Spreading my wings

By Sandra Carpenter

I always wanted to have a lot of children. I never planned to adopt, but when I was in my early 30’s a switch flipped. My husband and I became foster parents and cared for 65 kids over 16 years. We adopted eight kids after having three biological children. So I got all the children I wanted.

As a foster mom I saw a lot of fostering going on that wasn’t good. People were in trouble; babies were being shuttled around from place to place; foster parents were getting stuck in the middle; other kin who wanted to step in couldn’t. I was blessed to get the chance to see all the working (or not so working) parts up close and start to think about solutions.

In 2006 we opened Angel Reach in Conroe, Texas, at first to support kinship placements and then expanded to give kids aging out of the system a shot at a better life. Today I work for a program that provides off-campus housing for young people at Prairie View Texas A&M University, where we support the largest number of youth in the region who have aged out. We work with kids in crisis, kids who really have no other place to go. In the midst of COVID-19, I still have the flexibility to see the kids – I don’t ask permission. We are able to help them apply for emergency stipends, food stamps and other resources. It’s a troubling time. Nobody is getting evicted, but people are losing their jobs.

The thing about children who experienced foster care, is that they lost out on the chance to learn the most fundamental things, the kinds of things that make it possible to live as independent adults. That’s what Angel Reach is all about. We help them get traction. A home. A community. An education. The chance to learn how to budget, cook, find a job, drive a car.

For these young people, running away is the first option. That urge to take flight goes with the territory of having been abandoned. When your parents are not with you, the fear of being alone is what runs your life. It comes out in different ways: sometimes you want to prove the world right about how bad you are; sometimes you want to prove them wrong.

One thing I have come to know is that the bad things that are happening to children are pervasive, because the whole system is broken. It’s not an isolated thing. It’s not a coincidence. Why else would so many kids demonstrate the very same behaviors and traumas? Why is it that over half of the former foster youth we have worked with have been sexually abused?

In 2015 I had the opportunity to take what I have learned — as a foster mom, an advocate and a front line provider of support for kids, and put it to particularly good use. I testified in a class action lawsuit filed by Children’s Rights on behalf of former foster care youth who were harmed by the very government charged with protecting them. I testified about the trauma and abuse I had seen. About young people unable to develop personal relationships. About kids that by the time they aged out as adults, were largely incapable of caring for themselves.

I still remember the day the judge’s decision came down: Texas was ordered to make significant reforms to its foster care system. I remember thinking, I can die now. I know it will be years before the improvements become the norm. But they will. And it will transform lives.

I feel blessed to be given the chance to bear witness.

One thing I have come to know is that the bad things that are happening to children are pervasive, because the whole system is broken. It’s not an isolated thing. It’s not a coincidence.


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