For many people, 13 is unlucky. For Maria, it's a miracle: the number of times she has been hospitalized in a diabetic coma - and survived.
It's true: this articulate, almond-eyed 17-year-old is fine now. But what a wild ride she's been on. Severe diabetes manifested in the 8th grade, along with asthma and high blood pressure. In Maria's case, manageable medical conditions were life-threatening. Her mother, a schizophrenic and drug addict, was unable to supervise her diet or ensure regular insulin injections. In fact, mother and daughter smoked pot and drank alcohol together, and several of Maria's comas were alcohol-induced.
Maria was headed for trouble. At 13, in the grip of a Goth stage, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. By 15 Children's Services placed her in foster care, where Maria had difficulty managing her diabetes. Scar tissue prevented proper insulin uptake, and her foster parents failed to supervise her doses. Maria lapsed into seizures, was hospitalized and removed from their custody.
Maria was sent to the San Mateo Children's Shelter, where she bonded with several adults. "I was depressed," she says, "because I knew I would be bouncing around and I wouldn't get the school credits I needed." That was a heart-breaker for this excellent student. Despite her crises, she has aced English and physics.
After a temporary placement in East Palo Alto, she was sent to the San Jose Children's Shelter, where she fell in with the wrong crowd. Her fighting twice landed her in Juvenile Hall. Upon release she was transferred to a group home, where she did well during an eight-month stay. Maria continued to visit her mother and began seeing her father.
At her next foster home, the family prevented Maria from calling her parents and required her to join in sweat lodge ceremonies her diabetes couldn't tolerate. She begged for a transfer. After stressful days in an emergency group home and the Children's Shelter, Maria ran away to her mother's; then, with warrants out for her arrest, she spent three months on the road.
Once back in the Children's Shelter, Maria was connected with Wraparound and a family specialist who took her to therapy and on recreational outings. "She became my friend for life," sighs Maria, "when she told me she was there just to listen." Maria began taking her insulin and staying in school. When she asked to live with her stepfather, Wraparound helped arranged it. Today she remains there - her eighth placement since being removed from home. She has quit drugs and alcohol and attends recovery meetings. Paying attention to her diet, she has lowered her blood sugar and appears strong and healthy.
Maria reflects back with disbelief.
"I never in my life thought I would be in the system," she says. "Why was I the one who had to leave? The insulin made me feel like a human pincushion and the moving around made me feel like a human ball. There was no time to get used to one person."
Maria is finishing high school with top grades and starting a secretarial job. She plans to attend a two-year cosmetology school, then go to college for a degree in criminology. "These are my plans," says Maria firmly, "and I will stick to them."