Slipping through the cracks of a broken system, she landed a seat at the table
Featuring: Christina Ruiz (Maricic) – she officially changed her last name in 2019 to Ruiz to dissociate herself form the Maricic family.
Christina Ruiz was never a girl in pink. She was rather tomboyish, always running around with the boys with an army suit on.
The abuse she says she suffered at the hands of her adoptive family made her strong. When you’re beaten and your body experiences physical abuse, you have two paths, she explained. You can become strong like a boxer, or you can let your body crumble and eventually die.
Of the half a million foster youth in the U.S., over 50% will be incarcerated, pregnant, or homeless by the time they’re 21, according to Foster Care 2.0.
Ruiz would be all three.
When she was a child, Ruiz pled with God, asking when it would be her time to be happy.
Maybe it was her own subconscious, but she heard a response: “It’s not your time yet.”
Today, Ruiz is a 25-year-old single mother and first-generation student at the University of Southern California. She defied the odds, stacked so high against her she couldn’t see a future. Less than 3% of foster youth who have aged out of the foster care system earn a college degree, and less than 1% receive a master’s degree, according to the National Foster Youth Institute.
After excelling in community college, earning degrees in both sociology and psychology in one year, Ruiz found a home the USC’s Price School of Public Policy. Drawn to macro-level work, she realized she could make fundamental change by serving the underrepresented populations she came from.
“Policy for me is the most beautiful field. Policy is made for anybody. Made for the normal citizen. I love that."
Her advocacy is based on her own experiences, eliminating the barriers that she once faced. It inspired her non-governmental organization, Christina’s Pathway to Success.
Where previously populations have been excluded and viewed as unreliable, Ruiz is setting a new standard. On the California board and state community corrections executive steering committee for the Youth Reinvestment Act, Ruiz is representing the entire at-risk youth population in California. She recently secured a new role as an assistant director for quality assurance policy and evaluations at Ladera Education Institute and Foster Care Agency.
Ruiz added that these responsibilities also come with the pressure to succeed and to keep this seat open for future youth.
I met Ruiz outside the USC Price School of Public Policy. She dressed in dark lace tights, thigh-high boots from her former employer Aldo, and a vibrant blue shirt popping beneath her straight black blazer. She asked me half-jokingly which part of her outfit was for me and which half was for her date later.
“I’m here to make the case that there are youth like me, and our opinions and experiences matter!” she said proudly.
Hidden behind a liberating and shameless personality, her resoluteness is subtle. Her face carries a wide and welcoming smile, but her eyes are focused—like she’s predicting your next move so she can be just ahead of it. If you were to walk past her on Trousdale Parkway or brush by her at a party, you would miss the painful past behind her bright eyes. You would miss the scars on her legs and wrists. One cut is so deep I could feel her soft skin suddenly dip in, over her right wrist.
She began cutting herself when she was so young, she didn’t know what she was doing. Self-harming became an addiction, she said. It was startling for her sixthgrade teacher, who wasn’t prepared to deal with this type of behavior.
When her teacher noticed, Ruiz’s mother, who worked in the school district, would be called into the meeting.
“You never speak alone. Your voice is always altered with the adults around you,” Ruiz said.
At six-years-old, Ruiz was adopted by an abusive family. She experienced severe trauma, learning at a young age how to fight to survive. But it wasn’t that simple, because she couldn’t always fight back. Sometimes the only way to fight was to take the blame. She grew up in homes where honesty lead to more beatings. Ruiz said she had bald spots in her hair and monkey bumps on her arm. The brother was another perpetrator, but Ruiz could only share so much truth before she realized she had to lie to survive.
“I had to say that I abused myself,” she sighed. “And then they submitted me to mental facilities, where there was more abuse.”
Ruiz shivered, reminiscing her real-life Shutter Island. These mental institutions were much like the movies, she said.
“Try to hold on homegirl,” she would tell herself, anticipating the heap of drugs that would soon leave her drooling on herself.
Ruiz was removed from the family when she was 13 and hasn’t had contact with them since.
After leaving her adoptive family, Ruiz was housed at the Childhelp Merv Griffin Village in Beaumont, California, but didn’t stay here long.
When she turned 14, she arrived at Rosemary’s Children’s Services, a group home in Pasadena with 16 other girls. They were dealing with their own traumas—histories of molestation and assault. They didn’t have time to be her friend, let alone a sister.
If anyone succeeded in these systems, they were one in a million, Ruiz explained.
She was trapped in dull routines and physically locked behind a door. She was ranked on her behavior, and with each level came special privileges, such as going outside for a up to four hours on the weekend.
One day, Ruiz ran all the way to the thick, red line painted around the group home. This was the boundary set for them. If they stepped over the line, the police would be called and they would go to jail. She remembers sitting on the line and sobbing.
Her high school was littered with 30-year-old men—police and gangsters. The racial divide molded her prejudice and bias. She adopted a gang mentality, as anger and hostility flushed her veins. She said she eventually put a stop to her sad-girl story and rebuilt her life on recognition and respect. She proved she could steal the most clothes, run away the longest, and go to jail the most.
