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New Family's Faith Helps Teen Overcome Long Odds; Foster Care Can Be Tough On Children And Troublesome For The State To Administer. This Is The Story Of One Boy And One Foster Mother Who Made It Work.
LESLIE BRODY, STAFF WRITER
August 10, 2003
With one hand on the wheel, Rudy Santos, 17, leans back and steers a golf cart past a row of luxury sports cars.
It's sunny, Rudy has some time off from caddying, and he just loves to drive around the lush green fairways. The breeze smells of fresh-cut grass.
"This is great," he says with a grin. "This is the life."
"The life" is one far removed from Rudy's past, whose harsh details are unknown to most members of the exclusive White Beeches Golf & Country Club.
His father is in prison for selling drugs. His mother, a heroin addict, died of AIDS. At 13, Rudy was fending for himself in a North Bergen welfare motel, and he's had troubles of his own with marijuana and truancy.
But somehow, through a mix of street smarts, charm, luck, and sheer will, Rudy has managed to arrive at a place where things look far more hopeful. He has a devoted foster mother who's determined to see him succeed. He's going to Northern Valley Regional High School, one of the best in the state. And he swears that someday, he'll be like one of these wealthy guys he caddies for, with a good job and a flashy car.
Rudy's roundabout path to his new home in Haworth is a story of obstacles overcome - his parents' neglect, his own mistakes, the workers at the state Division of Youth and Family Services who wouldn't give him a second chance with a family. It is also the story of a stubborn foster mother who gave him that chance, and more.
"Rudy is an inspiration. He's such a survivor. He refuses to give up," says Leigh Ann Marek. He "has a huge heart - I love him like he was my own."
"I could tell her anything and she'd give me her best advice," Rudy says. "She's like a mother for me."
In some ways, they got together despite DYFS, not because of it.
* * *
Rudy and Marek met a year and a half ago at a Christmas party for foster children in Bergen County. Marek had shown up just to lend a hand - it had been years since she'd served as a foster parent. Burned out on the sleepless nights of raising foster babies and the pain of kissing them goodbye, she never thought she'd do it again.
But when she saw Rudy dancing, she was struck by his million- dollar smile and the sparkle in his eyes. Suddenly, the idea struck that her family could help a teenager now.
"I spoke to Rudy for just one minute, but I thought he seemed like such a great kid," Marek says. "It was one of those weird, amazing connections."
Marek, a warm, expressive woman who works as a receptionist in a dental office, persuaded her husband, Mark, a computer animation director in Manhattan, that they should get recertified as foster parents.
Rudy, meantime, was comfortable in his Dumont foster home. But in an odd twist of timing, he would be needing a new one soon.
* * *
Rudy had come late to foster care, after 14 years of childhood turbulence. It's all a long story, says his grandfather, Reynaldo Rubio, a 73-year-old Cuban immigrant who worked as a janitor. Sitting in the tidy kitchen in his third-story Union City walk-up, Rubio starts at the beginning.
Even when Rudy was a baby, his father, Rudolph Rubio, was in and out of jail on drug charges. His mother, Luz Miriam Santos, was busy getting high. When family court awarded custody to the senior Rubio, Santos kidnapped her son to Puerto Rico. She was arrested, but Rudy's grandfather couldn't get a Puerto Rican judge to let him take Rudy back to New Jersey. The toddler was placed with Santos' relatives.
Rudy stayed in Puerto Rico until he was 7, believing his maternal grandmother to be his mother. To the boy's bewilderment, Luz Santos appeared one day and told him she was taking him home.
Mother and son moved to Weehawken. His grandfather says he frequently saw the boy in dirty clothes and worn-out shoes. Then one day, he got a call. Rudy said he'd come home from school and his mother was missing. He was all alone. Rubio discovered Santos had been hospitalized after an overdose. A judge decided Rudy should live with his grandfather.
But when Rudy was about 10, he begged to live with his mother again. He missed her so much. A judge gave her custody - on condition she stay off drugs.
Rudy's recollection of the next years is every bit as grim.
