The Woman Who Parents Foster Kids When They're No Longer Kids
Illustrations by Marne Grahlman


This story is over 5 years old.


The Woman Who Parents Foster Kids When They're No Longer Kids

A recent court ruling in Texas found the state's foster care system to be so broken that it violated the constitutional rights of the children in it's care. When those children age out the system they often have few life skills and nowhere to go...

In December 2015, US District Judge Janis Jack pored over testimony from 40 witnesses and 400 exhibits before making a detailed, embarrassing ruling: Texas foster care, the justice wrote in her opinion, is a system where "rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm."

The initial lawsuit that triggered Justice Jack's ruling was a class action suit filed by over 30 former foster children, now adults, who claimed their amendment rights to "be reasonably safe from harm while in government custody and the right to receive the most appropriate care, treatment, and services" were violated.


The Judge agreed.

The court found that children who were in the system for more than a year found themselves bounced between housing placements up to a dozen times. Often they would have to switch to schools for a new placement, which broke whatever bonds they were able to build with fellow classmates. Sometimes placements would be as far as 100 miles away from a child's hometown. If a child was unlucky enough to end up at group home, they often found themselves in an institutional snake pit with little oversight and often no way out.

A system where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm.

Children who were not adopted out of foster care by the time they became teenagers languished in a broken system that heaped more damage and more trauma on their already flimsy emotional foundation, so that by the time they aged out as adults, they were largely incapable of caring for themselves.

Sandra Carpenter, the owner of a transitional living program called Angel Reach, which serves former foster kids who aged out of the system, testified that many of the 18- to 20-year olds who come to her program do not know how to answer a phone, take or leave a message, cook a meal, or load a dishwasher. According to Carpenter, "They do not know how to fill out a job application, let alone drive a car to get to work." She added that none of them can "take care of themselves."

Carpenter also testified that, of 180 former foster youth with whom she's worked with, 50 percent were sexually abused in foster care.


Carpenter is a tough woman who has created a small but sturdy safety net that the state of Texas is incapable and unwilling to provide. A former airline employee, ticketing agent, and then travel agent, Carpenter and her husband have taken 65 foster children into their home over the course of 16 years, in addition to their two biological sons. Most of the children were then adopted, and Carpenter has adopted eight herself. The grown kids whom she adopted have gone on to be independent adults with families, she says, working in law enforcement and other stable careers; only one is plagued by substance abuse and legal troubles, she adds.

Sandra Carpenter

Her program, Angel Reach, is the only independent nonprofit in that serves ex-foster kids in Texas, free of any binding money from the state's bureaucracy. With her largest-ever operating budget of $780,000, Carpenter's Angel Reach feels like a cozy hangout for young people at times and a boarding school run by a loving but strict helicopter mom at others. Angel Reach owns a number of small houses and apartments throughout Conroe, a suburb of Houston. Former foster kids can apply to live in Angel Reach housing at heavily subsidized rate, but they have to abide by Carpenter's rules and expectations.

People who agree to follow the full, strict Angel Reach program regulations are expected to rent an apartment through the organization, get a job, learn to drive with a donated a car, and, eventually, in theory, get a college degree. They have access to a therapist and can work as "interns" for Angel Reach, but they don't get to hold onto their paychecks if they do. The money goes to bills and savings. "We don't give them a check in their hands," Carpenter says of her interns. "What we learned is some of the kids get money in their hand, they either get a tattoo or a game system or drugs."


Carpenter is a big proponent of getting a college education. The young adults in the program don't necessarily agree. The first five former foster kids that Carpenter helped send to community college flunked out in the first semester, she says. This semester, she is sending 11 students to school and feels more hopeful.

Carpenter takes in both street kids and former foster kids and has learned over time that there's one major difference between them. "The kids that are aged out of foster care, they're used to being taken care of. So they're much more open to getting off the street faster when they hit the street," says Carpenter. "They've always been housed. The housing hasn't been their choice and it hasn't been nice, but they have a roof over their head."

The ex-foster kids often have trouble coping with their emotions, explains Faith, a young homeless woman who was never in foster care but uses Angel Reach's computer lab with her husband, Cody, who is also homeless. He has a bloody cut on his nose. The previous day, they say, he was jumped by an ex-foster kid at Angel Reach for no apparent reason. Carpenter says the attack concluded an unusually violent week. "We've had the police here more this week than we've had since we opened."

They're kind of in survival mode because they don't know if someone's going to walk away from them in an instant.

One of the challenges of treating former foster kids is that they no longer have to do what's asked of them, which includes taking their medication for psychiatric or mood disorders. "Since someone's not watching them take their medication everyday," says Susan Gutierrez, the lead counselor for Angel Reach, "their natural tendency is to say, 'I don't want to take any medication.'" Even where a lower dose of medication would be helpful to them, they're resistant because of all the medications they were forced to take in group homes.


