The Tyler County court clerk would call names for people to approach the judge. One at a time, he’d summon them, speak to them about their cases, and send them back. When the clerk called Beu, I’d whisper, “Good luck” as she rose and lined up. Without looking at her, the judge would ask if Beu had acquired a driver’s license and proof of car insurance since her last court date. Beu would answer, “No,” not elaborating her life circumstances―that she was staying in a homeless shelter an hour away, had no income, and no longer owned a car―hindered her from getting licensed and insured. The judge would talk with court officials, Beu standing quietly. Invariably, he’d tell her to come back next month, licensed and insured.
Months before we met, Beu accidentally hit another car while driving a friend to Tyler County. Although she held a permit, she was driving without a license or a licensed adult over 21, illegal for permit-holders in Kentucky. She was also uninsured, which typically entails a license suspension but can carry penalties of up to $1000 and 90 days of jail time.
I met Beu early during fieldwork with foster youths who aged out of Kentucky’s child welfare system, conducted between August 2019 and March 2020. I wanted to know what shaped life after care for former foster youths. We met when she was 19, about a year after aging out. A mutual friend introduced us. Beu needed a ride to court, I had a car, so I offered. After months of traipsing back and forth between Jefferson and Tyler County, I found that Beu’s unreliable family ties, her identification paperwork struggles, and, eventually, her self-advocacy challenged the bureaucratic inflexibility of Kentucky’s system of automobility.
In Kentucky, like many parts of the United States, cars are nigh compulsory to purchase, register, insure, and use, partly because there are few alternatives. Parts of Louisville―Kentucky’s largest urban area―are walkable or bicycle-friendly, but often have higher living costs. Affordable rents tend to be on the outskirts of the Louisville metropolitan area, far from workplaces and with infrequent and inconsistent public bus services. Local nonprofits provide former foster youths with free bus passes, but also asked me if I could drive young people to appointments. Although transportation impacts work, housing, and life options for young people who age out, little national data exists on former foster youths’ transportation options.
I grew up in Louisville and accepted car-based transportation as inevitable and therefore invisible. Yet Beu’s difficulties with licensing and insurance and her experiences with the court led me to question how Louisville’s transportation infrastructure demands participation in what Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez call “the US car colossus”: parking lots, drive-throughs, gas stations, and everything connected to car-based mobility. Sociologists Mimi Sheller and John Urry note that car-based infrastructure also requires people to opt into a car bureaucracy: licensing, insurance, and for vehicle-owners, registration and taxation. As a driver, Beu was required to have a license and insurance; because she didn’t, she was subject to traffic court.
From foster care to driving
Normatively, parents take 16-year-olds to get their permits, add them to their insurance plans, and teach them to drive. But family ties are not a reliable source of driver’s education, insurance, or car access for foster youth.
To address this discrepancy, Kentucky’s DMV has specific licensing procedures for foster youth. While in custody, foster youth are statutorily entitled to identification documentation, birth certificates, and social security cards from the foster care administration, the Department of Community Based Services (DCBS). For a driving permit, foster youth must also acquire the following: a letter from their caseworker and caregivers that affirms they are ready to drive; and proof of insurance, either their own or through another adult, and which can be partially subsidized by the state.
These provisions serve to smooth both the process of aging out and of acquiring a driver’s license, but also depend on proactive case workers and willing foster families: Beu had neither. Between the ages of nine and eighteen, Beu experienced 50 separate moves (“placements”) through foster homes, group homes, and residential facilities. She aged out of a rehabilitation center in Indiana, far from Kentucky; I do not know how she made her way to Louisville. No adult taught her to drive or offered her insurance coverage when she turned 16.
After aging out, Beu briefly lived with her mother, sharing an apartment and a car. She had arranged to take a road skills exam, but the day of the test, Beu’s mother reported the car stolen while Beu had the car. Instead of getting a license, she waited to be released from jail. Afterwards, Beu and her mother stopped speaking; she lost the apartment and car, drifting between homeless shelters and friends’ couches. The identification documents she acquired on leaving care disappeared in her moves and replacing one document required another. When we asked service providers how to replace documents, we were told to consult a website for former foster youth: the website suggested contacting the service providers who referred us.
Beu politely explained these circumstances to her public defender, that she was doing her best but no longer had a car or a way to insure it, nor someone willing to lend her a car to take her driver’s exam. Despite Beu’s difficulties, no exceptions were made, and the response was the same: keep trying to get the license and insurance and come back next month.
A resolution, of sorts
On what would be her last court date, we ran into the man Beu hit in the accident. He recognized her in the lobby, spending several minutes describing his injuries and car expenses. I watched her shrink in her seat until her public defender interrupted. She asked Beu the same tired question: “Do you have your license?” And Beu had had enough: “I’m homeless. I only recently got stable housing. I don’t have a job, or a car. My permit is suspended, she,”— gesturing towards me—“is my only form of transportation here! I literally cannot do any of the things y’all want me to do!”
It was the first time that I’d ever seen Beu advocate for herself, a sharp contrast to her usual quiet deference. Taken aback, the defender stammered, “Let me go try to explain that to the prosecutor,” and scurried away. Beu sat down in the lobby. “She looked shook,” I murmured. She gave me a small but triumphant smile. Half an hour later, the public defender came back with a surprising plea deal: a prorated fine, no jail time, and no driving for six months. Beu grinned at the last stipulation: “Well, I don’t even have a car.” Her lawyer explained the prosecutor “never prorates fines,” but she had explained Beu’s situation; everyone agreed this was the best option. After months of inertia, her case was closed.
Childhood studies scholar Lauren Silver has argued that young people, especially young women, must demonstrate to bureaucrats they “deserve” help. Often, this takes the form of polite deference and compliance, which doesn’t always get the job done. Instead, as Silver shows, it is young women’s willingness to strategically introduce discomfort in bureaucrats that greases the wheels of bureaucracy. Beu was accustomed to having little room to maneuver with state agencies: compliance was her first tactic. It kept her case open, but stagnant. Instead, it was her angry outburst that disrupted the business-as-usual attitude of her public defender and the district attorney―and allowed her to reach a resolution.
Beu’s court saga illustrates the inflexibility of interlocking bureaucracies―Kentucky’s child welfare system, transportation infrastructures, and courts―and the sheer amount of frustrated energy required to find a way out of that inflexibility. Common, deceptively simple tasks such as getting a driver’s license and insurance were nearly impossible for someone without the normative family and state support implicit in car bureaucracies. Beu forcefully contested the expectations of bureaucracies, not because she wanted to dodge legal accountability, but because she had no other recourse. Her life demanded exception in the courts, even when she tried to abide by its requirements.
Beu managed to introduce some flexibility into this bureaucratic quagmire by exasperatedly highlighting the impossibility of court expectations in her specific case, but the difficulty of doing so highlights how embedded automobility is in US transportation culture. The resolution of her case did little to shift the legal and cultural expectation of car-based automobility, but continues to highlight arenas for policy intervention within and outside of a strictly “child welfare” lens.