There are 25,000 children in the state’s foster care system that have been removed from violent and abusive households, and Bexar County alone has one of highest removal rates in the state. St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, a nonprofit foster care organization that primarily serves Bexar County, aims to find loving homes for the often traumatized children.
Approximately 60% of the children St. Jude’s Ranch serves have been physically abused, and 40% sexually abused. St. Jude’s Ranch provides children and young adults, 25 years and younger, either a foster family, a place to live at one of their two regional campuses, or the tools to live an independent life.
St. Jude’s Ranch opened its first office in San Antonio on Sept. 17 to compliment its Bulverde and New Braunfels campuses. The office serves as the support service center for its Community Foster Care and Adoption program, which recruits, licenses and trains foster families. In June of this year, St. Jude’s Ranch was granted a license to facilitate adoptions.
Texas Child Protective Services removed Virgil Romo, 19, from his home at the age of 14 because of his mother’s history of drug abuse. At the time of his removal, he was living with his mother at his aunt’s Southside home. Although Romo is of age to leave the foster care system, he opted to spend a few more years at his St. Jude’s Ranch foster home to save money for his future life. He’s a rare case, as most foster kids leave their homes when they turn 18 years old.
“So many kids are not ready to be on their own at 18,” said Erika Boyd, director of development at St. Jude’s Ranch.
Romo lives in Bulverde at one of St. Jude’s Ranch’s two Texas locations. The campus consists of five houses, divided by age and gender, where 38 children live as normally as their circumstances permit.
“Even though we’re in foster care we get the same responsibility as you would a normal child,” Romo said. “We still have chores and things to do like you would in a normal house. It feels like home to me.”
Staff is present at all times to drive the children to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store, the movie theater, and anywhere else, in reason, that the children request to go. The children attend public schools and St. Jude’s Ranch staff members try to provide them a “normal” childhood experience.
“Oftentimes there is this perception that foster homes warehouse kids with rows of bunk beds down a big room, and it is just not that environment at all,” Boyd said.
Each of the five homes are laid out like any house with a living room, dining room, and bedrooms. The children have their own bedrooms and are required to make their beds before leaving for school, tend to their own laundry, and complete their daily chores.
“We are teaching our kids real-world living skills,” Boyd said. “We are truly just trying to create a home environment.”
Teeny bopper posters cover the walls of some bedrooms, stuffed animal pyramids delicately balance on beds, and rooms are rearranged to the liking of each child, Boyd said.
“This is their space, their room, their own everything,” Boyd said. “For a lot of kids that is everything in the world that they have.”
Romo graduated from Smithson Valley High School and now works full-time at Bill Miller Bar-B-Q to save money to buy a car and enroll in culinary classes at St. Philip’s College and then transfer to a university. Romo plans to stay at St. Jude’s Ranch for another year before renting an apartment in San Antonio.
“(St. Jude’s Ranch) has less drama than I had to deal with when I was living with my family,” he said. “Overall it’s helped me in the long run stay out of trouble and from getting into bad habits.”
Romo continues to see his mother about once a month.
The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) named Romo the 2015 Foster Care Youth of the Year for Region 8 in Texas and asked him to serve as a Youth Leader during the 2016 Texas Teen Conference.
St. Jude’s Ranch’s second campus in New Braunfels serves 24 teen moms and their babies. The campus consists of one house in which each mother has her own room and shares a bathroom with a suitemate. St. Jude’s Ranch provides the mothers with parenting tools to “break the cycle” of foster care.
St. Jude’s Ranch serves about 150 children and families annually.
“There are so many more kids than there are homes,” Boyd said. “There are just not enough good places for the number of kids.”
St. Jude’s Ranch conducts monthly checkups, both announced and unannounced, on the families it oversees. Before placing a child in the care of a family, St. Jude’s Ranch issues background checks and home studies on the families.
“We try to ensure that they are fostering for the right reasons,” Boyd said. “That they have the heart to help children who need so much love, support, guidance, and that they are not in it with the motivation for income.”
As of 2013, the minimum daily amounts that a child-placing agency must reimburse its foster families in the State of Texas ranges from about $23 to $92, depending on the level of services the child needs. Click here for a complete list of rates.
“We want to make sure that the families we work with want to help children first and foremost and they have the means to provide for themselves and their families and the reimbursement they receive to care for children is truly a supplement to what they are already doing and providing for their family,” Boyd said.
The State of Texas funds about 70% of St. Jude’s Ranch’s services, and the remaining 30% comes from individual donations, grants and fundraising events.
“We often take for granted the environments that we’ve grown up in and the blessings that we’ve had,” Boyd said. “So many of our children have not had somebody who has loved them from the moment they were born.”
*Featured/top image: Virgil Romo, 19, lives at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children in Bulverde. Photo by Scott Ball.