‘They want to belong’: Legal aid rebuilds lives after foster care

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Adoption, even in ideal circumstances, can be a tricky affair. It only gets more complicated when you’re trying to adopt a 20-year-old who has spent his entire life in foster care.

That’s the situation Sandra Carpenter found herself in this summer.

Carpenter is the executive director and founder of Angel Reach, a nonprofit in Conroe, Texas that helps foster children transition into adulthood.  She had already adopted seven children over the years, but she knew she needed the expertise of a lawyer to navigate an adult adoption.

Luckily, Carpenter knew exactly who to ask. With the assistance of lawyers at the Texas Foster Youth Justice Project, that 20-year-old man has a family for the first time in his life.

“They showed us how to walk through the process and have the court hearing,” Carpenter said. “This matters to these kids. They want to have your name and they want to belong to someone. They need to be connected to someone that cares about them... It was a big deal for him.”

There are many niches within the world of legal aid: veterans, immigrants, victims of domestic violence, people living with disabilities. The thread connecting the millions of Texans in need of a good lawyer is the poverty that prevents them from paying for one. But it’s hard to think of a population with fewer resources than children without a family or a home.

Nationally, half of all girls who reach adulthood within the foster care system are pregnant before their 20th birthday. On average, they have three to five children over the course of their lives, and 70 percent of those kids also end up in foster care. For boys who spend their lives in foster care, almost 40 percent of them are incarcerated within 18 months of aging out of the system.

The numbers are bleak, and they point to a broader problem that organizations like the Texas Foster Youth Justice Project are trying to solve.

“There’s very few populations that have so much against them before they even grow up,” Carpenter said. “Getting their legal stuff squared away is one part of it, but it's a big part.”

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid created the Project about eight years ago, after surveys of clients younger than 26 showed that a large percentage of them had foster care backgrounds.

“The statistics are quite high about how many of them end up in prison or poverty,” said Mary Reed, the director of the Texas Foster Youth Justice Project. “If you can help get through the early problems, you can often help them go on to live a life without poverty.”

The Project offers legal assistance to foster youth on several fronts, all of them potentially life-changing. The first, and arguably the most important, is dealing with unresolved criminal charges. These charges can be minor crimes like truancy and shoplifting, or a felony charge of domestic violence resulting from the fights that often occur in larger foster homes.

These foster children often don’t even know they’re facing criminal charges because they’ve already moved on to the next foster home by the time the notice is mailed to their original foster home.  Even if they did, their families rarely have the time or resources to help them.

“A lot of these kids have never been taught how to use a dishwasher or a lawnmower, how are they supposed to know they need to show up to court?” Carpenter said. “They can’t figure out why they can’t get a job, or get a driver’s license. It’s a huge impediment to them moving forward.”

The Texas Foster Youth Justice Project also assists foster children in obtaining state benefits upon reaching adulthood. Those benefits include tuition waivers for college and an allowance to aid foster kids as they transition into adulthood. Unfortunately, bureaucracy can stall the process and a lawyer is needed to get the gears turning in their favor.

The same problem arises when these new adults try to obtain their records from Child Protective Services.  CPS has an 18-month waiting list for former foster kids trying to get a copy of their case records. A CPS case record is “basically their life story in a binder,” Carpenter said, and can fill in the holes of their own history.

The Project can even help immigrants within the foster system obtain citizenship. It has accomplished exactly that for a handful of children taken in by Angel Reach, Carpenter said.

The documents that most of us take for granted can be life-changing for those who age out of foster care. Something as simple as a birth certificate can be all but impossible for foster children to obtain on their own, and set their life on an entirely new course when they finally receive it.

That’s what happened to a boy born to Vietnamese parents, Reed said. His foster family lost the documents proving he was a citizen and his birth certificate. Without them, he couldn’t get a Social Security number or financial aid while in college.

Lawyers at the Texas Foster Youth Justice Project solved those problems, and he is now about to graduate from Texas A&M University, Reed said.

“These problems can set their life on an unfortunate trajectory,” she said. “These are our state's children. They deserve our help.”