Fostering Neglect

Texas’ foster care reforms were supposed to fix a deadly system. Instead, they might make it worse.
by and Published on
20140512_Michels_FosterCare_094
Patrick Michels
Crystal Bentley outside Angel Reach, the Conroe facility where she volunteers helping former foster care youth.

 

Crystal Bentley is poised. She sits up straight at the formal dining room table of Angel Reach, a transitional home for former foster care youth in Conroe, and speaks with the measured voice of earned authority. In the little kitchen nearby, birdsong drifts through an open window. It’s a peaceful setting in which to describe her nightmarish childhood. It’s a story she’s told before, to advocates and policymakers, anyone who might change the system, and Bentley is an experienced, almost regal storyteller.

“I’m really comfortable with my life story,” she says, “because my situation is not the same anymore.”

Bentley never lived at Angel Reach, but she goes there for counseling and to volunteer. The nonprofit helped her find an apartment and a flexible job with a career prep agency. Before that, she lived at a women’s shelter.

Bentley is 23 now, independent, raising her three children and taking college classes, but for most of her childhood she was a ward of the state. Abandoned by her mother at age 4, Bentley grew up with Texas for a parent. Texas placed her in a series of homes its employees inspected and deemed safe. Texas paid people to feed and clothe her. Texas sent a caseworker to check on her once a month, and when Bentley told that caseworker she had been abused, which happened often, Texas moved her.

With no choice in the matter, Bentley became an expert on the state’s suitability as a parent. She and other foster care alumni and advocates travel to Austin every chance they get to tell legislators what’s wrong with the system, and beseech them to fix it. The lawmakers listen politely. Then Bentley goes home.

She says the most urgent problems—the ones that have to be fixed now, the ones that should never have been problems in the first place—concern basic child safety. Foster families should be more meticulously screened. Caseworkers should be responsible for fewer kids and have more time to spend with them. Children who report abuse should be believed. Abusers should be punished.

Many child welfare advocates list the same priorities. Texas’ foster care system needs more accountability at every level, they say; the system needs better screening, better training and, for God’s sake, more money. The advocates’ goal is so basic it’s almost pitiful: that when Texas removes children from their homes because of maltreatment, life should get better, not worse.

Life should, at the very least, continue. In the state’s 2013 fiscal year, 14 children died from abuse or neglect while in Texas’ custody. One was Alexandria Hill, taken from her parents because they smoked marijuana and one had seizures. In a rage, Alexandria’s foster mother smashed her head against the floor, killing her. She was 2. Another of the 14 lost was Karla Vasquez. Available records say only that she died of neglect at a residential treatment center that had been investigated six times in the past five years for allegations of physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect—but never disciplined. A third was Orion Hamilton, whose head was crushed under the knee of her foster mother’s boyfriend, Jacob Salas. He had been arrested twice for family violence but never screened by Child Protective Services despite listing the foster home as his official address. Orion was less than a year old.

In the 2012 fiscal year, another 14 children in foster care died of abuse or neglect, Eight children died in 2011. In 2010, the number was 15.

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Some of these children died from injuries sustained before they were removed from their homes. Others died at the hands of those paid to protect them. According to records from the Department of Family and Protective Services, the agency that oversees foster care, more than one in 20 children killed by abuse or neglect in Texas in the past five years died while in state custody.

These tragedies receive the most media attention, but foster children face more common horrors every day. They enter the system abandoned, abused or neglected, then are passed from home to home and school to school. Children are often separated from their siblings or locked up in residential treatment facilities and medicated to control their behavior. And many, like Bentley, allege physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of their caretakers.

The entire child welfare system is chronically, severely underfunded. Turnover is high among overburdened caseworkers who see the kids in their care only a few minutes a month. The licensing department responsible for investigating abuse of foster kids is overwhelmed and understaffed. Things are not getting better, either. State officials say the foster care system already has a $20 million deficit for 2014 because legislators didn’t budget for growth. They say 2015 will be even worse.

The solution is not, according to state lawmakers and administrators, more funding. The solution is rather a few new rules, more caseworkers, and “foster care redesign,” an ambitious term for an amalgam of changes, the product of a decade-long push to privatize Texas’ foster care system.

The privatization effort began after a rash of child deaths in 2004. Gov. Rick Perry called for an emergency overhaul of the system, and the Texas Legislature passed a bill to reorganize and privatize management of every aspect of a child’s life under state care. But in 2006, more children died under the watch of private agencies, and the changes were put on hold. In 2011, lawmakers returned to privatization as a cure-all, but this time it wasn’t called privatization. It was redesign.

