Mateo Jaime arrived at the court hearing that would, finally, end his years in custody of the Alaska Office of Children’s Services in a buoyant mood.
At age 21, young adults “age out” of foster care in Alaska if they have not been adopted or reunified with parents. A judge approves it in a hearing that amounts to a grim bureaucratic formality: A child has passed into adulthood without the foster care system laying a path to permanent legal family for them, and now they are on their own.
“It really is a failure of the system,” said Anchorage Superior Court Judge Josie Garton. “It’s not really supposed to happen.”
Jaime is one of 67 young adults in Alaska who have aged out so far this year, according to the Alaska Department of Health.
But there was nothing grim about the third floor of the Nesbett Courthouse in downtown Anchorage on Wednesday afternoon. Jaime, a witty, irreverent 20-year-old who spent five years in foster care, saw to that.
Usually, the legal process of leaving foster care makes barely a whisper: A telephonic court hearing with social workers and lawyers talking. Sometimes just a court order on paper. Jaime wanted something different, a moment to formalize stepping into adulthood and to memorialize everything he’d been through in the past five years in OCS custody.
He arrived dressed with celebratory flair for the occasion: He wore a dramatic cape, a shiny blue shirt with a lavallière bow, sleek fox fur-trimmed gloves and a weighty chunk of turquoise around his neck, symbolizing his intention to move to New Mexico in the future.
“You know how people say they are clutching their pearls when they’re offended?” Jaime said, making a mock horrified face. “Well, I’m going to clutch my turquoise.”
He brought an entourage. Around 4 p.m., friends and supporters filtered into the courtroom, filling the gallery. There was John Lutterman, Jaime’s UAA cello professor. Les Gara, a former lawmaker who is running for governor and a longtime advocate for young people in foster care, was there. There were fellow young people who had been through the foster care system. Friends he’d met volunteering on political campaigns.
Jaime’s path to this afternoon had been painful. He grew up mostly in Texas, including time in foster care. His father is in prison. His mother is dead. In 2017, he moved to Alaska to stay with relatives. That didn’t work out, and he ended up in Alaska Office of Children’s Services custody at 16.
In his time in foster care, he had 14 living placements, including months at North Star psychiatric hospital he says he never agreed to nor needed. There was a foster home where he had to dodge animal waste all over the carpet and where he was told repeatedly that he was “worthless.” He went through seven caseworkers, including one he says didn’t contact him for half a year.
But he’d taken up the cello, mentored by Lutterman. He’d gotten involved in Facing Foster Care in Alaska, an advocacy group made up of youth who have experienced the system themselves. He’d been on trips to lobby politicians in Juneau to improve laws for kids. To escape a foster home he says was abusive, he argued for the chance to move into the UAA dorms early. He’d been living in the dorms for the past two years.
Young adults from 18-21 who remain in OCS custody are supposed to get help from the state, including classes on learning to open a bank account, budget, apply to jobs and other skills. Still, many kids age out straight to homelessness: Each year, about 40% of kids who exit foster care end up at Covenant House, the Anchorage crisis center for homeless and at-risk young people. Forty percent is a conservative estimate, said Jessica Bowers of Covenant House.
Jaime wasn’t one of them. At UAA, he was pursuing a double major in music, studying cello and legal studies. His long-term plans included law school. Sometimes adults had to talk him out of taking an absurdly heavy course load.
“I’m so driven because I realized, based on my situation and circumstances, that I don’t have anything to fall back on except for homelessness,” Jaime shrugged.
As the hearing began, Superior Court Judge Josie Garton asked about Jaime’s plans. He wanted to stay at his job until graduating from UAA. Then, the plan was to move to New Mexico to establish residency and apply to law school.
“It offers 50 percent off to in-state residents,” Jaime said.
Garton ticked through a list of practical concerns: Would Jaime be receiving the years of PFD payments the state had, in theory, held in trust for him? Was he connected to his tribal organization, from the village of Emmonak? Did he have a way to get health care? Were there supportive adults that he could call up, if he needed? The packed courtroom seemed to answer in the affirmative to that one. Garton noted that often, these hearings were more somber: There were real concerns about what a young person’s future would be.
Then Jaime had a chance to talk. People in the gallery passed around a Kleenex box for tears.
“For most youth, aging out is a really scary situation,” Jaime told the courtroom. “Because it feels like they aren’t wanted by society or by foster parents.”
He said he had learned how to advocate for himself. He was establishing his independence.
“I don’t need adoption to be valuable,” he said. “I know my own self worth.”
Amanda Metivier, director of the UAA Child Welfare Academy, remembered first meeting Mateo when he was wearing a gold lamé shirt at a Facing Foster Care in Alaska group retreat. The child welfare system ascribes success or failure to statuses like “permanency,” meaning adoption or reunification. And neither of those worked out for Jaime, he’d created his own, she said.
“Mateo has created his own sense of permanency and has proven the system wrong in so many ways,” she said. “He knows what he needs and what he wants. And I don’t think it’s a failure in terms of what the law says versus what his life is, and what it will be. "
The judge ordered Jaime released as of Nov. 5, his 21st birthday. “You’re the type of young adult that the system would like to produce,” Garton said. “But the system didn’t produce you. You produced yourself.”
Everyone clapped and hugged and posed for a group picture with Jaime in the middle. A plan formed to get sushi across the street afterwards.
And with that, Mateo Jaime walked out of the courthouse into softly falling snow on Fourth Avenue, out of the custody of the state of Alaska and into the rest of his life.