Life After Foster Care: A Tale of Two Boys In 1994, Tovan Love and Troy Saunders were teens at a group home in Washington, D.C. They were filled with optimism about the future. Twelve years later, we report on what happened to the young men -- and their dreams.
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Life After Foster Care: A Tale of Two Boys

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Life After Foster Care: A Tale of Two Boys

Life After Foster Care: A Tale of Two Boys

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the course of reporting, you meet a lot of people whom you talk to for an hour or two, you learn a little bit about them, and you move on. And sometimes you wonder, years later, what became of those people. For me, it happened a few months ago, when I became curious - for reasons that I cannot fully explain -about the lives of two 13-year-olds I'd interviewed in 1994. They were roommates in a small group home for foster children in Washington, D.C. - Troy and Tovan.

Unidentified Woman: The second floor. There's his room.

Mr. TROY SAUNDERS (Foster Child Residing in Group Home): We do - I read books and do computers.

Mr. TOVAN LOVE (Foster Child Residing in Group Home): We have a large library. It's very big. We like to read books.

SIEGEL: The two boys had a lot in common. Both of their mothers were crack cocaine addicts. Both mothers had kids by several different men, and both failed to provide for their young sons. So Troy and Tovan both entered the disaster that was the Washington foster-care system. It was so bad, it had been taken over by a federal judge.

But their group home was a rare showplace: eight boys, ample staff, a sketchy neighborhood, but a well-run temporary home. These two kids - 13 years old in 1994, both separated from their families, both troubled and already acting up -told me with astonishing innocence and optimism about their lives in the group home and before they got there.

Troy spoke first.

Mr. SAUNDERS: Life can't get no better than this.

SIEGEL: It can't? You've got everything you need?

Mr. SAUNDERS: Here, yes.

Mr. LOVE: Where I grew up at, Clifton Terrace, I wouldn't have nobody to look over me. I was taking care of my brothers and sisters, and I was practically the adult of myself. I didn't have no adult people to look over me.

SIEGEL: But you couldn't have been more than 10 when you were living there.

Mr. LOVE: Yeah.

SIEGEL: And you were looking after little ones?

Mr. LOVE: Yes. And I was like, making the money for my family. And I was going to school, but I wasn't doing what I was supposed to in school.

SIEGEL: You were making money for your…

Mr. LOVE: Yes, I was like bumming, going to the gas station, pumping gas, and doing those kinds of things.

SIEGEL: Troy, you're nodding. Do you have a similar experience?

Mr. SAUNDERS: Same here.

SIEGEL: Same experience?

Mr. SAUNDERS: We didn't have that much food, didn't have electricity and stuff, things like that.

SIEGEL: You mean the electricity would be cut sometimes?

Mr. SAUNDERS: Cut off.

Mr. LOVE: And like times, where I was living at, the only thing that could be in the refrigerator is like a piece of potato or a couple of potatoes. And my brothers and sisters be hungry, so I just put them in the stove or - and cook them for them.

SIEGEL: Have you ever thought about the possibility of what it would be like to be adopted, or wanting to be adopted?

Mr. LOVE: Yes. I did think about it.

Mr. SAUNDERS: I have too, but I can't live with my mother. I rather stay in a group home, because now I been with this house for two years now, going on three. And that's amazing.

SIEGEL: They're like your family in here, huh?

Mr. SAUNDERS: Family.

SIEGEL: Troy Saunders and earlier, his roommate Tovan Love, back in 1994. I wondered what happened to them after that and what they made of their years in foster care. Back in '94, the boys were minors, so I wasn't even told their last names. But, through various database searches, we found news first of Tovan, and later, of Troy. And the news was not good. In this part of the program, what happened to Troy and Tovan.

First, Troy.

(Soundbite of police radio)

SIEGEL: A few weeks ago, we met his mother.

(Soundbite of police radio)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) you have a pick on Charlie and (unintelligible)…

SIEGEL: Barbara Saunders was at a Washington, D.C., jail. She was doing time for possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute. She has eight children by four different fathers. Troy was her first child. When he was born, she was 17.