“Teachers didn’t mess with me. Nobody was gonna mess with me anymore,” she said, as her tone regressed from a polished college student to an inner-old school ‘chola’. “If you did, it would come with a fight. If I didn’t want you to be there, I’d tell you.”
By 15, Ruiz was a product of the system. She was trafficked that same year.
Disenfranchised group homes are often located in dangerous areas, near gangs and prime for trafficking, Ruiz explained.
She ran away to the store Sunshine Liquor, but quickly realized the old men inside weren’t going to let her leave. Even as a hotheaded teenager, Ruiz was still level-headed and alert. She played dumb, forced to speak with the strange man for hours before she realized no one was coming to her rescue. Once again, Ruiz braced herself for what was to come and followed the man into his white Range Rover. She was taken to a crack house, molding and grimy. Meth cooked over the stove in the kitchen. Old, metal pipes and heaters rusted. That’s what she was handcuffed to.
“They break you down first. But they didn’t know my background. They didn’t know that I was already broken.”
She might have been there only a few weeks, but to Ruiz it felt like months. She escaped eventually with luck on her side. There was panic and ruckus in the other room, implying a police raid. Ruiz knew she had one chance. She summoned all her strength, took that first step and never looked back. She ran, ready for a hand to grab her by the hair and pull her back. She ran and ran until she couldn’t anymore, dripping in blood and tears, with no shoes and few clothes to protect her.
By the time she arrived at her old group home, her tears were gone. The staff and police looked down at yet another troubled, runaway girl. She was taken to the hospital and given a rape-kit. Then Ruiz was arrested and taken to Central Juvenile Hall for breaking her probation and running away.
Suddenly it felt serious, she said. This time she wasn’t in control and rules were really rules.
“I felt like a prisoner,” said Ruiz. Then she remembered and laughed, “Oh, wait! I was a prisoner!”
Once inside, she was stripped again.
“My body was never mine. I never had rights over nothing.”
They walked her into Unit C. Emptiness filled the space. Steel tables, so cold you could barely sit, lied lonely in the middle. The cells were freezing. Ruiz made her sweater her pants, and her pants her shirt. She was 15, but she was in there with the older girls, tattooed faces, MS-13, Crips, Bloods, and girls who had murdered their fathers for raping them. When one of the girls was about to be released, Ruiz recalled another inmate sharpening her pencil before quickly stabbing the girl in the neck. Ruiz watched as the blood gushed out.
“LA is punitive and retributive. This was not a time to develop or become molded. Treatment was to make sure you understood you were being punished.”
Ruiz found herself in many threatening situations. In Orange County she saw how male staff took advantage of girls.
“I remember one time being offered some magazines and I immediately said no, not me. I was scared.”
From ages 13 to 18, she was incarcerated 3 to 8 months at a time.
Returning to the real world was never easy. “Every time you get out it feels weird,” she explained. “What the fuck was I just in? What just happened to me?”
A few months from 18, the judge asked her what they should do with her. They already kicked her out of almost every county. The systems were failing, Ruiz said.
Over 23,000 children age out of the U.S. foster care system every year, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. One in five will become instantly homeless like Ruiz. She spent the next few years in a tent near Skid Row, in hidden homeless encampments, and a laundry room. Little did she know she was living through a recession. She also battled with her life, often cutting it too close.
“I told God if you don’t send me an angel, I’m gonna to shoot myself in the fucking head.”
A week later Ruiz discovered she was pregnant with her baby boy.
“God gave me an angel. He gave me something to live for that was greater than myself,” she smiled. “I knew I was going to do right by him and give him a different outcome than the one I had been given.”
When Ruiz turned 21, she felt like it was finally her time. She got a job in retail at Aldo in Rancho Cucamonga. Within six months she was promoted to store manager, and within a year was running 16 stores in the district.
She didn’t do it on her own. When she moved into her first home, a trailer with her son, she became close with the family renting it. She later reunited with her real mother and was invited into the big Mexican family. Her life was starting to turn around as she pushed herself outside her comfort zone.
“Wherever I go, I’m going to excel,”’ she boasted. She channeled her pain in a direction that would help herself, her family and her community.
It didn’t take long before she started gaining recognition from her community college, peers, and family. She took this with gratitude and disbelief. The walls started to come down. She started stripping the barriers away, attacking new goals, whether it was running 10 miles a day, working two jobs, or taking 20 units.
Today, Ruiz is still learning what it means to be in a caring, loving family. At USC, Ruiz has found many. She is a part of the Norman Topping Family, Trojan Guardian Scholars and the Latino Alumni Association.
“That’s what makes USC so amazing,” she said. It’s not just the quality of education but the unlimited access and community you build yourself. You have to build your own community here. And that’s what I’m doing now.”
Ruiz added, “And right now, at USC, it is finally my time.”