Currently, most children in foster care are moved to a home or facility under the direction of one of a few hundred private child-placing agencies around Texas. Under redesign, another layer of private bureaucracy will be added to the system. One large “lead agency” will contract with the state to assume three major responsibilities: overseeing all the child-placing agencies in its region; making sure foster children and families have the social, medical or psychological services they need; and exceeding the state’s performance on metrics like keeping sibling groups together and placing kids closer to their original communities. It’s an appealing, ambitious wish list. Most attractive, perhaps, is that lawmakers don’t have to figure out how to pay for it. The legislation passed in 2011 specifies that the new system can’t cost more than the old one.

In short, Texas is banking on private companies—some of which have to turn a profit—doing more than the state could for its most vulnerable kids without adding a dime.

State lawmakers and administrators seem confident that this will work, but there are already warning signs. The first company to take a contract as a lead agency revealed in April that it was losing money after just eight months of operation. Even its CEO says the plan will cost more than budgeted.

More important, many child welfare advocates fear redesign will make a bad situation worse. The new system spreads out what little funds are available among more parties, some of which take their own cut. It adds a layer of bureaucracy between Texas and the kids in its care, and turns over crucial responsibilities to private companies without adding accountability measures. And it doesn’t make any of the reforms advocates say are desperately needed, like better screening for foster parents and training for caseworkers. The state’s evaluation measures may even push kids into dangerous situations by rewarding lead agencies for reuniting families quickly regardless of whether a home is safe. At best, foster care redesign is a gamble. At worst, it may hurt the very kids Texas set out to save.

 

Bentley as a teenager, in her room at the Boys & Girls Harbor residential treatment facility in La Porte.
Courtesy Crystal Bentley
Bentley as a teenager, in her room at the Boys & Girls Harbor residential treatment facility in La Porte.

Crystal Bentley’s life in Texas’ custody began early. Her mother was a drug addict with four children she couldn’t care for. Child Protective Services removed Bentley when she was 2, but returned her a few months later.

The state tries, whenever possible, to reunite families. After removing children, it works with parents to improve their situation, often requiring them to take parenting classes or attend counseling or rehab. Under redesign, Texas will grade its new lead agencies on whether they reunite more families than the state’s old system did.

That’s one of the many aspects of redesign that worries child advocate Ashley Harris, with Texans Care for Children. “Just because everything is perfect on that evaluation doesn’t mean [reunification] is best for the kid or the family,” she says. “They could be pushing those kids home when it’s not safe or it’s not right.”

Bentley wishes she hadn’t been returned home after her first stint in foster care. “I think I would have had a better chance of being adopted at a younger age and of having a healthier childhood,” she says.

Her family came to the attention of Child Protective Services again when Bentley says her mother’s boyfriend molested her. Bentley’s caseworker told the mother to kick her boyfriend out or lose custody of her children. “So [my mother] left me and my brothers in a parking lot and ran off to California,” Bentley says. “She chose him instead of us.”

Right away, Bentley was placed in a foster home apart from her brothers. She thinks it’s because she’d been abused. “Had I been molested by my brothers, that would have been the perfect thing to do,” she says. “But as a result of us being separated—and we were hardly ever placed together—we have no relationship. I don’t think that was the right decision.”

Foster care redesign addresses the problem of sibling separation explicitly, but not very aggressively. At an April hearing, the Department of Family and Protective Services showed off an early evaluation of Providence Services Corporation, its first fully up-and-running private lead agency. State workers had placed sibling groups together 64 percent of the time, but had set a benchmark for Providence to do better—by just 1 percent. Providence missed the mark. In the last three months, the company kept siblings together in foster care just 60 percent of the time.

 

At a May luncheon for Angel Reach, Bentley talks about her struggle to transition out of the foster care system.
Patrick Michels
At a May luncheon for Angel Reach, Bentley talks about her struggle to transition out of the foster care system.

Not that Providence has an easy job. The for-profit company took on foster care services for a rural swath of 60 counties surrounding San Angelo, Abilene and Midland. In the old system, foster kids in such regions were often placed far from their hometowns because the services they needed—medical or psychological help, a secure facility, or just an appropriate foster home—weren’t available nearby. But being far from the familiar makes foster care more traumatic, and keeps parents and children from visiting each other or attending counseling together, hurting the odds of reunification. So one primary goal of redesign is to place kids closer to home.