His mother was often out with friends, selling crack. Sometimes older cousins got him to smoke pot. Sometimes his mother hit him, for acting up, or taking her money, or throwing out the homemade pipes she made from radio antennas. She used them for heroin and cocaine; he kept trying to get her to stop.
"My mom was a good mom, but not when she was using drugs," says Rudy. "She loved me, but she was so caught up in all that stuff."
When he was 13, they moved to a North Bergen welfare motel along a gritty stretch of Tonnelle Avenue near the Lincoln Tunnel. Rudy says he was often alone in their dingy room. Commonly, he gave up on her returning home and would cadge dinner at a friend's place. Or he'd steal it.
"There were times I just didn't eat," he says. "Sometimes I didn't see her for days. I was taking care of myself."
That's when DYFS stepped in. Rudy had enrolled himself at the local school, but teachers kept asking for a parent's signature on assorted paperwork. Sometimes he forged it; sometimes he stalled for time. A teacher alerted DYFS that something seemed very wrong.
When a caseworker came to investigate, Rudy felt torn.
"At first I was trying not to say anything, but then I said maybe I'll move into a better place and maybe they'll get help for my mom," he remembers. "I told them about what was going on. ... So they took me away from her."
Santos was sent to inpatient drug treatment in Secaucus. When Rubio said he couldn't supervise a young teenager closely enough, Rudy was put in foster care in Dumont.
Looking back, Rubio says he deeply regrets he did not claim his grandson. They had been so close.
"When Rudy was a baby, he wouldn't fall asleep on a bed," he says wistfully. "He would only fall asleep in my arms."
* * *
Life was different in Dumont.
"I wasn't used to seeing so many green trees, lawns, back yards," Rudy says. "I was thinking, I'm living in 'Pleasantville.'-"
A bright student, he graduated from eighth grade with high honors. Inspired by a neighborhood boy, he got a locker-room job at White Beeches in Haworth and, in time, moved up to caddying.
Still, he longed to be with his mother. Sometimes DYFS arranged visits, and he would give her pep talks about how they would move together to Florida someday. He couldn't wait.
But Santos went without him. She quit rehab and moved in with siblings in Naples, promising to send for him when she had some money.
"I was so excited," Rudy remembers. "But then one day I came home from school and got the news that she was really, really sick."
Santos was dying of AIDS.
DYFS paid for Rudy and foster mother, Barbara Davis, to fly to Florida so he could say goodbye. At the hospital, Rudy's mother was sedated by morphine. She never really woke up.
"She stopped breathing in front of us," says Rudy, his long lashes shielding downcast eyes. "She was waiting for everyone to be in the room."
Santos died May 11, 2001. She was 35. On her ankle was tattooed "Rudy."
* * *
Rudy treasures a yellow greeting card his mother sent for his 15th birthday, about six months before she died. Inside is a printed poem:
"If you ever feel like giving up, don't.
If you think you can't do something, try.
If you don't you may always wonder why
You gave up so easily."
It's signed in her round script. "To my dear son," it says in Spanish. "Love, Ma."
Rudy keeps it by his bed. "It helped me out through a lot of times when I felt sad or in need of my mother," he says. "It got me through tough times when I was feeling lonely."
After Santos died, Rudy admits, he started "hanging out with the wrong crowd." As upbeat as he seemed at the 2001 Christmas party where he caught Leigh Ann Marek's eye, he was heading for trouble.
Davis, his foster mother, discovered he was sneaking out at night. Once at 1:47 a.m., he unwittingly pressed the speed-dial button on his cellphone, which rang Davis' office. In the morning, her answering machine replayed a recording of Rudy partying with friends. She confronted him, and a drug test showed he'd been smoking pot.
Davis told Rudy he had to leave, to discourage the other foster boys in her home from following his example. He was crushed.
Marek heard through friends that Rudy had to leave Dumont and called DYFS to say she'd like to take him in. What could be better for Rudy, she figured, than a family with teenagers, a top-notch school, and a location that would help him keep his caddy job?
