Mother bat­tles sys­tem for son

Like any par­ent of a child with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties, Yamileth Fuentes strives for his ed­u­ca­tion, even though he’s locked up.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Vic­to­ria Kim

Yamileth Fuentes con­stantly wor­ried about her son Michael’s ed­u­ca­tion. As the mother of a child with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties, she made sure he didn’t get over­looked in school. She fret­ted when his math work­sheets weren’t chal­leng­ing enough, or when his spell­ing slipped.

The en­er­getic 42-yearold Metro bus driver wasn’t afraid to fight on her son’s be­half. She en­listed the help of cler­gy­men, bu­reau­crats and an army of lawyers in the bat­tle to get Michael a proper ed­u­ca­tion. Once, she even stopped her bus to con­front the mayor when she spot­ted him giv­ing a news con­fer­ence on a down­town street corner.

She be­lieved, as count­less other par­ents do, that her child should be given ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to suc­ceed.

Even if he was sit­ting be­hind bars, ac­cused of murder.

Yamileth was 21 when she gave birth to Michael Gar­cia, her third child. He was a boy who loved to dance, was scared of thun­der and didn’t like be­ing alone.

When he was still very young, Yamileth be­gan notic­ing odd­i­ties in the way Michael spoke. He had trou­ble find­ing the right words and sounds, and his sen­tences were a jumble. Kids teased him about it. In ele­men­tary school, he was di­ag­nosed with a speech and lan­guage im­pair­ment and an au­di­tory pro­cess­ing dis­or­der.

Michael never liked the spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion la­bel. It’s just that you have a dif­fer­ent way of learn­ing, Yamileth told him. But the at­ten­tion seemed to make him feel in­ad­e­quate. He grew frus­trated and started cut­ting class.

As ado­les­cence kicked in, Michael slipped more and more out of con­trol, be­com­ing ob­sessed with girls and hang­ing out with friends Yamileth didn’t


know. But with her, he re­mained a de­voted son.

He waited at bus stops af­ter school, car­ry­ing Chi­nese take­out so that Yamileth, who worked 10-hour shifts with­out meal breaks, could get a bite to eat at the end of her route. He would qui­etly sit in the back of the bus for hours as streams of peo­ple got on and off, his shoul­ders sway­ing along with the bumps on the road. When they got home, he would take off her shoes and rub her feet, telling her ev­ery de­tail about his day.

In early 2006, Yamileth got a call from a de­tec­tive look­ing for Michael.

He wanted to in­ter­view Michael about an in­ci­dent the teen had wit­nessed, the de­tec­tive told her. She didn’t think much of it. Michael was picked up that af­ter­noon.

Around 10 that night, her phone rang again. This time, the de­tec­tive told her Michael was un­der ar­rest.

Au­thor­i­ties charged him with murder and at­tempted murder for two shoot­ings in South Los An­ge­les.

In the first, a car-to-car shoot­ing left a man dead and a woman wounded. Michael was ac­cused of be­ing in the gun­man’s car.

Six days later, gun­shots were again ring­ing out in the streets when a fright­ened-look­ing teenager ran into a cou­ple’s back­yard. A woman in the yard with her baby started scream­ing when she saw him. Her hus­band came run­ning out.

“Let me in, they shot me,” pleaded the teen, whomthe hus­band and wife later iden­ti­fied as Michael.

When the hus­band tried to shove him out of the yard, Michael yelled at an­other teenager to shoot and kill the man, the cou­ple tes­ti­fied. The other teen fired twice, graz­ing the man’s but­tocks, lead­ing to the at­tempted murder charge.

Cas­ings in­di­cated the same gun was used in both in­ci­dents. Au­thor­i­ties be­lieved the shoot­ings were re­lated to the Bar­rio Mo­ja­dos gang. Michael, they said, was a mem­ber.

Yamileth quickly be­came a reg­u­lar at Barry J. Ni­dorf Ju­ve­nile Hall in Syl­mar, where she vis­ited her son ev­ery week­end. She of­ten still wore her blue bus driver’s uni­form and car­ried a lawn chair for the lengthy wait in the sun.

Michael was housed in the high se­cu­rity “com­pound,” with an ex­tra set of fences. Fac­ing trans­fer to adult court, the teens in the com­pound were deemed too dan­ger­ous to come into con­tact with other ju­ve­niles, much less go to school with them.

Michael told his mother that classes in­side the com­pound con­sisted of a cou­ple of hours a day at the steel pic­nic ta­bles where a teacher would pass out work­sheets. She asked him to fold away one of the sheets to show her what he was learn­ing. She was ap­palled to see sin­gle-digit ad­di­tion for her 15-year-old son, who had been in ninth grade be­fore his ar­rest.

Yamileth started talk­ing to other moth­ers in the vis­it­ing line, and with them formed a par­ent-teacher as­so­ci­a­tion for the com­pound. Pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers took to call­ing Yamileth and two oth­ers who were al­ways speak­ing up the “three ami­gas.”

The par­ents, with chap­lain Javier Stau­r­ing, met with attorneys at the Youth Law Cen­ter who de­manded changes in the ed­u­ca­tional con­di­tions at the com­pound. The county built mo­du­lar class­rooms and a se­cured path from the com­pound to the school fa­cil­ity to al­low the youths to re­ceive full days of in­struc­tion.

