Replanting the family tree

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Joe Trout has battled family dysfunction, foster care and homelessness, but he's still on his way to a doctorate in chemistry.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Joe Trout has battled family dysfunction, foster care and homelessness, but he's still on his way to a doctorate in chemistry.
Posted: August 22, 2013

JOE TROUT dug into his backpack, pulled out a bottle of aloe hand sanitizer, squirted a glistening glob into his palm and rubbed his hands together. Then he peeled back the lid on the aluminum food container to reveal a warm slab of vegetable lasagna. He began to eat - slowly.

He chewed methodically. He paused between bites. He ate so slowly that the lasagna cooled, the cheese hardened and yellowed.

Trout, 22, spent most of his teen years in foster care - first in a shelter, then in a group home, later in a secure facility for violent kids. In these places, meals were regimented - the simple joy of savoring food was a luxury. That is why he savors it now.

"I learned to eat uncomfortably fast," he explained, "because if I didn't, my food got thrown out."

Trout also learned, after aging out of foster care and becoming homeless, the importance of hand sanitizer. Like eating slowly, getting sick was, as he put it, "a luxury that I couldn't indulge in."

Trout describes himself as a "survivalist." Anne Marie Ambrose, commissioner of the city Department of Human Services, sees him as that and much more. He is the rare example of a troubled teen, unwanted by any foster-care family, who got dumped into so-called congregate care with other troubled and violent-prone teens, and managed not only to survive, but to triumph, she said.

"He is unique in a million different ways," Ambrose said in a recent interview. "I think there are a lot of amazing kids in the system, but I also think there are so many barriers and so much trauma that these kids go through. The resilience that he has exhibited . . . he made bad situations into something good, and many kids are not able to do that. He had the determination to say: 'This isn't going to be who I am. I am going to overcome this stuff.' "

Yesterday, Trout finished packing up his "worldly belongings" from the room he rented from an aunt in Tacony this summer. It was mostly books (like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and other "stereotypical nerd" reading materials, he said) and a month's stockpile of canned vegetables and soup.

He plans to leave today for Manhattan, where he will pursue a doctorate in chemistry after earning a full scholarship, including a roughly $20,000 annual stipend, to New York University's Graduate School of Arts and Science.

Admittedly germ-phobic and susceptible to panic attacks that trigger "the overwhelming sensation that you are dying," Trout said he is beyond nervous, although he has never allowed fear to hold him back. His endgame is to get his doctorate and ultimately achieve stability.

"I will actually have a stable future because of my own merits," he said. "When you grow up without something, acquiring it is a huge accomplishment. I think that people who have loving families in good neighborhoods will never understand that - that having stability in your life is one of the most precious things in the world."

Trout paused, his plastic fork suspended above the lasagna, and drew a breath. He felt the tears coming.

"That hit a string with me because it's so simple yet so deep for me," he said. "When your whole life is you constantly being pushed and pulled in different directions and then trap doors falling out beneath your feet, making you fall, these kinds of things, they are hard on somebody."

A downward spiral

Trout's trajectory through foster care - from shelter, to group home, to institutional lockdown - can be extremely damaging to kids, especially for "low-risk offenders" placed among "high-risk offenders," Ambrose said.

"When you talk to these kids, their experience in those settings is not good," she said. "I wouldn't let my children be in one of those settings. So why should it be OK for children who are dependent and part of the foster-care system to be in anything but a safe, loving home?"

Under Ambrose, the agency has embarked on an aggressive internal push to reduce the number of teens in congregate care and place them instead with foster families.

Trout was 14 in 2005 when DHS placed him in a West Philadelphia homeless shelter.

"That was the start of the darkest era of my life," he said, punctuating the sentence with a sound halfway between a nervous chuckle and a soft grunt. "Going into the foster-care system and being a ward of the state, where the state was my guardian and being put into these facilities, not even houses, but facilities to be taken care of. It was. It was. I would say all of the worst things that happened to me in my life happened there, not with my family."

Trout's path to foster care began when he was 6 or 7 years old. At the time, he and his older sister lived with their mother and her boyfriend in a double-income household in a Philadelphia suburb. Then his uncle, his mom's only sibling, murdered his girlfriend.

"It was a beating, with fists," Trout recalled. "Beating someone to death is a very slow process, a very brutal process."

Trout said he doesn't remember why, "it's irrelevant," but he does know that his mom grew depressed, broken, after it happened.

She lost her job. When he was about 8, the family moved into his grandmother's house in Frankford, where the public library offered an escape from abuse and neglect.

"That depression led to [her] drug use, which started out harmless and recreational but became heavy over a very long period of time," Trout said. "I know that she had personal issues at the time that turned her into something that wasn't pretty."

Trout said he wanted to leave it at that.

"I don't want to go around bagging on my family for not being able to handle the stresses of their life," he said. "I don't believe my parents were my enemy. I believe they were just regular people who had irregular hardships."

When Trout was 13, his sister, then a teenager herself, called DHS and asked social workers to remove them from their mother's care. The agency placed them with an aunt.

"This was a situation where the cops just dropped us off at her doorstep," Trout recalled.

It didn't work out.

After a few months with his aunt, Trout said, he punched a neighborhood girl in the ribs when she made fun of his clothes. His aunt immediately called DHS and said, "Come get him."

He described his proclivity toward fighting, punching anyone who angered him, as "a nonchivalrous kind of problem."

He spent a combined six months in the shelter and a group home in the same building at 49th Street and Haverford Avenue, where coincidentally his mom was in drug rehab on a different floor, he said.

During the day, he attended Bodine High School for International Affairs. Then he punched another student and got expelled.

He was shipped to a "higher-security facility," the Wordsworth Academy in New Britain Township, Bucks County. Violence was a daily, almost hourly, occurrence. Teens threw chairs at teachers, attacked one another, cut themselves. Once, a kid grabbed a pen during class and repeatedly stabbed himself in the neck, said Trout, who, at 5 feet 11 and 130 pounds, described himself as an "angry scarecrow."

He spent a year and a half in Wordsworth before his dad came to get him at age 16. Although he didn't stay with his dad long, the experience changed him.

"It took the will to be violent out of me, because I was so thankful to be out of there," Trout said. "I got out and hit the books really, really hard."

He enrolled at the Stephen A. Douglas High School in Port Richmond and in 2009 graduated as valedictorian.

He was accepted to Temple University but during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, he became homeless. His plans to live with an aunt and uncle fell through when his uncle, the breadwinner in the household, got sick and died.

He spent five long weeks on the streets of Kensington, looking for a job and a place to sleep at night, he said.

Desperate for food and a toothbrush, he stopped at the Achieving Independence Center on Market Street, near 12th. The DHS-funded center helps teens, poised to exit foster care, to become self-sufficient. Staff members referred Trout to a housing program run by Valley Youth House, which subsidized an apartment in North Philadelphia. At 18, Trout finally had a place of his own. Through various jobs and scholarships, he put himself through Temple and graduated in May with a degree in chemistry.

He said he thinks of this next step, at NYU, as "crossing a threshold" - a chance to "divert a branch of [my] family tree in a new direction," he said. "Kind of snapping it off and then moving it to a totally new fertile land and then starting a happy family there, giving my kids the kind of life I never had."

On Twitter: @wendyruderman

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