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Amanda's life resembles an ever-changing river: The smooth water is not as vividly memorable as the twisting, turbulent rapids.

Now Amanda, 17, is finally safe.Buoyed through sleepless nights, court dates and endless tears of frustration by a caring foster family, Amanda has reached a harbor that, to her, is a place she can call home.

"I love my family now. They really care about me," she said.

She is one of 49 young adults who braved the rapids of the Colorado River last week for the fifth annual Independent Living conference in Moab.

The Independent Living program prepares 16- to 18-year-olds in the state's custody to live on their own. Weekly classes cover basic how-tos and the program helps foster children live more independently when emancipated.

Conferences like this one show foster children there are others like them, said event organizers.

For more than 15 years, pretty, doe-eyed Amanda lived with her family. She said they abused her physically, verbally and sexually.

"I went through every type of abuse you can think of," she said.

While living with her biological family, her spirit came a breath away from drowning. Amanda said she felt responsible for the abuse and feared her mother would not believe her claims.

"When I told my mom about what my brothers were doing to me she said she would take care of it. Then she said she was late for work and left. She didn't say anything to them for two weeks," she said. "That is when I tried to kill myself. It took a suicide attempt to get anyone to listen.

"I love my foster family. They really care about me," she said. "My real mother has given me up. I have realized that my biological family does not love me for who I am. My foster family does."

Roland Oliver, Division of Family Services treatment specialist, said caseworkers stress the importance of finding a job, show the young people how to balance a checkbook and offer some sex education.

"We hope to teach basic life skills so they can be self-sufficient," Oliver said. "The big word for us and the kids is self-sufficiency. We want them to be able to function in society."

In 1993, more than 180 youths completed the course, funded yearly by a $202,000 federal grant.

The river winding through the southern Utah red rock mountain range with its trademark vermilion hue was the perfect setting to prod each one labeled "at-risk" to show his true colors.

Sing-alongs, cliff jumping, playful joking, riding the rapids and water fights were common on the two-day trek. Jeremy, 16, amazed his crew with back flips off the side of the raft, and Johan spent more time in the river cooling off than he did in the boat. But when he was in the raft, the strikingly handsome blond paddled faster and harder than anybody.

At each pull-out point along the river, workshops taught the value of hard work, goals and dreams. The teens were challenged to work toward goals and avoid parroting abusive behavior.

Each has an intriguing and often tragic story, but most are remarkably stable and well-behaved. During the excursion under the scorching desert sun, few cuss words were tossed about, no angry words sparked rough-and-tumble fights and the lines formed to the table were patient and orderly.

Trisha Coburn is not surprised by near-golden behavior.

"People expect these kids to act out and have more problems than they really do," the caseworker said. "Even in the best circumstances, foster care stinks. It is not your family, and no matter how it is, it is hard. But they are good kids in not-so-good circumstances. They are the roughest, toughest, smartest kids in the world. They are positive, upbeat and getting along without things a lot of people take for granted."

"Being rebellious is a shield," said Flora, 17. "When you show feelings and people take advantage of it and use it against you, you learn to do it. I used to be bad, but I'm not. When you do good the label doesn't affect you."

"I really don't like what people say about us. We are just a lot of people with a lot of problems," said LaToya, 17.

It took several years and a handful of foster families before Amanda found one that felt like home.

Others aren't so lucky.

Flora has lived with eight families in 11 years. Her mother was sent to a mental institution after she strangled Flora's baby brother while Flora watched. She was 6.

Flora and her siblings were given to people who claimed to be her mother's friends. They sexually and physically abused her. After a family adopted her, sexual and physical abuse continued.

Flora was like a white elephant child: When a family decided it couldn't care for her, she was given to another. Then another. Each family brought its own abuse.

After 12 years of abuse, she was finally placed in state custody.

"I don't call anywhere home. I get birthday cards and Christmas cards and stuff from the families I have lived with, but I don't call anywhere home," she said. "But my foster family is working on its way to love."

Adopted in Costa Rica by Americans, Alexandra doesn't like to tell her friends she is in foster care. But they soon notice when her white mother picks her up from school, which leads to more difficult questions to answer, she said.

When Amy, who is enrolled in beauty school, finds out one of her classmates is also in foster care, "an instant bond" is formed.

Amy has been in the state's custody for a year.

"I don't know what the best part about being in a foster home is. I think it is good because they take us out of a bad situation. It teaches us the difference between a good home and a not-so-perfect home."

Thomas, who proudly declares he is almost 18, says foster care is fine if the foster family is giving support because it truly cares.

"I like it OK once I know what some people's intentions are."

Caseworkers and foster children know when a family opens its arms just to pad their wallets.

Coburn said if foster parents aren't receptive to the child's needs and don't want to go to court dates, it's time to look for another family - not an easy task.

"Foster parents are afraid of teenagers. Then they find out they are great and different and a lot of fun," Coburn said.

After the searing sun sets below the red rock arches, a handful of teens lean back in a patch of sagebrush to gaze at stars. Others visit quietly. Some play shadow tag with small flashlights.

Alexandra had never seen the Big Dipper so clearly. Flora learned to spot the Milky Way. Amy said the stars looked like millions of pinpricks in a giant swatch of velvet.

One said the constellations comforted people who lived a long time ago. It was something stable. They knew the astrological shapes would appear at dusk.

Uncertainty is part of life for a foster child, said Amy. "What about Christmas? What about birthdays? Who will be there to fall back on?"

Alexandra doesn't know from day to day if she can trust even her foster family.

"Now I don't really trust. I can't express how I feel. I would never put my kids through that. I don't want to be like that."

What do they want to be like?

Johan wants to be a policeman. "I want to give something back."

"I want to be a designer. I'm going to make my own clothes, have my own label and my own shop," said Flora.

"I want to be a diesel mechanic," said Alan, 17.

"I'm going to be a welder. I'm also going to get into foster care," Jessie, 17, said.

"I want to be a lawyer - a child advocate," Amanda said.

"I'm going to be a professional football player," said Siupeli, a muscular boy with a serious, gentle, disposition.

Siupeli asked to be placed in foster care after he saw how deeply his family was rooted in gangs. When he was shot by a gang member, he broke away.

A varsity running back, he idolizes his uncle, a professional football player.

"The most important thing to me is life. If I didn't have football I would probably be dead."

Death, for some, was a possibility. They held on and waited for calmer waters.

Life is like the river, said LaToya, sitting on the sandy shore and tossing pebbles into the water.

"Sometimes it is calm and nice and pretty, just like life. But as you go down, it gets a little bumpier and sometimes what is on the surface isn't what you find underneath. If you don't hang on, you could probably die. If I wasn't as strong, I probably wouldn't be here."

These youths are more ready for emancipation than one might think. Their challenges so young have made them more aware of obstacles they must overcome.

"This conference has made them start getting a better, clearer picture of life," said Shelley Sheldon, northern region independent living coordinator. "The tiny things matter - how to paddle a boat in the right direction, help a shipmate get on the boat who is bigger than you - it is all skill building and self-esteem elements. They did it."

Legend has it that on warm summer nights in the red rocks, if you listen hard, you can faintly hear Kachina people laughing at those the river has swallowed.

The small camp made by the chatting young men and women was packed away in a few minutes, the rafts deflated and stacked on a flatbed trailer.

In the searing heat, nothing could be heard but the roar of the river.

The young adults who lived at the water's edge, slept in the canyon's valleys and watched hawks circle above had completed the trek and headed home with tired bodies, a few more friends and a renewed vision for the future.

The Kachinas cannot laugh tonight. The cold, deep river did not conquer the youths.

Instead, it made them strong.