Michael started at­tend­ing spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion classes staffed by a teacher and an aide. Yamileth saw the changes in the longer, more co­her­ent sen­tences he was writ­ing in his letters.

That vic­tory was short­lived. When Michael turned 18 in June 2008, a judge or­dered him trans­ferred to an adult lockup.

Mean­while, the wait for his crim­i­nal trial stretched on as court dates were post­poned month af­ter month.

At one point af­ter his trans­fer, Michael was at­tacked by other in­mates who slung a rope around his neck and stuck a nee­dle full of heroin in his arm. They sus­pected he was a snitch.

On their first visit af­ter the at­tack, mother and son spent the hour cry­ing. Michael tried to hide the wounds by pulling up his shirt, but Yamileth could see the bruises on his neck, and his blood­shot eyes.

He was im­me­di­ately trans­ferred to pro­tec­tive cus­tody at Men’s Cen­tral Jail in down­town Los An­ge­les. Michael seemed to have gone through a pro­found change, his mother said.

“I’m not go­ing to give up on my­self,” he told her. “God gave me a chance and it was for a rea­son.”

But in the Cen­tral Jail, Michael’s ed­u­ca­tion stopped. Yamileth sent him nov­els, dic­tio­nar­ies and work­books, and geared up for an­other bat­tle. Attorneys from the Dis­abil­ity Rights Le­gal Cen­ter told her that as a spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion stu­dent, Michael was en­ti­tled to pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion un­til his 22nd birth­day.

The sec­ond le­gal fight for Michael’s ed­u­ca­tion played out like a game of hot potato, with agency af­ter agency claim­ing he wasn’t their re­spon­si­bil­ity.

In a hear­ing be­fore an ad­min­is­tra­tive judge, the Los An­ge­les Uni­fied School District ar­gued it shouldn’t have to pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion for in­mates.

“The way they see it, it seemed, was ‘He’s fac­ing so many years, what does he need an ed­u­ca­tion for?’ “ Yamileth said. “But he wasn’t even con­victed. You don’t know … if he’s go­ing to walk out the next day.”

Afew months later, Yamileth was at work when her phone rang. It was Carly Mun­son, Michael’s at­tor­ney with the Dis­abil­ity Rights Le­gal Cen­ter, with news of the judge’s rul­ing. Her son was go­ing to get an ed­u­ca­tion.

Tears streamed down her face. A con­fused pas­sen­ger who walked onto her bus told her he didn’t have ex­act change for the fare. She waved him on. She couldn’t care less.

The judge found that Michael had a de­sire to learn and work for a high school de­gree, and that he was be­ing de­prived of his right to free pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. L.A. Uni­fied was or­dered to pro­vide classes and ther­apy to make up for lost time.

In the mean­time, the pros­e­cu­tor on his crim­i­nal case was telling an­other judge he “no longer [had] con­fi­dence” that Michael was at the scene of the murder, say­ing a wit­ness was “try­ing to put the murder off on” Michael. The murder charge was dropped. Michael agreed to serve 12 years for a count of at­tempted murder and two counts of van­dal­ism. With time served, he could be re­leased when he is 25.

The fol­low­ing month, Michael be­came the lead plain­tiff in a class ac­tion law­suit to es­tab­lish ac­cess rights for all spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion stu­dents in county jail.

On the Sun­day af­ter Christ­mas, Yamileth went to visit her son.

She scanned his face through the thick glass in the vis­it­ing room. Michael smiled widely. He asked if she had got­ten the Christ­mas card he sent. He asked about his broth­ers and men­tioned how cold it had got­ten in the cells.

Michael’s court-or­dered ed­u­ca­tion hadn’t yet started. He had been por­ing through nov­els, go­ing through a book in two or three days and beg­ging his mother for more. Try­ing to teach him­self math had been chal­leng­ing, he said. Once he is re­leased, he wants to be able to pro­vide for his 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daugh­ter, he said.

“It’s hard by my­self,” he said. “I like to ask ques­tions.”

Ear­lier this year, Michael started at­tend­ing classes in an at­tor­ney’s room at the county jail. At the end of the se­mes­ter, he mailed Yamileth his re­port card with a sprin­kling of B’s and C’s. Even bet­ter was an A in read­ing, the first he’d ever re­ceived. He asked his mother to take good care of the re­port card. She joked that she would have it framed.

Michael was trans­ferred this month to the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tu­tion for Men in Chino, where he will serve the re­main­der of his term.

NowYamileth might have to fight yet again. A dif­fer­ent set of laws ap­ply to ed­u­ca­tion in state prison, said An­drea Ox­man, one of Michael’s attorneys. It is un­clear if Michael, now 20, will have ac­cess to spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion. Yamileth is un­de­terred. “I want my son to come out of there a bet­ter man than when he walked in,” she said. “I know I have to work hard to ac­com­plish this, and he’s go­ing to have to work hard.”

Christina House

MOTHER: Yamileth Fuentes, cen­ter, med­i­tates with her son Ricky, 11, and Maria Tavarez at a monthly sup­port group for par­ents of ju­ve­nile hall in­mates.

JAIL: Michael wants to fin­ish high school and pro­vide for his chil­dren when his sen­tence is up.

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