Briana Zapata is 17 years old, a mother of two, and one of many Texas adolescents in need of foster care services upon finding themselves, or being found in, precarious living situations.

San Antonio belongs to the Department of State Health Services’ Region 8, which spans hundreds of miles and 28 counties. Of those, Bexar County has the largest number of children placed in foster care, contributing 1,819 resident children to the region’s 2,606 as of July 2017, according to a Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) report.

It was a call to 911 that turned Zapata’s life around. Sixteen at the time and three months pregnant with her second child, she had called emergency services because she was vomiting blood and experiencing heavy vaginal bleeding. Despite insisting that she merely wanted advice, dispatchers sent an ambulance to her location.

Zapata was hesitant to accept help when the ambulance arrived. She thought the bleeding was prompted by the stress she experienced just moments before she called 911, when her daughter’s father had “shown up out of nowhere,” taken their daughter, and left with no further communication.

The ambulance transported her to a nearby hospital where she later learned that the bleeding and vomiting – while exacerbated by the traumatic experience – were due to tuberculosis.

At the time, Zapata was living in a house where her roommates bagged meth and cocaine. Her mother left her and moved to Mexico when she was 12. She then lived with her stepfather, who kicked her out when she became pregnant with her first child at age 14. From there she moved in and out of friends’ and family members’ homes for the next two years.

(From left) Briana Zapata, 17, spends time with her daughters Daniella, 1, and Natalie, 3, in their bedroom at the SJRC Texas Pregnant Parenting Teen Program.
(From left) Briana Zapata, 17, spends time with her daughters Daniella, 1, and Natalie, 3, in their bedroom at the SJRC Texas Pregnant Parenting Teen Program. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Hospital staff recommended that Zapata remain in the hospital for her own health and that of her unborn baby, but she was adamant about being released and repeatedly informed staff that she had somewhere she could go. The hospital, however, could not honor her request because she was a minor. She would have to be released into the care of a parent or legal guardian.

The hospital’s social worker contacted Child Protective Services (CPS), and Zapata soon found herself at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children (SJRC), in the Pregnant and Parenting Teen Program. SJRC is a therapeutic residential foster care program that teaches basic living and social skills, addresses emotional, behavioral, and social issues, and provides academic support and mentoring for its residents.

“When I got here they said I would be here until a family member spoke up and took me in,” Zapata said. “I didn’t expect much and thought it was never going to happen – I’ve always been by myself.”

Being a mother means that Zapata is reduced to organizations that accept mothers with children, an additional barrier in a situation where options are already limited. At any given time, about 28,000 children are wards of the state.

As children are placed throughout the state in foster care homes, emergency shelters, residential treatment facilities, or kinship placements where they stay with a family member, they may be required to travel to a new county or region to receive services, thereby increasing the foster care count in any given county.

For Zapata, foster care wasn’t something she immediately considered as an option. She told the Rivard Report that she had previous experiences with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse while living with friends and relatives. Her biggest reservation was not knowing what to expect, she said.

It was difficult for her to trust caseworkers when they said foster care was the best option. Then she met Christina Melendrez, director of child and family services for the Pregnant and Parenting Teen Program at SJRC and one of Zapata’s case managers. Zapata refers to Melendrez as “the person who makes things happen.”

Briana Zapata, 17, (center) shares a laugh on the playground with her daughters Natalie, 3, (left) and Daniella, 1, at the SJRC Texas Pregnant Parenting Teen Program.
Briana Zapata, 17, (center) shares a laugh on the playground with her daughters Natalie, 3, (left) and Daniella, 1, at the SJRC Texas Pregnant and Parenting Teen Program. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Melendrez, who has been working with SJRC for almost nine years, told the Rivard Report that she tells the foster care youth at SJRC that she will never change her phone number. If someone leaves the facility and contacts her with a pressing need, the organization will do what it can to help.

SJRC provides clothing, food, diapers, cleaning supplies, and more – at no cost – to all mothers participating in the program. The Pregnant and Parenting Teen Program currently houses 11 mothers and 12 children. There are 11 mothers on the waiting list.

“We believe in fifth, sixth, seventh chances,” Melendrez said. “We are here to support them, and we go hand-in-hand with them for whatever they need.”