Ms. BARBARA SAUNDERS (Troy Saunders' Mother): I had left his father when I was pregnant with him, with Troy. When he saw Troy again, Troy was 16.

SIEGEL: That was the first time that…

Ms. SAUNDERS: He saw…

SIEGEL: Troy saw his father.

Ms. SAUNDERS: Mm hmm.

SIEGEL: When did the drug problem start? How old were you when that…

Ms. SAUNDERS: I was 22. And it started - as a matter of fact, it started on Troy's birthday, March the 29th, 1987.

SIEGEL: Her mother had just died. Barbara says they had argued recently and never reconciled. She felt unresolved and turned to drugs. She says she didn't have a job.

Ms. SAUNDERS: I didn't have to work then, because my mom won the lottery. She was the first black person that won the lottery in D.C., 1.2 million. We had the money left to us. I was a little spoiled.

SIEGEL: The lottery and the kindness of men supported Barbara's drug habit. She and her two brothers shared in a one million, $200,000 payout. The brothers made solid lives for themselves. But she was addicted to crack, and she couldn't support her own kids. Troy's siblings had fathers to go live with, but Troy didn't. So he went into foster care.

Ms. SAUNDERS: He wasn't taken from him. I gave him to the group home, because Troy was a little - getting a little too wild for me. I mean, Troy was starting to stay out late at night at 9 years old, 10 years old, stuff like that. Then he just started to get disrespectful. So me - to not to do anything to him that's what I thought was the best thing. I put him in a group home.

SIEGEL: When Troy and Tovan were roommates, Stacy Taylor(ph) was their counselor at the group home. He remembers Troy as a boy who was great at basketball. And Mr. Taylor, who is an impeccable dresser himself, says Troy always looked good.

Mr. STACY TAYLOR (Troy and Tovan's Group Home Counselor): No matter what he was dressed in, he was always immaculate: nice smile, very pleasant, very eager to meet new people, and very jovial. Loved jokes, was a prankster - a very good, young man.

SIEGEL: Did you have, back in 1994, great expectations for Troy when he left, or would it be a struggle just for him to get out and graduate from high school and have a job?

Mr. TAYLOR: Oh, I had great expectations. As a matter of fact, we had a family day one day at the group home. It was entitled 2010. And each of the boys who were residents at that point pointed out what they would like to be doing in the year 2010. And so, of course, Troy had his pick of what he wanted to do as well. He wanted to be in the NBA, and if not doing that, to be a successful doctor working with children.

SIEGEL: From the group home, Troy was placed in a Christian school in upstate New York that had a famous basketball program. We're told he got homesick. He didn't make it through the eighth grade. So, as a teenager, he was placed in the care of Barbara's youngest brother, Mark.

Mr. MARK HILL (Troy Saunders' Uncle): Hey, put them in there and turn it up.

SIEGEL: Mark uses his father's last name, Hill. At 33, he runs maintenance for a housing complex in a Maryland suburb of Washington. He says he likes working with his hands. He's got pictures of his kids on the desk in his basement workshop. He was just eight years older than Troy when his teenage nephew came to live with him.

Mr. HILL: Hey, I was green. I was real green.

SIEGEL: Barely out of that stage of life yourself.

Mr. HILL: Yeah, well, I had to grow up fast myself. My mom passed when I was 14, and I had to grow up. So I knew where Troy was coming from.

SIEGEL: The young uncle says he loved Troy like a brother and tried to guide him. But it was tough.

Mr. HILL: Troy was a typical young man. He wanted to run the streets and have fun. But I tried to stay on him as much as could for him to finish high school. But he decided that he didn't want to.

SIEGEL: So he didn't. Mark suggested that Troy enlist in the military.

Mr. HILL: When he was 19, I tried to get him to go towards the service. I explained to him that he probably can play overseas. I said, if it's something that you like doing, give it a try. He talked to the recruiter twice, but he didn't go through with it.