To do this, lead agencies like Providence are expected to work with churches, nonprofits and other groups to cultivate services locally. The process is called “building capacity,” and not everyone thinks it’s possible.

Katherine Barillas is a privatization expert at One Voice Texas, a nonprofit collaborative of health and human services practitioners. She’s also a member of a group of experts—judges, state officials, former foster youth, foster parents, and child welfare advocates—that advises lawmakers on foster care policy. “In areas that are already resource-poor, it’s hard to imagine how a lead agency is going to create something out of nothing,” Barillas says. She and others from the advisory group asked a representative from Providence how exactly they planned to provide services for foster kids where there haven’t been any. “He said, ‘That’s a concern,’” she remembers. “He said if worst came to worst, what he would do is pull in service providers from other parts of the country through virtual means, Skype, whatever. We were like, ‘No.’ I supposed you could call that a loophole.”

Companies like Providence are making this up as they go, because providers don’t have to show how they’ll manage the financial and logistical challenges of redesign before getting a contract. But Judge John Specia, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, isn’t worried about it. “They knew how much money they were going to get paid,” he says of Providence. “They knew what services they were going to be obligated to require. So, I mean, it is, the burden is on them to produce, and they believe they can produce.”

Lead agencies will be evaluated—and paid—based on metrics including how often they place kids in their original region. It’s an admirable goal, but like so much in redesign, may look better on paper than in practice. One of Providence’s regions covers a 39,000-square-mile area. Keeping a kid within that region will count as a success on Providence’s evaluations, but it’s not exactly like getting to stay at the same school.

 

Katherine Barillas, an expert on foster care privatization, doubts Texas’ current reform plan can succeed without additional spending.
Patrick Michels
Katherine Barillas, an expert on foster care privatization, doubts Texas’ current reform plan can succeed without additional spending.

After Bentley’s first placement, “it was just a constant transition from foster home to foster home,” she says. “Sometimes you’re with people for a month, for three months, six months. It depends.”

Some placements are meant to be brief, but often, children move because a foster parent rejects them. “I think a big problem in the [Child Protective Services] system is the lack of commitment,” Bentley says. “Just because they’re not your child and you don’t quite agree with them all the time, you give up on them. That issue follows us everywhere—being abandoned or being rejected. Even if [children] were taken away [from their parents] by force, they still have that thought, ‘Oh, what was wrong with me?’ Then you go to a foster home, and you’re immediately thrown out or moved somewhere else. You’re always somebody’s obligation, or you’re an inconvenience. We grow up feeling that way.”

Bentley and other foster youth say they were often moved whenever they alleged abuse. Bentley says she was physically or sexually abused in almost every place she lived from age 4 through 17. Her caseworkers did nothing. “If you told them you’ve been abused, it’s your word against the foster parents’ word,” she says. “If a child says, ‘Hey, I’ve been molested,’ and [foster parents] say, ‘No she wasn’t,’ let’s take a lie-detector test. Let’s get a medical opinion about this. Get the police involved in it. This is an accusation of rape. This is a crime.”

But at the time such an allegation is investigated, it’s considered a civil matter, not a criminal one. And while children may report abuse to their caseworkers, it’s an entirely different group—the Child Care Licensing Division—that actually investigates.

Barillas says licensing workers don’t get the right training for those investigations. “They’re not trained in risk assessment,” she says. “They’re not trained to look for safety factors, protective factors. They’re trained to look for licensing violations.” Before getting her doctorate studying privatized foster care, Barillas was an investigator for Child Protective Services. She says that Child Care Licensing is supposed to get outside help with forensic interviews but often won’t. “They’d come into a home where there was an allegation of sexual abuse. They didn’t know how to interview those kids. They didn’t know where to get them treatment, or who should be doing a physical examination of them. The cases were just a mess.”

Though Child Care Licensing investigates abuse, caseworkers are still thought of as foster kids’ main protectors. Barillas says Bentley’s story—being abused, then disbelieved by caseworkers—is common among former foster youth. “Alumni will tell me, if it was between my word and a foster parent’s and there wasn’t necessarily physical evidence, they’re going to believe [the parents],” she says. “I’m the ‘troubled child.’ Or I’m going to get moved. And I don’t want to say anything because the next placement could be worse.”

Bentley says having a history of abuse made her less credible to her caseworkers, not more so: “I was raped repeatedly by foster brothers and sisters because [they knew], ‘Oh, that’s her history. She’s been molested, so we can get away with saying she’s lying because of what happened to her before.’ There was no accountability whatsoever for anything that was done to me. All the system knew how to do was say, ‘Oh, she accused them of rape. We have to move her somewhere else.’ Where’s my justice in that? How do I feel like I matter if all you’re going to do is brush it under the rug and move me somewhere else that is probably going to do the same thing to me?”

