A significant aspect of CRIME STORY’s mission is to draw attention to programs that have demonstrated success in helping stem the tide of over-incarceration. As part of that mission, we published The RightWay To Shut Off the Foster Care to Prison Pipeline by Sean Smith. That piece told the story of how the RightWay Foundation — based in Los Angeles — is working to address the core reasons why 25% of California’s recently emancipated foster youth are incarcerated within two years of emancipation. (This has become known as the Foster Care To Prison Pipeline.

As a critical part of these efforts, the RightWay Foundation provides therapy for these youth to help them process their trauma and reclaim the narratives of their lives.

In Sean’s piece, CRIME STORY and the RightWay Foundation announced the launch of a unique creative collaboration. Building off of their therapy efforts, and working closely with CRIME STORY journalists, a self-selected group of RightWay youth will craft narratives about their experiences in and out of the foster care system. These accounts will be published on the CRIME STORY website periodically. 

This is one of those accounts; This is Ernesto’s story.

My name is Ernesto Yanes-Arnold. My middle name is Deshawn. You can’t forget my middle name! I was born and raised on the east side of South Central Los Angeles in the area called the “Low Bottoms.” That’s where a Black Panther headquarters was at, on Central and 42nd, 43rd. I was born on February 17, 1992. I’m pretty sure anybody who’s been here for a long time, living on this earth, can remember those times. 

I was born in an area where I could’ve been… I maybe was a crack baby. There were a lot of things that my Momma did, coming up, that she would never tell me about. I know that I was born premature. And she told me that out of all six of her kids — I’m her second oldest, but her oldest boy — basically I was supposed to die. She told me that they took me into this little incubator thing and told her, “Sign off these papers.” They said, “It’s a 50/50 chance if you sign off on it and do the surgeries… there’s a 50/50 chance that he will survive.”  And she said that she didn’t want to not give me that chance. So she signed. And that 50/50 chance of me living… well, I’m here now!

But coming up, I’d wonder why I wasn’t really fully developed. It was hard for me to read and write. And I used to try to figure out why. I used to have these little pains in my head and stuff. And issues with my lungs… I got bronchitis and other things. My mom finally told me I was premature. She said I was like a little ant or something, compared to other regular babies, and that she could hold me in the palm of her hand and she didn’t really think I was gonna make it, but I did.

I grew up in a nice household where I had aunties and uncles and my grandma was there. But growing up on the east side… I grew up on 23rd and Hooper and I can remember like it was yesterday. There was a lot of drive-bys, a lot of shootings during that era. Bloods and Crips fighting over territory. And then the Mexican gangs came on board. In the part of LA where I’m from, Mexicans and Blacks, they share the same ‘hood but they mind their own business. And everybody just kinda gets along for respect’s sake.

I remember coming home from school and my mom… she forced us to train how to react when there was a drive-by. She had an alarm, like a timer? There were six of us, three boys, three girls. The three oldest would have to get the three youngest. And she would make us play around in the backyard, like we were just playing? And when she said “Go!” that meant there was a shooting. And all of us had to grab whoever she assigned us to and put them in the house. It was like training.

One day we were playing in the backyard and the house got shot up. I was in the first grade, my brother was still in kindergarten, and my sisters… my baby sister and the others were little babies then. I remember me and my big sister, we were just out there playing and they started shooting. I almost got shot in the back of my head. I grabbed my baby sister — because my mother assigned me to my baby sister, Ruthy. I grabbed her. I was the last one to get in because we kinda had to take turns going inside the back sliding door. A glass sliding door. And I remember I did this little front flip after I threw my sister inside, because they was really shooting. It was really bad. They were trying to hit what they was trying to hit. I remember doing a front flip inside the sliding door and feeling a burning sensation at the back of my head, then something hit the wall. And after they’d done shooting, I went out and looked… there was a big old hole in the wall. Me and my mom looked at each other like, “Man,” and I knew from that point on that I was going to remember that for the rest of my life.

Every day when I went to school, I knew that something could happen. I’m walking down the street one day and I remember this Mexican gang pulled up on me and my brother and pulled out AK-47s and Uzis and they asked us where we was from. They even looked to see our tattoos. But we were only in elementary school. I knew that right before my era, that’s when gangs started, LA being the heart of gang life in the US. But despite all that, we lived life. We knew how to survive and how to deal with that type of trauma. But it’s tough down there. Our little saying is, if you can make it in the Bottoms, you can make it anywhere. It’s over there by Skid Row, by downtown and it’s just a rough area. It’s a gold mine for drugs, because that’s all there is to do around there. You just smoke crack and do all types of drugs. 

My mom threw a big birthday party for my baby sister, Ruthy. She had turned three years old. It was the first time I’d ever seen a pony. First time I’d seen a snake, a monkey. My mom had got this guy that owned all these different animals and he brought them all to the house. She had a jumper, she had a clown. It was a big party.  And I was like, wow, she really did this… Right there on 23rd and Hooper. Right down there at the bottom of the barrel, the lowest Bottoms, man. 

I remember like it was yesterday. I was waiting in line with my best friend and my brother, Emmanuel. We’re a year apart. Around that time, I was in the third grade and my brother’s in the second grade. So we’re waiting in line to see the pony and my baby sister Ruthy’s already on a pony. It’s her birthday. She’s up there with my cousin, Nicole, because they’re the same age and they’ve got the same birthday. I forgot to mention her but you know, it’s kind of crazy. I bring her up because she grew up in foster care too. It’s crazy how that happened with her too. But man, it’s like a domino effect when the elders in our family did not see how things would turn out and try to prevent… certain things from happening. Sometimes when you’re mentally ill or when you’re not really there and things just keep happening, you don’t know how to figure things out. It might take a long time until you really understand, “Dang, I really put my kids through that?”