SIEGEL: While he was living with his uncle Mark, Troy was once caught shoplifting, and then he didn't show up for his court date. Otherwise, he kept out of jail and generally out of trouble. He worked in fast food restaurants, supermarkets, and a nursing home. It still pains Mark Hill to recall the news that Troy told him two years ago: he was HIV-positive. Everyone in the family says Troy was not gay and was not an IV drug user. It was probably from unprotected sex with a girl. Mark Hill was devastated.

Mr. HILL: In a way, I thought that I did something wrong. I thought I didn't show him the right way or didn't - wasn't there for him. But then I had to realize my wife told me it wasn't my fault. But it did hurt, because I knew that one day that that was going to take my nephew away.

SIEGEL: On Friday, February 24, 2006, a month shy of his 25th birthday - just a few weeks before we had made contact with his family - Troy Saunders died of AIDS.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

SIEGEL: He left behind two kids of his own.

Ms. DIANE TOWLES (Troy Saunders' girlfriend): I'm glad that he has two kids. You know, because at least he left something behind. You know what I'm saying? Leaving something behind is better than even nothing behind, you know.

SIEGEL: Diane Towles was Troy's girlfriend. She's 24, she lives in a cramped 3-room subsidized apartment in the Anacostia section of Washington. The floor is littered with children's toys, diapers, and various pill bottles. She has a 4-year-old daughter by another man, and Troy's two sons. Troy, Jr. is one and a half. Their baby, Jaden, was born in January.

(Soundbite of children talking)

SIEGEL: Troy's teenage sister, Tia, is also living there. His 7-year-old brother, Tyrese, was there on two days when we visited, even though he should've been in school.

Unidentified Child: No!

SIEGEL: The neighbors who drop by all remember Troy's smile and good nature, his love of kids. There are no pictures of him displayed. Unlike a son of doting parents, no one seems to have been archiving Troy's life in photo albums or shoe boxes full of mementos.

Like troy, Diane Towles is HIV-positive. In fact, both were HIV-positive when their two sons were born. Troy, Jr. is old enough to have been tested. So far he is negative, but he has to be tested again in a few months. The baby is still too young for a meaningful test. Diane speaks of their decision to have kids despite HIV as if it were an example of the power of positive thinking.

Ms. TOWLES: I mean, I'm the type of person that I have it, I have it. There's nothing that I can do about it. Only thing I can do is just live my life one day at a time, you know what I'm saying? It's not this (unintelligible), oh, I have it and I'm dying. I'm going to kill myself. No, it don't have to be that way. You just take care of your health, you do what you need to do, you know what I'm saying? Like, as far as you and your family, and you fine. You know what I'm saying? You just got to take care of yourself, because when you don't, you know, then it shuts your body down.

SIEGEL: And you knew that in having children there'd be a risk of passing the HIV along to them.

Ms. TOWLES: Mm hmm.

SIEGEL: The two of you talk about that?

Ms. TOWLES: Yeah. But all I did was just pray. Because that's all you can do. You know, it's just pray that your kids, you know, be fine and, you know, don't have it or whatever. That's all you can do is just pray on it.

SIEGEL: Because you wanted to have kids regardless.

Ms. TOWLES: Yeah, so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOWLES: It didn't matter to me. I wanted to have my children. You know, so…

SIEGEL: Might one of Troy's sons end up in foster care some day? Their mother, Diane, is HIV-positive. She's widowed at 24 with three very young children. But she says it won't happen. She says that she had a childhood much like Troy's. Her mother was a drug addict. Her father just got out of prison after 10 years. She didn't experience foster care, but she didn't have much of a family life, either.

Ms. TOWLES: No. I was just passed around in the family. Like house to house to house to house to house. Then I ended up with my grandmother.

SIEGEL: Does that experience make you stronger? Does it take something away from you? What do you think?

Ms. TOWLES: Both.

SIEGEL: How so, and is it…

Ms. TOWLES: No. Because it took something from me, but it made me stronger, too. Because I know I have to be there for my children. Because we always talk. We talk all the time, you know, and we always said whoever goes and whoever stays want to do what we need to do for the children and get ourselves together. You know, so we always tried to think ahead. You know, so.