After several moves, Bentley was placed with her aunt. When Bentley told her caseworker that her aunt’s 16-year-old son was molesting her, she was ignored. The caseworker didn’t believe her until her cousin raped her so violently she was hospitalized. She was 8.

“He took my virginity,” Bentley says. “He sodomized me. [Afterward] he sent me to bed and told his mom, ‘Oh, she’s just tired. She had a tummy ache.’ My aunt took his word even though I’d been telling her that he was abusing me. She would beat me for saying that. The next day I went to school, and I was bleeding from my rectum. It was broken. I had one black eye that spread to the next eye. They did not pay attention to me to the point where I went to school that way, you know? They didn’t even watch me get on the bus.

“They took me straight from the school to the hospital,” she says. “I don’t remember ever being questioned by a police officer when I was in the hospital. Ever.”

Bentley’s rapist visited her in the hospital and ordered she tell everyone that her biological brother, who was placed with her at the time, had raped her. “I told them that it was my brother, and they were like, ‘There’s no way. There’s no way her 9-year-old brother can cause that much damage.’ I’m pretty sure they had their suspicions but I refused to tell them [because] I was so traumatized by the whole experience.”

When she left the hospital, Bentley was moved back to a home where she’d been placed before. One night, the truth about her rape came out. “I did something wrong and [my foster mom] was like, ‘Crystal, I don’t know if I want you here anymore. This isn’t going to work. I’m going to send you back to your aunt’s house.’ I was [saying], ‘No! No!’ I remember crawling into a corner, and she walked toward me, and I crawled under the bed just to get away from her. I was screaming, ‘I can’t go back, I can’t go back!’ She said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because he’s going to do that to me again!’”

Tragically, this revelation made Bentley’s life worse. “This is when her kids started molesting me and having sex with me.” She uses the terms “rape” and “have sex with” interchangeably when talking about forced or coerced intercourse. Bentley says her foster brother beat her, but agreed to stop in exchange for sex. “What did I do? [I thought,] ‘Hey, this beats being beaten.’ A lot of the things we learn as foster kids is how to survive.” She was 9 years old.

Bentley eventually did tell her foster mother. “When I told her they were doing that, within the week I was moved. I think she just told [the state], ‘This is not going to work out for me anymore. I don’t want her anymore.’ No details, no nothing. Just, that was it. What could I do but just be moved to the next foster home and accept it? Because that was what was going to be done anyway, with or without justice.”

There’s no documentation of the alleged abuse, and to Bentley’s knowledge, her foster siblings were never punished. Neither was her cousin. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been raped by someone, and they’ve gotten away with it,” she says, sitting back in her chair. We’ve been talking at the dining room table of Angel Reach for more than an hour. “I actually ran into my cousin on Facebook, just by coincidence,” she says. “And I told him, ‘I forgive you.’ There’s nothing I can do at this point.”

 

Ashley Harris, of Texans Care for Children, says there’s at least one thing Texas can do for kids like Bentley: spend more money. “It’s consistently chronic underfunding that allows these tragedies to happen,” she says. “The less time you’re spending with these children in these foster care placements, the more dangerous things can happen.”

For four and a half years, Harris was a caseworker for Child Protective Services. Caseworkers are required by federal law to see each child in their care at least once a month, but most advocates say that doesn’t happen. There’s no minimum time requirement for visits, and caseloads in Texas are double what’s recommended for child safety. “The less kids you have on a caseload, the more quality work you’re going to get from a caseworker,” Harris says. “Not just checking in on that child but really knowing the dynamics of that family and the child’s needs. Not just checking off, ‘Oh I saw the kid.’ I can tell you, that happened many times for me, when I had 40-plus children on my caseload where it really was me checking off, me driving by their foster home. ‘Hi, how are you? Are you doing good? Are you safe?’ And go. Because that’s all I could do.”

High caseloads are a longstanding problem in Texas. Lawmakers recently approved hiring hundreds of additional caseworkers with a goal of getting the foster care caseloads down to 28.4 per caseworker from 33. Still, national experts recommend caseloads not exceed 15.