What's more, Gutierrez says, is that former foster kids also struggle to build any sort of meaningful bond with those around them. "If one of the earliest relationships you had involved abuse and neglect, you are going to experience that disorder." Your prognosis is better if you get adopted to a loving home young, worse if you don't. "They have a hard time maintaining relationships with employers, relationships with peers, relationships with adults," Gutierrez says. "They're kind of in survival mode because they don't know if someone's going to walk away from them in an instant."

It's impossible to quantify the full impact that a broken foster system has on any child, let alone on society (though some researchers have tried). All we have here are the stories from ex-foster kids in Texas, who at age 18 suddenly became adults—legally, anyway.

David Oliva is a 24-year-old who used to live in an Angel Reach home, but now opts to sleep in the car that Angel Reach donated to him. State case workers took him and his brothers away from their drug-addicted parents when he was in fourth grade, he says. He recounts being treated okay in the foster homes of a Mormon family and then a Catholic family, but memories from abuse he suffered in his childhood sometimes haunted him, causing what he describes as "uncontrollable rage." So CPS moved him to a boot camp in 2006. After the boot camp, he says, he was moved to a mental hospital. He has to close his eyes for a moment to count all the medications he was put on. "Fifteen," he finally estimates.


He has to close his eyes for a moment to count all the medications he was put on. "Fifteen," he finally estimates.

"Their psychologist should have been trying to get to the bottom of it, not prescribe prescriptions, to, you know, help you deal with this," Oliva says. "That's your cure. That's your problem-solver. That's your answer to fixing somebody… I didn't think I needed them." Oliva has worked various odd jobs, including a decent gig at a landscaping company, he says, but he left. "I was still missing a purpose, a reason to live, basically." Twice, he has tried to kill himself by swallowing a bottle of his depression pills. He parks the Acura where he lives in an alleyway at night by neighbors who don't mind. During the day, he hangs out a local coffee shop and makes sure to put $1 in the tip jar in exchange for the space.

David Oliva

Samantha, 22, another former foster kid and Angel Reach resident, is a single mother. Samantha says she would have had nowhere to turn after her latest stint in jail for drug possession were it not for Angel Reach.

Now, instead, she shares a one-story home with three other young single mothers in an Angel Reach home, called the Nest. It's the only Angel Reach home whose residents don't need to be former foster kids. Samantha says she has been clean since she moved here and likes living with a group of other young mothers, most of the time (in the middle of the interview, an irate roommate interrupts to ask why her frozen yogurt was moved from one section of the freezer to another).


Carpenter allows foster kids to stay in Angel Reach housing for two years at a time before they must re-apply. The single mothers can stay in Angel Reach's housing for as long as five years; Samantha says she plans to take full advantage and stay as long as she needs to.

However, few kids stay the full time they're allowed at once. Instead, they often cycle back and forth, Carpenter says. They "kind of just keep trying to do it on their own, in their own way," Carpenter says, "then they come back and they're like, 'OK, I screwed up.'"

On a Friday afternoon, Carpenter drops by the Nest and the other homes unannounced to give me a tour. One home, which she calls the "assessment center," provides temporary short-term housing to young adults while Carpenter decides whether they can handle the rigors of the full Angel Reach program (also living there is an Angel Reach security guard, who needed a place to crash after his divorce). That group is in the middle of enjoying a "family" dinner together when we pop in. They've cooked hamburgers. The rent is discounted—as low as $50 a month for newcomers and no more than $200 a month for long-term people who stick with the program.

Some of the young women at the houses jokingly call Carpenter "mom," and Carpenter, in turn, keeps a close eye on them. She doesn't allow people new to the program to host overnight guests. She says she recently kicked a girl out who kept violating that rule. During our tour, she opens some of the girls' bedrooms doors and then leaves them open as she takes me to the next room. "We have trouble attracting boys [to Angel Reach]. We're trying to figure out why that is," she says. It's clear that for some ex-foster kids, being in a tightly parented environment like Angel Reach demands a certain submission to supervision that is simply too much too bear after years in the system.


Family dinner with Angel Reach clients

Crystal Bentley came into the foster system when she was four, after her mother chose a sexually abusive boyfriend over Bentley and her brothers. One day the children were put into a car with a stranger who drove the siblings to a CPS office. "I just hated everyone and everything," Crystal says. "I used to think my life was like a dream, and I would wake up not where I was. Like, nothing made sense to me at all." Throughout her adolescence, Bentley ping-ponged between homes where she was sexually and emotionally abused by a series of different foster parents or foster siblings.