SIEGEL: So it would be, it's extremely important to you that your children are going to stay with you?

Ms. TOWLES: Yes, yeah, most definitely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOWLES: That one is a handful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOWLES: He got a lot of energy. A lot.

(Soundbite of baby cooing)

SIEGEL: And what happened to Troy's roommate from the group home back in 1994, Tovan? He too had dreams back then.

Mr. LOVE: When I grow up, I would like to be an entertainer in music. Or I would like to be a mental therapist that help people with their problems and help them with the problems that I had or have.

SIEGEL: Your therapist has helped you, you feel?

Mr. LOVE: Yes.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Unidentified Man: Right here on your left.

SIEGEL: Tovan's first name was so unusual, it popped up on an online search.

Unidentified Man: How you doing?

SIEGEL: Robert Siegel.

Unidentified Man: Tovan Love?

SIEGEL: A Tovan Love was in the D.C. jail, awaiting trial for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and a weapons charge.

Good to see you for the first time since 1994.

Mr. LOVE: I talked to you in '94?

SIEGEL: You talked to me in 1994. I came and visited the…

Mr. LOVE: Group home?

SIEGEL: Group home on Park Road.

Mr. LOVE: 1309 Park Road.

SIEGEL: 1309 Park Road. I interviewed you and your roommate.

Mr. LOVE: Yeah, Troy Saunders.

SIEGEL: Troy Saunders. I'll tell you about Troy a little bit later.

Mr. LOVE: You talked to Troy, too?

SIEGEL: Well, I'll tell you now.

Mr. LOVE: All right.

SIEGEL: Troy died last month.

Mr. LOVE: Last month?

SIEGEL: Troy died in February.

Mr. LOVE: Of this year?

SIEGEL: This year.

Mr. LOVE: Damn.

SIEGEL: Troy was, he found out a couple of years ago that he was HIV-positive, and he got really sick over the summer.

Mr. LOVE: Damn.

SIEGEL: And I assumed you hadn't, that you didn't know that.

Mr. LOVE: I ain't know, because the last time I seen Troy was probably about, say, about '97 or '98. And he came and spent the night over my house. Remember - you might not remember, but the supervisor of the home back then was Stacey Taylor. And he adopted me out the group home. And while I was living with him, Troy came past to stay with us about maybe two or three nights. Then he left, and I've never seen or heard from him since.

SIEGEL: At 24, Tovan has outgrown the innocence and optimism of his group home days. He has done some jail time, although never for a violent offense. The trial he was awaiting in March when we visited went his way. The police case against him was very weak, and the judge, who was not known for leniency, let the prosecution know it was unwinnable. So, Tovan pleaded to possession and was released in April on probation. He is tall and lean and sports a long goatee, and he has many tattoos.

Mr. LOVE: This one right here as my inspiration for my record label. It says Dirty Cash, but really what it means is D.C., you know what I'm saying? And that was going to be Dirty Cash Records was going to be the name of my record label, you know what I'm saying? D.C. Records.

This one right here is just a little cross to my mother. A rest in peace symbol to my mother. This was my first tattoo. I got this when I was 16. It says To. It's just a shortened part of my name. My name Tovan, but my mother always called me To.

This one right here, this - I got it real cheap but it got my birthday under it, 6/12/81.

SIEGEL: Tovan's mother also died of AIDS in 1996. One of her children had died in infancy. Tovan is one of four surviving brothers and sisters. He says the others are doing well.

Mr. LOVE: All in all, I was the bad seed in the bunch is what it look like.

SIEGEL: But when you say you're the bad seed, I mean, you were - it was in Clifton Terrace. You described to me, you were taking care of your little brothers and sisters when you were…

Mr. LOVE: Wild.

SIEGEL: You're alone with them, you're no more than 10 years old, and you're going out and putting a little food in the refrigerator for them at that time.

