A Peek Inside the Lives of a San Angelo Foster Family
Three teens and a tween sit quietly on the couch at a tidy and modern house in north San Angelo, patiently waiting to join a church group in Christmas decorating. The kids, ranging in age from 12-16, form a patchwork unit headed by Steve and Brenda Franks, and while they don’t share DNA, there isn’t a question about their relationship. They are family.
“This is a small group,” says Steve Franks, who with his wife Brenda has taken on the parental role for groups of 8-10 teenagers at a time over the past decade and a half.
As one of roughly 30 foster families in Tom Green County, the Franks have opened their home to an estimated 100-plus children since Brenda began fostering in 1992, and the couple recently adopted their first son, 13-year-old Mateo.
“We became an adoptive family when we decided to adopt Mateo if he was willing to have us as his parents,” Brenda explained. “That was probably around the first of last year. We had thought about it before, but we didn’t know how he would feel about it. We asked him if that would be something that would be ok with him and he [agreed].”
On July 23, 2013, Mateo officially became a part of the Franks family, a little over a year after his initial foster placement. Since he first came to the family Mateo has seen foster siblings come and go, and has become accustomed to having a large group of brothers and sisters.
Growing up, Brenda recalls her family regularly reaching out to those in need, taking people in and providing assistance to others. Her background may have paved the way for her to become a foster parent, however it wasn’t until a trip to church that she became introduced to the idea.
“I didn’t even know about foster care and I was attending a church with some friends of ours and they started talking to me about an agency that was coming into their church to look for prospective foster parents,” she said. “I didn’t know what that was and I still didn’t understand it until I went through…a training thing that they did for us.”
Married at the time, Brenda and her husband considered fostering, but had some misgivings about the expense. They weren’t aware at the time that the state subsidizes medical expenses for foster children, and were concerned that they would not be able to meet a child’s medical needs.
“We decided, well if we get help on medical, we can do the rest,” she said. “So that’s what we did, not knowing that there was other help that they will give you, too as a foster parent. We were just concerned with the medical.”
Brenda started by taking in teenage girls that had been victims of sexual abuse. She wanted to help kids, but quickly found out that it was no easy task and began to shift her life toward focusing on the children. After her marriage ended, she continued to foster as a single mother, and although it was difficult, fostering had become a part of her life and it was not something she wanted to part with.
“It was a struggle at first,” she recalled. “You get children in your home and we’re a therapeutic home. The children we get in our home have psychological problems—which really all children in foster care do nowadays—but we deal with the ones that are a little bit over and above the problem/issue.”
In order to understand and better help the children, both Brenda and Steve Franks regularly complete training to learn how to handle different issues.
The two met through mutual friends when Steve was working as a mechanic, and by 2001, he’d retired and gone to work for Brenda at a dental lab the two now run together. Steve Franks grew up in a small family with only one sister, but after speaking to Brenda about fostering, began to take in children as well in 2001.
“It’s not an easy job and we don’t have enough homes out there, but you have a lot of help,” Steve said. “You have a lot of support, even from churches and schools that will help you working with these children. The police department does a great deal of work with them, too. You’d be surprised at how many agencies will come and say, ‘well, I want to help you with this’.”
When a child is placed in a foster family, information on his or her past is disclosed to the foster parents so that they are aware of the circumstances that have led to placement. The information is sometimes detailed, but frequently, a foster family will find out more as time goes on and issues arise.
The Franks try to always spend time with the child on a “pre-placement”, which may just be bringing the child into their home for the weekend and talking with them to determine if the child will be compatible with the family.
“The information they give you, it does tell you a lot of things,” Brenda said. “But we don’t base our decision on that child until we get to be with that child…sometimes you don’t find out as much as you should have been told. I’m not going to sugar-coat it; caseworkers have all these kids and they’ve got to find places for them and there’s not enough places, so sometimes they don’t disclose some of the things they should, but you have to think about their situation, too.”
When the family does a pre-placement, they ask the other children and teens in the home what their feelings are and if they feel the child will work out in the family unit.
One of the first things the family goes over is the rules of household. The Franks let children know how things work in their family, what their expectations are, and ask the child if they believe they can live under that set of circumstances.
A strict set of rules are outlined by CPS that on the one hand are meant to protect the children, but on the other hand make it difficult for them to lead a normal life. Any regular visitors or friends over the age of 14 require a background check and fingerprints, including youth ministers, the child’s and parents’ friends and members of athletic teams.
For the most part, the household rules in the Franks home mirror those set out by CPS, but they also want to make sure a child and the family are compatible in their lifestyle. If the family or the child doesn’t feel that the placement will be optimal, they let caseworkers know so that they might find the best home environment for the child.