But back to the story… We were waiting and all I remember is hearing my uncle screaming, “Get down!”  He screamed it so loud that everybody was just alert, but they didn’t see anybody. Next thing you know, they started shooting. And when I first heard “Get down!” and I heard the first shot, I already knew what time it was. It was already in my head, because my mom had already enforced it. There was a lot of kids in the line. There were a lot of people everywhere. I got down on the ground when I first heard it. I felt like I was the first one to get on the ground because there were a lot of bodies on top of me.

I heard my brother scream and then his best friend, my boy Irvin, they screamed at the same time. My brother screamed, “My leg!” and Irvin screamed, “My foot!” I remember I tried to get up and there were just too many people piled on top of me. People started grabbing kids, throwing them inside the house. And for some reason me and my brother were left outside. And as soon as I got up off the ground, I can remember seeing a shooter on the top of the house and two shooters on the sides of the house. And they had red bandannas on, you know, and burgundy Hush Puppies and these burgundy Dickies.  And you could just see in their eyes like they just was mad about something and they just… let it off. They didn’t care who they hit. This lady, I saw her get shot as she was throwing kids inside the house. And she didn’t even know she got hit. I could tell because of the way she was moving and she just… it was like she was in shock or something. 

And my best friend, his name is Ikeem Murphy. Same age as me, got the same middle name. We was born a month apart and his mom and my mom were neighbors down the street, they brought us up together. His older brother was shot in the head. He was laid out, but nobody could touch him because they kept shooting and everybody was in shock and trying to get out of the way and not get hit. But he just laid there. I remember hearing that he had walked over to the side of the house where the gunner was, by accident, and the bullet must have caught him and he just fell out. 

I remember looking at all that and I immediately went into shock. I couldn’t do anything. My brother got up off the ground and I don’t know how he doesn’t remember this, but he’d been shot so many times, I can see why he doesn’t. I’m glad he’s still here. He was grabbing for me and all I remember is looking at him. I didn’t touch him. It was like there was something inside me that held me back. But I remember looking at the shooters and the bullets flying off the roof and I’m just … looking. I’m surprised they didn’t shoot me. But I could tell that they were really trying to get who they were trying to get. Whoever they hit in the process, it just didn’t matter. My brother cried and yelled and he followed me to the stairs and I can remember just looking at him the whole time as he, with every little pull, he’d say, “Help me, bro, please! Help me, man, help me.” I remember seeing him crawl up the stairs. As soon as he got by the doors, he kept screaming out, “Please help me!”

They finally grabbed him and I went in the house on my own, because nobody needed to touch me. Everybody was already inside. I walked in and I saw Irvin. He had his feet on a pumpkin, laying back. Like he wasn’t crying or anything, but he had his feet up on a pumpkin. But you could see a hole in the bottom of his foot and it was leaking really bad. They were waiting on the ambulance.  

By that time they were almost done shooting. They had a lot of bullets. But man, they shot the pony. The guy that brought the animals, he was already telling my mom this story, that he did a party in South Central somewhere and the house got shot up. And he got shot in the eye. He already had a patch on his eye. 

I remember, me still in shock, looking at Irvin, and I turned around and I heard my brother screaming. It’s my mom with this big old kitchen knife trying to get the bullet out of his leg. He got hit by a .45 revolver. Emmanuel, he was only in the second grade. And he just kept telling her “Stop!” and she kept trying to get the bullet out.  Like, I don’t know, something she’d seen on TV. But she pushed the bullet in him even more and now, today, the bullet’s still in him. I remember my mom had to go to the hospital and they put yellow tape around my grandmama’s house and they didn’t allow us to sleep there that night because it was a crime scene. I had to go to my auntie’s house and then the next day they asked my mom if she could bring me and my siblings up there to the police station, Newton Division on Central Avenue. They asked us questions and showed us pictures of who they thought the shooter was. Was it him, was it him? And I didn’t really see anybody’s face, but I remember seeing their eyes, looking down on me.  So I couldn’t say “It was him, it was him…” I just remember pointing out somebody. 

Me and my brother grew up with so much anger after that. And I remember every day going to school, knowing my brother was still in the hospital, recovering. We used to go see him once a week. I had fights every day and for some reason they never really suspended me or sent me home. They sent me to the counselor every time. They knew I was going through something that I didn’t even understand. 

My brother was there the rest of his second grade year. And it was crazy because we ended up still at the same school the next year and they let him move on to the next grade. I was down the hall from him and I just remember we always was together. You know, it made us stronger. We’re still together now, today.

Another time, I want to talk more about life after that and how we ended up homeless and just… everything from the ground up. I just want to let it out of me because I’ve been hurting a lot. And every time I tell my story, I feel like either it’s being exploited or it’s not being told the way I want it to be told…  Like if you’re going to take my story, at least tell it right. 

I remember some nights I’d go to sleep, we had bunk beds, and hearing gunshots. After a while we just got used to it. We had to. We had to survive because it was like, what are we going to do? Are we just going to be homeless? 

A lot of us really don’t make it through to where I’m at, and a lot of us are just too mentally strained, like just gone, and not really able to move forward and sustain and really find stability in life, where you’re able to find different coping mechanisms and different ways to just really get over this pain. And I can say I’m proud of myself, but I know I’m still going through a lot. I’m getting older and getting smarter and why not, you know? 

This is the fifth RightWay youth story that we have presented. You can also read James’s here, Belle’s hereLeo’s hereand Lafawn’s here.

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