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Until three years ago, California had a cold-turkey policy for dealing with foster children upon their 18th birthday. At best, these kids who had no family support to help usher them into adulthood might get a birthday cake, a handshake and a heartfelt wish that they have a good life.

That changed with the passage of a state law, AB 12, which established a transitional period during which foster children can continue to receive living assistance for another three years as long as they are working and attending college or training for a career.

How important is it to have that sort of softer landing into adulthood? Last week, I had the chance to put that question to a trio of experts — three young women who proudly assert their status as alumni of Casa Pacifica, a nonprofit residential treatment center in Camarillo for abused or neglected children.

All were too old to have benefited from the new law, but all had been blessed by having maintained connections with a place that had been their home in times of childhood crises.

Cristina Miranda, 26, is a graduate of California State University Channel Islands and now a graduate student at California Lutheran University. She is in the process of reconciling with her biological family, but her enduring familial connection is to the place that sheltered her when she was 15.

"Once you've been a part of the Casa Pacifica family, you will always be part of Casa Pacifica," she told me. "You come back for the holidays."

Z Aratta, 22, attends Oxnard College and also holds down a job at Chipotle restaurant. She is living at a transitional home on the Casa Pacifica campus, where she spent time when she was 12 and again at 17. She drifted away before returning.

"I had to do my own thing, but eventually I would come back," she said. "They love you. This was one of the best decisions I've made." When Dominique Martinez, 21, first arrived at Casa Pacifica she was 12, and refused to unpack. Her foster parents had dropped her there, saying they'd be back in a day or two. They never returned.

Now Martinez, who wants to pursue a degree in psychology and whose "dream is to work for the FBI," works with children who live in the same shelter cottage where she once lived.

"I had a lot of issues trusting people when I moved here," she says. "The first people I started trusting were here." At a conference not long ago, Executive Director Steve Elson was on a panel of shelter-home administrators who were asked to list outcome metrics that they might use to measure their programs' success. Most cited educational attainment measurements such as high school graduation rates.

Elson had a different vision. "I think the way to really measure success would be an active, strong, giving alumni association," he told them. Elson notes that Casa Pacifica started its transitional program, using private donations, well before the state decided to begin providing support. "We said these kids are our responsibility. We've got to do something."

As part of a $21 million capital campaign launched this month to modernize and expand its campus, Casa Pacifica hopes to build two new transitional homes that would provide beds for 16 additional young adults. Those alumni who do have a chance to succeed, Elson knows, need all the help they can get — in part because not all troubled kids emerge from adolescence with such a chance.

He notes that Casa Pacifica, now in its 19th year, has counted among its clients the children of children who had previously passed through its doors, the products of unbroken cycles of family dysfunction. Elson has seen his alumni not only in parent counseling centers, but also on street corners, panhandling for money.

"It is not a perfect story," he says.

Yet, there is also this: a group of young people in their 20s and 30s who have started a Facebook page for former Casa Pacifica kids.

And then there are people such as Cristina Miranda.

After leaving the shelter, Miranda graduated from public high school, powered through community college by chasing after classes at all three Ventura County campuses, got her bachelor's degree, began work on a master's degree in public policy and made plans to become a lawyer to work in the area of child welfare.

Five years ago, Miranda also gave birth to a daughter. Her child's name is Faith.

<i>Timm Herdt is a columnist for the Ventura County Star.</i>