Mr. LOVE: And then I was raised around crack heads coming in, going with my mother, going up to the room, smoking crack. And just being sleep at night and just hearing a war going on out front, you know what I'm saying. I look out the window, see bodies falling all over the ground, because they just shooting each other, you know what I'm saying? That's the stuff that I was programmed and I seen. And it done a little bit something to my mental, you know what I'm saying. I'm not - all my screws ain't how they should be, you know what I'm saying?

SIEGEL: Tovan Love says he wonders whether his mother might have exposed him to cocaine when he was in the womb, and whether that might affect his judgment. He also says he was sexually molested when he was younger, a charge that's impossible to substantiate or to dismiss. He admits that he likes to smoke marijuana and occasionally PCP. Tovan's jobs have typically been in fast food restaurants. He never finished his GED, but he told me in jail that he intended to after he got out.

Mr. LOVE: I will be taking the GED classes and going to get my trade. I want to be a barber, so that's one trade that I think I'm - I'm good with my hands, you know what I'm saying? So that's one trade that I think I can fall back on. If not, heating and air conditioning, I can learn that, you know. I ain't over for me, though. I ain't lost hope, though.

SIEGEL: It has been nine weeks since Tovan left jail. So far, no progress toward a GED. Like Troy, the roommate he hadn't seen for years, Tovan has two children: a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old. He married their mother after his last arrest. Since he got out of jail, she has thrown him out. She says he won't change.

Stacey Taylor is more hopeful than that. He's the former group home supervisor who, as a single man in his 30s, adopted Tovan 10 years ago.

Mr. TAYLOR: I never stopped believing in him. You know, I want to do everything I can to help him be successful. I don't see him as an adopted child or a foster child, I see him as my son. And so for that, you know, I'm in the long haul with him.

SIEGEL: On Family Day and the 2010 game, Troy said he hoped to be playing in the National Basketball Association or to be a doctor. What did Tovan look forward to being in 2010?

Mr. TAYLOR: He wanted to be in law enforcement, the FBI. I remember vividly that he wanted to be an FBI agent. It was his dream.

SIEGEL: 2010 is coming up within four years now. It's not somewhere beyond the horizon. It's pretty soon. Where do you hope to see Tovan now in 2010?

Mr. TAYLOR: I would like to see him being a member of society, the community at large that is doing well. He's gainfully employed. I mean, I'm of the idea that I'm not looking for a scientist or a physician, not even an FBI agent, but someone who is working a steady job, who's providing for his children and his wife, and who is feeling good about himself and his life.

SIEGEL: When we visited Tovan Love in jail before his trial, we played in the story from 1994.

Mr. LOVE: They have a large library…

SIEGEL: He listened to himself from his own childhood.

Mr. LOVE: We like to read books. Like now, I'm reading a book called Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, and I'm enjoying it very much.

SIEGEL: Tovan's mother recently left her newborn baby, her…

SIEGEL: Well, I got to say, Tovan, when I've gone back to listen to you from when you were 13 years old…

Mr. LOVE: Mm hmm. I had dreams and ambitions.

SIEGEL: You had dreams and ambitions. You were one bright-eyed 13-year-old kid. You know, it was, this was the farthest thing from what was on your mind at that time. So those were, in some ways, hopeful times, good times.

Mr. LOVE: Yeah. I had hope back then. I guess I lost hope. I don't know. I really can't tell you when I went wrong. I can tell you. I went wrong when I tried my first of jay of marijuana. But I can't tell you where I lost my inspiration to make something of myself, you know what I'm saying? I still have the inspiration, but I don't have the drive that I had back then, you know what I'm saying? I don't have that drive no more.

SIEGEL: At last word, Tovan has been ordered by the D.C. Superior Court to stay away from his wife. She says he's gotten abusive, but he still can see his children.

And the building on Park Road in Washington, D.C. where I met the two 13-year-olds back in 1994 - group homes are no longer in vogue in D.C. foster care. 1309 Park Road has been divided into condominium apartments. They're selling for half a million dollars apiece.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Our story was produced by Julia Buckley.

Since 1994, the foster care system in Washington, D.C. has undergone a significant transformation. You can read about those changes and hear the original story that featured Troy and Tovan at NPR.org.

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