says Mary Allegretti, DCF deputy
district administrator in Broward County.
Child welfare advocates have some clear ideas about
what Florida needs to do. The state needs to keep children safe while
they are on the street, create drop-in centers or "crash pads," where
they can go for a sandwich and throw a sleeping bag down for the night,
without risking assaults, says sociology professor Les Whitbeck of the
University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
He also would like to see programs such as alternative
high schools that aren't strict on attendance, where teens can come and
go and learn to bond with adults.
"You've got to give the kids some control," Whitbeck
says. "But that's not the American way of raising children."
DCF officials acknowledge that a critical and
long-term shortage of homes in which to place teenagers makes life for
these foster children hard. Elizabeth Brown, founder and director of
Turtle Nest Village, says ideally that foster homes should be limited to
one teenager and group homes to no more than six.
A task force that Gov. Jeb Bush appointed in August to
find runaways and children missing from DCF proposed locking runaways up
if "their actions have put their lives in danger." But running away is
not a crime.
"We don't have the legal rights to imprison them,"
The Child Welfare League of America, a nonprofit child
welfare advocacy organization, is developing strategies to prevent
children from running away and suggestions on how child welfare agencies
can respond when they do.
They include: identifying children at high risk of
running away, training foster parents to recognize warning signs,
keeping children in one school, providing mentors as continuous figures
in their lives, giving children money for sports and music lessons and
reducing counselor caseloads.
Kevin Kositsky has his own ideas. "What the system
needs is real love and real care," he says. "Kids need a place they call
home forever and people to love them like their own."
DCF should stop shuffling children among multiple
places, he says. "Keep them in one place long enough to make friends and
go to school, not just wander around the ghetto with no shoes, wondering
if your caseworker is going to call. You just live each day. A future is
Since he turned 18 in December, Kevin has bounced
between his adoptive parents and great-grandmother. For a time, he lived
in a meter room of a strip mall on University Drive in Lauderhill. The
thin mat and pillow he slept on are still on the concrete floor, along
with an empty Coca-Cola can, rows of stacked pennies and a blank job
Kevin doesn't know how long his latest return to his
adoptive parents will last. His last stay at home ended in a violent
eruption when his mother pressed a rule about his friends and girlfriend
visiting at night. He broke two chairs, she called the police, and he's
on six months' probation.
But he passed his GED this month and talks of going to
community college and getting a medical job. He hopes his story will
help improve life for other foster children.
"I don't have any pictures of me as a baby," he says.
"I don't even know what I looked like. I never felt loved. There's no
one to stick by you.
"These kids know no one's going to cry when they die."
By Sally Kestin and Megan OMatz