But even when the state hires more caseworkers, it struggles to keep them. The turnover rate at Child Protective Services is 25.5 percent, and more than half its employees have been on the job three years or less. Barillas says that’s because caseworkers are inadequately prepared and supported for what they face. After three months of classroom training, she says, most of which is departmental policy and how to use the computer system, caseworkers get brief guided field experience and are out on their own. “We have such a high turnover rate that your supervisor is probably 10 minutes older than you and has been there three days more than you,” Barillas says. “So the supervision structure is a mess. You have no background. You have no support. You have no training to do your job, and at about nine months is when we see people just dropping off. I think most workers out there are very hardworking, and they’re passionate. They want to do right. They just don’t have the resources to do it.”

But having enough well-trained, experienced caseworkers is expensive. “Nothing is for free!” Barillas says. “The state has to want to invest, and that’s the problem.”

If lawmakers don’t make these pricey reforms, the courts may do it. Children’s Rights, Inc., a New York-based advocacy group, has filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of the state’s foster children. The suit alleges that kids in the system are abused and asks the court to force reforms like capping caseloads and raising standards for employees of Child Protective Services. Children’s Rights, Inc. has won settlements or judgments in such suits against a dozen states. The case is slated to be argued in December.

 

Texas may escape legal action, but its plan to fix the foster care system without increased spending looks doomed. Among the many who think so is Robert Hartman, CEO of the state’s own contractor, Providence.

“Financially, we’re struggling with that arrangement,” Hartman says. Before coming to Texas, he was CEO of a lead child-placing agency during Kansas’ foster care privatization effort. Based on that experience, Hartman expects the state to spend more than planned. Other states, he says, “realize, once they get into it what it costs in the private sector to provide the service, and eventually the state is often willing to put more money into it.”

Providence has been chasing a foster care contract with Texas for years. Back in 2005, when the Legislature first passed a bill to privatize the entire foster care system, Providence was the first company to bid on the casework contract—with a little help from its friends. Ousted state Rep. Toby Goodman, an Arlington Republican, became a lobbyist for Providence just two years after helping write the privatization legislation.

In 2007, several child deaths and an outcry from advocates caused the state to withdraw plans to privatize casework. Commissioner Specia says that privatizing case management is still completely off the table. But Hartman thinks now that Providence has begun its work, lawmakers will change their minds. “I think over time we will probably see the case management function transferred to the [lead agency],” he says. If that happens, employees of a private company would be making critical decisions about the safety of kids in the state’s care.

Providence, an Arizona-based company operating in 44 states and Canada, formed in 1997 specifically to contract with governments looking to privatize human services. It’s been in Texas almost since its inception, providing behavioral health, telemedicine, and workforce development services to juvenile probationers, Medicaid patients, and now the foster care system. In the last fiscal quarter, Providence brought in almost $290 million. In Texas, though, Providence is losing money. Hartman won’t say how much, but he testified in April that administrative costs are higher than expected, and that Providence’s budget doesn’t fully cover the foster care services it provides.

After that hearing, Commissioner Specia at first sounded like the state wasn’t considering paying more. “[Providence] wanted this contract,” he says. “They said they could do this with the resources that were given them. So they went into this with their eyes completely open.” But when pressed about Hartman’s testimony, he acknowledges, “We’re in negotiations with them, and if we can see a legitimate reason why they should get some more money we’ll look at that.”

The foster care redesign funding scheme hinges on a change to how child-placing agencies are paid. In the old system, children were assigned a level of care based on the intensity of their needs—basic, moderate, severe or intense. A basic-level child had no serious physical, psychological or emotional problems that required extra services or supervision. An intense-level child usually had a severe medical or psychiatric illness needing round-the-clock care. Agencies were paid more per day for needier children, providing a financial incentive for agencies to keep kids at higher levels—that is to say, sicker—and institutionalized, rather than placed in private homes. To remove that incentive, foster care redesign replaces the levels with a  “blended rate” that’s far lower and lets the lead agency negotiate to get more money for individual children with expensive problems. The goal is to target more money to the kids who really need it. The freed-up funds are supposed to bankroll the rest of redesign’s objectives.

But some fear Texas has traded one financial conflict of interest for another. State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, an Austin Democrat, worries about having a for-profit company policing the same groups they’re funding. Under redesign, lead agencies like Providence oversee all the other private child-placing agencies in its area. If an agency had an expensive problem, the money to fix it would come out of the lead agency’s budget. “It is not unreasonable to think that at least occasionally, the [lead agency] will perhaps not recognize or report all of the possible deficiencies or problems,” Naishtat says.