In Texas, there is no formal system to track foster children who commit acts of abuse, so there is no way for a caseworker to know if they are placing a foster child in a home with another child with a history of violence. What's more, when foster children do complain about physical, emotional, or sexual abuse at a foster home, state workers who investigate the allegations make the wrong call 75 percent of the time, the state's own foster care facility licensing director found in one review presented to Justice Jack.

I used to think my life was like a dream, and I would wake up not where I was. Like, nothing made sense to me at all.

The daughter of a family who took Bentley in sexually abused her. Bentley recalls watching that same girl suffer a violent asthma attack in the middle of the night. "I just let her," Bentley says coldly. "I didn't go get her mom like I usually would. I just sat there, and I was hoping that she would die."


Like so many other teenagers who linger in the system, Bentley ended up group home, where she learned to get along with the other charges by offering to do their homework.

On the weekends and holidays, most of the teenagers at the center had one sponsor family where they could spend time away. Bentley, on the other hand, says she had five sponsors. "It was mostly because I had potential. I'm a very well-spoken person—I've always been able to articulate, I've always been able to give a good speech," Bentley says. She hesitates, then adds: "I'm not ugly." But she describes the relationships with her sponsors as more of a business exchange than the loving bond she had always wanted.

"All of these different women wanted to, like, take me to galas, take me to all of these events. And, basically, what they were doing was showing off a poor black girl that they were helping, and it made them look good. I knew that, and it kind of pissed me off, and I couldn't, like, take it for what it was."

The wealthy sponsors who showed Bentley off pushed her to go to college; in Texas, foster kids are guaranteed free tuition in Texas once they age out of the system, but few take advantage and actually finish school. Bentley had planned to go to college until she got pregnant at the end of high school. One of her sponsors offered her a car if she would get an abortion. Others told her they would cut her off if she didn't. "You don't give a teenager that kind of an ultimatum, to say, 'If you don't do what we want you to do, we're done with you, basically.' So I was like, 'Well, fuck y'all, then.'" Bentley chose her boyfriend and motherhood over school.

By the time Bentley reached her early 20s, she left her eldest child's father, whom she says was physically abusive, then had two more children. For a time, Bentley worked as prostitute and was eventually dropped her off at a homeless shelter by a former in-law. That's where she learned about Angel Reach for the first time.

Bentley lived in her own apartment that Angel Reach had found her for two years. She earned money and free rent by agreeing to drive other people in the program around, she says, but she never had any spending money on hand to enjoy. Then, she says, she met a donor at one event, who told her there was a firm that would pay her $20 an hour for a clerical job. To make sure the do-gooder was trustworthy, Bentley turned to one of Angel Reach's caseworkers. That decision, Bentley says, blew up in her face. The caseworker, Bentley says, told the donor that Bentley wasn't ready for the job. Instead, Bentley says that the donor and Angel Reach decided to develop a program where Bentley could live at Angel Reach expense-free if she agreed to attend college. "It was because they wanted me to go to college, they wanted me to go to school, which was something that I really didn't want to do."

Carpenter, for her part, says Bentley didn't tell her about what happened until after the fact. After Bentley left, Carpenter says, she learned "that our foster success person had done that. But I don't know that that's exactly what happened. I think what happened is they called and asked what we thought would be best for Crystal. And I guess, it might be possible, that we knew that she had three children, and we felt like an education was her best longterm success plan."

Bentley, 22 at the time, no longer wanted to live expense-free on someone else's charity. She wanted a job. Her childhood was run by adults who made decisions for her. That lifestyle is the hallmark quality she describes of being a foster kid: adults ordering you what to do and making your decisions for you, adults controlling your living situation and your finances, and adults expecting you to be grateful for their charity because your own parents rejected you. Bentley even has a term for how she thinks these foster kids are viewed by most people, even the people who are trying to help: "foster trash."

"I'm not saying that Angel Reach didn't help me," Bentley says. "What I'm saying is, I got to the point where I was like, 'If I don't leave from here… and if I don't start like intentionally making these decisions to become my own person, I'm going to be 27 years old, still coming to get groceries from Angel Reach."

Bentley is now 25 and lives in her own apartment in Houston now, paying rent with her own income she makes as a catering server. She wants to come back to Angel Reach but only to use their counseling services, not to live in their housing. "It's the difference between, I have the key to your house and I can come in," versus the sense of independence she has now. Before, Crystal says, she didn't want counseling while she was enrolled at Angel Reach. Now, she feels that she needs it.

Carpenter shows some exasperation with Crystal and even takes a small dig at a previous job Crystal once had at the YMCA because she adamantly believes young adults like Crystal will have better chances if they go to college. "It makes me sad because she's better than that," she quips. Later in the conversation, however, Carpenter acknowledges that Bentley appears to be doing well. "She's found her way better than she ever has," Carpenter says. "And that's the thing. Sometimes, the best thing they can do is leave our program."