At SJRC, caseworkers help residents with budgeting, transportation, childcare, and goal attainment. Zapata wanted to finish high school and begin working to provide for her family. Before SJRC, she struggled with going to school, working, and transporting her children to and from childcare on public transportation.

Zapata’s case workers helped her go through the legal process of getting her daughter back after her father took her. She currently has custody of her daughters Daniella, 1, and Natalie, 3.

Growing up in the foster care system may lead to many challenges later in life, including increased risk for homelessness, incarceration, and unemployment, according to a study out of the University of Chicago. Foster youth struggle to transition into adulthood, and while they may be too old for state services, they often are not prepared to live as independent adults.

The San Antonio-based THRU Project provides guidance, support, and advocacy to youth to prepare them for life after foster care. The organization sets them up with an advisor who acts as a friend and life coach. Most organizations do not provide services past the age of 21, but at the THRU Project, there are no age limitations.

There are currently 94 foster youth participating in the program, and THRU has around 140 volunteers.

THRU Project Director Elaine Hartle told the Rivard Report that everyday struggles are more difficult for foster youth because their safety net is limited, if it exists at all.

“They can’t call mom and dad if their roommate runs out on them,” Hartle said. “It’s not even a lack of skill, it’s just things that happen to most of us, but the consequences for them may be homelessness. It’s a different scenario,” during a time when youth are already working with depleted emotional resources, she said.

Jessica Francis is a former foster youth, and is now a program outreach coordinator for the THRU Project. She told the Rivard Report that she had a positive experience with her foster care placement: She lived with a single woman and was the only child in the home. The two had a positive relationship, and she was able to bond with the woman and build trust.

Francis said that people in foster care often struggle with “not having any control and no one listening to you or trusting you,” adding that oftentimes foster parents react quickly to emotional outbursts, leading youth to be moved from placement to placement. She told the Rivard Report that her brother had a negative foster care experience because no one took the time to understand him.

“He didn’t have a chance to build trust with someone,” Francis said. “He is still trying to figure out who he is because he didn’t have anyone to look up to or anyone to forgive him.”

Texas has long struggled with disparaging reviews of its foster care system. In 2015, United States District Judge Janis Graham Jack ruled that Texas’ foster care system endangered the state’s foster children. The lawsuit shared the experiences of 17 foster children who experienced repeated trauma during their time in foster care placement, and the State’s struggle to make programmatic changes.

In her scathing opinion, Jack wrote: “Texas’ foster care system is broken, and it has been that way for decades. It is broken for all stakeholders, including DFPS [Department of Family and Protective Services] employees who are tasked with impossible workloads. Most importantly, though, it is broken for Texas’ PMC [permanent managing conservatorship] children, who almost uniformly leave State custody more damaged than when they entered.”

Briana Zapata, 17, (left) watches her daughter Natalie, 3, run around in circles with a swing at the SJRC Texas Pregnant Parenting Teen Program.
Briana Zapata, 17, (left) watches her daughter Natalie, 3, play at the SJRC. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

During the 85th legislative session, Senate Bill 11 was passed. The law takes foster care placement responsibilities away from DFPS and hands it to local government and nonprofits that may utilize State funds for localized efforts.

Local organizations are able to apply to become community-based care providers, meaning they then act as contractors responsible for finding foster homes or other living arrangements for children in state care and provide them a full continuum of services.

Zapata said the services she received at SJRC changed her life. Those who struggle to be successful there may attribute that hardship to an unwillingness to work hard and follow the rules, she said.

Zapata still can’t believe she earned her high school diploma during such a difficult time in her life. The first people she told upon learning that she would graduate on time, were her case managers at SJRC. She said that they were “more proud of her than anyone else in her life had ever been.

“I used to have my family members always yelling at me, telling me that I was the black sheep [of the family], that I don’t belong here, that I was adopted, that I wasn’t going to make it.” She credits her case managers and the structure of the SJRC’s program for her success. Her case managers credit her hard work and her willingness to work the program.

“If you’re on a road trip and you’re lost, you’re going to [stop and] ask where to go,” Zapata said. “When they tell you what you need to know, are you going to get mad when they tell you where to go? No. You’re going to do it.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.