Commissioner Specia says state oversight will prevent that. “We are involved all over, in each of the steps,” he says. “I think there’s a fantasy or there’s some feeling that we’re giving it all to the [lead agency] and stepping back. The fact of the matter is, we’re going to monitor the contract, they still have to meet all the licensing requirements, we’re still going to monitor the [child-placing agencies].”

In other states, privatizing child welfare without more investment has been disastrous. In Kansas and Florida, lead agencies struggled financially, declared bankruptcy, or canceled their contracts altogether. In Nebraska, foster families and service providers quit the system after a lead agency pulled out, causing problems with payment and coordination.

Barillas wrote her doctoral dissertation on foster care privatization in other states. She believes an optimal child welfare system would involve the private sector, but says history suggests foster care redesign in Texas will fail.

“Although our state has never said that one of their objectives is to save money, most states have privatized with that being one of their objectives,” Barillas says. “And they’ve all realized you can’t do it.” Moreover, “No state has seen better outcomes under a privatized system than under a public system. No state at all.”

Unless Texas turns out to be the exception, it’s in trouble. A 2013 report from the Legislative Budget Board noted, “Every state that has implemented statewide privatized foster care services has experienced the failure of a lead agency,” a possibility it says the state isn’t ready for. “The Department of Family and Protective Services lacks sufficiently detailed intervention and contingency plans to implement in the event of a financial emergency, or problems with a lead agency’s performance or service quality.”

Should Providence ever want out—say, if it keeps losing money—Texas won’t have long to prepare. Either party can exit the contract with just 30 days’ notice.

 

Crystal Bentley attended the legislative hearing in April evaluating foster care redesign. She waited for hours as child welfare advocates, parents, academics, clergy and former foster care youth asked lawmakers to pause the rollout of redesign until they could see whether it made life better or worse for kids. So far, the state has awarded two lead agency contracts—one to Providence and one to the nonprofit ACH Child and Family Services for the Dallas area. Despite stakeholder objections and financial warning signs, Texas plans to start taking bids for the next redesign region this summer.

At the hearing, Bentley testified and drove back to Conroe, just like she has before and will again. The system desperately needs reform, she says, but, “I’m not going to say that 100 percent of foster care was bad, because when I met my real family, I was grateful that I grew up in foster care, hardships and all.” At 16, Bentley met her birth mother, father, and siblings. “[My siblings] went to foster care, but [my mother] got them back. Now, I grew up abused. I grew up lacking certain things. But I can honestly say that while I was in foster care, I didn’t starve. I was always somewhere that had lights. My brothers and sisters grew up without the bare necessities.”

Bentley was adopted at age 11, but when her adoptive mother gave birth to a child, she turned Bentley back over to the state. “I don’t think she knew how to love me anymore after she got what she really wanted,” Bentley says. From 13 to 17, she lived at a residential treatment facility. After that, she lived with partners and her now-estranged husband. For a while, she worked weekends at a 24-hour Walmart while her mother-in-law watched the kids. Since she didn’t have a car, she’d be dropped off and stay overnight at the Walmart until the weekend was over. When her husband kicked her out, she contacted the state. “I went to CPS because I had no one else,” she says. “I went to someone who had raised me, and I said, ‘I’m having a problem. I don’t have a place to live with my daughter. I need help. I need guidance.’” But instead, she says, “They opened a CPS case investigating me.”

Bentley was living at a women’s shelter when she read about Angel Reach online. She credits the center, and God, with her survival. “When I sit down and tell people my life story—and you’ve only heard bits and pieces—they can’t see how it is that I’m in my right mind, that I’m sane. I can only give credit to Him.

“Some of us can’t handle it. I have foster brothers and sisters who’ve committed suicide, who’ve overdosed on drugs. I don’t know why God equipped me with the strength to endure.”

Ashley Harris of Texans Care for Children says, “The reality is for many foster youth—and especially those aging out of care—they were just lucky that they didn’t die.” Child deaths get public attention, “but there’s so many more kids that are being neglected and abused and not having their emotional needs met in foster care. I mean, we heard directly from these kids. There were alumni who came to the hearing saying, ‘This happened and it’s still happening. Why?’ They’re asking the policymakers, ‘What more is it going to take?’”

Bentley says, “We can’t save the world, you know? I can’t save the world, but I can use my voice. It’s like therapy for me to go to these legislative meetings and show them, ‘This is a result of what you’ve done. This is what I’ve had to go through. But look at me now. Look at me rise above the situation you put me through. You lacked. My parents were inadequate, but this system is clearly inadequate as well. You tried to take me out of an abusive situation, but you put me into another one—a worse one, even worse.’”

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