Rudy's caseworker balked. DYFS told Marek that Rudy shouldn't be placed with a family because he might face new rejection. Besides, the agency argued, Rudy was 16 and edging nearer the day when he would typically "age out" of the foster system, at 18. It was time he learned to take care of himself.
DYFS found space in an "independent living" program that would provide a subsidized apartment in Elmwood Park, an allowance, a teenage roommate, and an adult supervisor to check on them daily. Unfortunately, the apartment was three long bus rides from Rudy's job at White Beeches.
Marek was dogged. She called DYFS again, suggesting that Rudy could stay with her family on weekends, when he did most of his caddying.
His caseworker refused again. Marek persisted. She started picking him up at his apartment and driving him to White Beeches by 7 a.m. on Saturdays, giving him a meal with her family, then taking him home at night. She did it again on Sundays.
Marek made those trips for several weeks while lobbying DYFS for her weekend foster-care idea.
"I went up the food chain and made hundreds of phone calls," Marek says. "I said ... this kid is ambitious enough to work and you're denying him that opportunity."
Finally, a higher-level DYFS administrator saw things her way. Rudy started spending weekends with the Mareks. It would be about a year - and several more twists - before DYFS would let him move in full time.
* * *
It's customary to place older teens in independent living to give them skills for the adult world, says DYFS spokesman Joe Delmar, especially if the teen "is not currently in a foster home."
"Depending on the experience of the child ... some respond better," Delmar says. "Others may not." Delmar cautioned that DYFS confidentiality rules prevented him from addressing Rudy's individual case or that of any other foster child.
Backers of the programs say there are few alternatives, especially with so few foster families willing to take teens. Critics allow that such arrangements may work for mature teenagers, but that few 16-year-olds are ready for so much freedom.
Without round-the-clock supervision, Rudy made a range of foolish choices. He was truant more than 50 days at Elmwood Park High School. He kept missing his drug treatment sessions. Although the program required him to work, he arranged no winter job.
Things looked so bleak. His mother had died. He'd been kicked out of a foster home. He was sick of just scraping by.
And with the golf season past, he drifted away from regular weekends with the Mareks, seeing them only occasionally.
"Everything was going so badly. I just didn't care about my life anymore," Rudy says. "My dad didn't want me and was locked up. ... I thought of myself as a lost cause."
A year ago, his despair put him at risk of going down his father's road: For a brief period, Rudy says, he peddled drugs. He never got caught and swears he would never do it again.
Finally, last spring, the independent living program kicked Rudy out. He just wasn't obeying the rules.
Because Rudy had been skipping outpatient drug treatment, DYFS sent him to inpatient care at Straight & Narrow in Paterson, a branch of the program his mother had deserted in Secaucus.
He hated it. He would lie in bed at night torturing himself with questions. "How come my life had to be so hard?" he wondered. "What did I do?"
He came to realize he didn't want to end up like the miserable adult junkies around him. "Those people were going senile from using too much," he says.
Marek visited Straight & Narrow and was appalled. "I cried my eyes out after I saw him," she says. "It's a bare-bones facility that smells like disinfectant."
Rudy says his caseworker had told him he would be there a month, but upon arrival, the staff warned him treatment might last a year. Rudy remembers telling his DYFS worker, "I know you'll just leave me and forget about me."
After three weeks, he ran away. For five days Rudy carried his belongings in two plastic garbage bags and crashed with friends.
Then he called Marek. She picked him up, and together they lobbied DYFS to let him start over in Haworth.
"I said, 'Please, please, can I stay with Leigh Ann's family?'-" Rudy remembers. "I knew she'd gather up my life."
In April, DYFS relented. The caseworker told Marek that if she was sure she wanted to take on the challenge, she could have Rudy.
* * *
Rudy is settling well into his new life.
Vowing to stay drug-free, he goes to counseling and weekly Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He's proud of earning a red key chain that proclaims he's been "Clean and Serene for 90 Days." He's working toward the six-month milestone.
