Remaking Foster Care: Navigating The System As A Parent
In our series “Remaking Foster Care,” KERA is exploring efforts by the state of Texas to redesign the foster care system – and profiling the people who’ll be affected. Today, we’ll zero in on biological parents.
At a Fort Worth church, Greg Bunch addresses a group of mothers and fathers.
“How many of you have teenagers? Raise your hand...”
Bunch is a life coach. He spends eight to 10 weeks with parents whose children are all in state custody.
“I’ve seen guys in the class that was living in a homeless shelter, but they were doing what they had to do to get their kids,” he says. “And I’ve seen guys that had big money, and they were doing what they had to do.”
When a child can no longer live safely at home because of abuse or neglect, the state has strict requirements for parents to get their kids back. It’s called a family service plan and can include parenting classes like this one Bunch teaches for dads.
"We do not look at them as bad dads. We just look at them as someone who had a mistake in their life. We just get past that mistake and keep going."
“One thing I think that they find out in here is that they have value, from day one,” he says. “We don’t look at them as bad dads. We just look at them as someone who had a mistake in their life. And so we just get past that mistake and keep going.”
In a separate class, moms are shown a scene from the movie Forrest Gump, where the main character asks his mother about his destiny.
This got the mothers thinking about their futures and their past. One talked about her time in jail. Another talked about the stepfather who raped her at age five. Another talked about her mental illness.
After the classes, some parents shared their hopes for a new foster care system that can better serve not only children, but adults too.
- More communication between foster parents and biological parents
- I'm afraid of foster parents because I had two friends whose child died in the foster system.
- I feel like they care about about the mothers way more than they do the fathers
- I get to visit my kids once a week for an hour. I get to meet them at McDonalds. When you’re used to having your kids every day, taking them to school, helping them with their homework, making them say their prayers at night before bed, an hour is never enough time.
One dad’s journey through the system
On a windy day, in White Settlement, a suburb west of Fort Worth, one dad opens up about his children in foster care.
“I’m the biggest kid I know next to my Dad.”
Mathew Terrell says he never thought of himself as mature, even as he nears 50. He was born in Canada, loved to travel, and lived out of a guitar case most of his life.
“Samantha is my daughter is up in the West coast of Canada," he says. "Antoinette is the 18-year-old, then when I fell in love with my first wife, she was pregnant with Cara who's not my biological child, but I'm the only father she's known..."
It’s a complicated family tree, like so many in the state. Terrell became a father at 15. A few years after that, he married a California woman with two kids, and had two daughters with her. They moved to Texas because he said East Los Angeles was no place to raise kids. A son was born in Tarrant County, then came a divorce, and soon after, his younger children were placed in foster care.
“I was emotionally unstable,” he says. “I was abusing alcohol and drugs. No shape for somebody to raise two teenage girls, let alone my six-year-old son.”
Eventually, he met state requirements, including parenting classes, and passing random urine analysis and hair follicle drug tests. He won one of his girls back from the state.
But it wasn’t easy.
The caseworkers, he says, were overloaded and inexperienced. His girls were placed in foster homes far from everything they knew.
“Going from an urban setting to a rural setting, that’s very dramatic,” says Terrell. “It took a lot of adjusting on my girls’ part. And let’s just say I didn’t have the best of vehicles. The car hanging on by a thread. Or barely delivering them after visitations.”
It’s the story of many parents, as Tommy Jordan of the Fort Worth non-profit NewDay Services can attest to.
"They can become the parents that they want to be."
“Everybody else that you don’t know is just a dead-beat dad, and I think we do that as in a society,” he says. “If we don’t have a personal connection to someone who’s experiencing this kind of issue, we naturally think the worse of that person.”
Under the state’s new redesign plan, biological parents will have more contact with foster parents.
“Once you know people and you have a chance to work with them, you recognize these are really people who have a lot of strengths, and they can build on those strengths, and they can become the parents that they want to be,” Jordan continues. “They can become the parents that their children want to be.”
The key, he says, is to help biological parents realize they can invest something in their children that nobody else can.
On Wednesday, our series Remaking Foster Care continues with a look at one family that’s fostered dozens of kids.
Explore KERA's Remaking Foster Care Series