"When I saw the Mareks take a chance in helping me out," Rudy says, "I thought I could pay them back by trying to succeed."
This summer, Rudy's working at White Beeches four days a week and saving for a car. He says he can earn $120 on days with good tips. Caddymaster Ryan Vandersnow says Rudy does an "excellent" job - he can read the greens, hold up a conversation, and stay unruffled when frustrated golfers' tempers flare.
Rudy entered Northern Valley in Demarest last spring but enrolled too late to get credit, so he will start 11th grade again next month. His teachers say he's conscientious and polite and participates in class.
"Rudy's doing real well," says Assistant Principal Thomas Domerski. "He's got half a dozen girls here in love with him already."
But some of his affluent schoolmates get under Rudy's skin; he faults them for taking their advantages for granted.
"There's a good amount of kids here who hate their parents and wish they lived without them, but they don't really know what that's like," he says. "You get mad at them for having it so good and then blowing it."
* * *
Some 150 miles south of here, a man who shares Rudy's first name, wavy hair, and dark eyes says he blew it himself.
Rudolph Rubio, locked up in Bayside State Prison, says he hasn't talked to his son in years. He can see from pictures how much Rudy's grown.
"I'm very proud of him," says Rubio, his voice low and weary. "He didn't come out the way I did."
When he gets out of prison, possibly next year, he says, he wants to reconnect. But Rudy, sitting on the pillowed couch in the Mareks' den, shakes his head no. He'd like to see his grandfather and his mother's relatives again, but he says it's too late for his father.
"Those days of waiting are over for me," Rudy says.
At the Mareks' immaculate house, on a quiet street near a park with a pond, the rebellious teen from Union City is learning to be part of a family.
As Rudy's father figure, Mark Marek feels a special responsibility. One way he's trying to get close to Rudy is by helping him make the rap music he loves; Marek records rhythm tracks on an electronic keyboard.
The Marek kids say he's fun to have around. Mia, 17, even asked Rudy to her senior prom. She recounts the evening in a happy rush of words: "I knew he would be fun - he wouldn't be one of those people who would sit around. We danced all night!"
Auston, 15 and freckled, looks up to Rudy, who is quick to challenge him at video games and basketball. "I try to give him hints for talking to the ladies, but I don't think he's taking them," Rudy teases.
Some of Leigh Ann Marek's friends questioned whether it was wise to bring a teenager with a such a difficult past into her home. She never blinked.
"My kids have a strong enough sense of self that they won't be swayed by what he may do or not do," she says. "If anything, he's had a great influence. He tells Auston, 'If I ever hear about you smoking pot, I'll beat you up.'
"Rudy's very protective," she adds. "It's very sweet."
From the cozy hubbub of the Mareks' living room, Rudy looks back on his dealings with DYFS with a mix of annoyance and gratitude. On one hand, he realizes someone had to look out for him when his family couldn't. But he lost count of the caseworkers assigned by a bureaucracy hobbled by turnover - he remembers at least six.
"When I get comfortable with them, they just leave," he says.
Rudy's complaint echoes those of many caseworkers themselves, who say they've often been forced to juggle 60 children or more. The average caseload in DYFS district offices is now 41 children, up from 32 last year. DYFS has promised to hire more staff.
Rudy believes two caseworkers truly cared about him. They encouraged him to study and make something of himself. He thinks others judged him unfairly by looking only at his records. A few never even met him face-to-face.
Delmar, at DYFS, says that shouldn't happen. "If a child in our system is saying he never met his caseworker, it's a major concern," he says.
The Mareks hope Rudy will be part of their family for the long haul - way past the day he "ages out" of the system. Rudy plans to go to college, and could get a huge boost from a new state law promising to waive tuition for foster teens who earn admission to public colleges. He's thinking of becoming a drug counselor someday.
"I've got new goals," Rudy says. "I feel more alive."
The Mareks have faith he'll do well.
"I tell Rudy I believe in him 110 percent, and that's what he needs to hear," says his foster mother. "I've said to Rudy there's nothing he could do that would push me away.
"I'll never abandon him."