“We have a certain way that we do things, and we have to do those things,” Brenda said. “Some of them have been in an environment where they’ve been let to go do whatever they want, so that child should really start off in a residential treatment type facility so they can get them used to rules and things like that.”
If after placement a family determines that a child is not compatible with their household, the child can be placed in another home. The Franks prefer to take in children on their first foster placement, who haven’t been shuffled to various homes and asked to live under various sets of different rules.
Mateo Franks entered the foster care system when he was 8 years old because his parents were not financially able to take care of him.
“It was hard,” he said, recalling his first placement. “I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t used to it, it was new. I went to a shelter first, then after the shelter I went to a foster home and I stayed there for like a year.”
After the first placement, a friend of his biological parents wanted him to go live with them, so Mateo stayed in that family for three years before shuffling around to three more locations before being placed in the Franks’ home.
“It was hard to adapt,” he said of the constant moving around. “If I stayed long enough [I could build relationships].”
Mateo said he didn’t think he would ever find a family that he would be a part of forever, and even when he initially met the Franks he didn’t think he would stay for very long before being placed again.
“He didn’t even know that he was coming to our home,” Brenda explained. “He didn’t know that he had done anything at the previous home for him to be removed from there, so it was a shock for him. We were doing a pre-placement with him, so we knew what was going on, but he didn’t. That’s the sad thing about [it]. They only did that because they were afraid he was going to run away or something if he found out he was going to be moved.”
Both Brenda and Steve Franks work in a dental lab on alternating schedules, with one parent always free to take the children to various appointments and meetings.
“You can’t have a 9-5 job or an 8-5 job and do this,” Steve said. “Because there’s constant appointments, and if there’s not appointments there’s caseworkers coming over.”
Holding up his smartphone, Steve shows his calendar for November, full of purple entries on nearly every day, each with two to three appointments scheduled in.
The appointments include medical exams, eye and dental appointments, therapy sessions, trips to the psychiatrist, caseworker meetings, and the usual school and sports activities.
With so many children in the house, the Franks try to schedule all the children’s appointments for a single day, taking the group to get their eyes examined at the same time and visiting the psychiatrist on another day. The scheduling is generally fairly compatible in this fashion, they said, but sometimes they can’t get everyone an appointment at the same time and have to do some extra running on an alternate day.
“If he can’t get away [from work], then I get away,” Brenda explains. “You need one parent that can go and do these things. You can still hold a job away from the home, but it needs to be flexible so that you can go do these things.”
Leading an active lifestyle is important in the Franks home, and the family participates in several activities together to build their relationship and keep the children occupied. While each has his or her own talents and interests, the family as a whole enjoys cycling and skating, and frequently ride around town as part of their own therapy session.
Mateo in particular has become a skilled cyclist, starting off on a Trek bike and upgrading when the staff of Curves pulled together to purchase him a high-end racing mountain bike.
“I didn’t know I was good at it,” Mateo said. “Whenever I got that new bike, I felt like I didn’t deserve it. I was like, ‘What? Am I dreaming?’”
Mateo’s talent on the bike was impressive to many, including local veteran cyclists, who say the teenager is one to watch out for. He’s been biking for only two years now with the Franks and has advanced so well on the bike that he’s outrunning Steve and catching professionals.
“We’re not your average family,” Steve said. “Sunday morning, Mateo and I went and rode 22 miles and then came back and ate lunch and went and rode 14 miles through town with everybody. It’s very therapeutic to them.”
Seeking to build confidence and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle, the Franks regularly bike and skate with the entire group. Both parents are coaches on the high school mountain bike team, and focus on helping kids both in their home and in the schools.
“One of my friends, has Concho Bike Shop…when you talk about people that are in the cycling world, you’re kind of a misfit because you don’t play football, you don’t play baseball, you don’t play golf,” Steve said. “You’re kind off from somebody else, and that’s the kids we get also. So we’re not only working with them here, we’re working with them on the cycling team. It builds a lot of character.”
Because they’ve built a life around family activities such as biking and skating, the Franks work primarily with teenagers, who are able to take part in everything they do as a family unit.
There are short-term and long-term placements, but they prefer taking in children for the long-term and keeping them until they “age out”, or turn 18.
When the Franks began taking in children together, they frequently took in teenagers, many of which were girls. In addition, Brenda has two biological daughters who have since grown and moved out, but who also grew up with foster siblings in the family home.
“I didn’t treat them any different than I did our foster children,” she said. “They lived by the same rules. That’s what I tell [Mateo]. If you want to go somewhere, I need to know who they are, what their names are, I need to know everything about them, because especially these days you can’t be too careful.”
Being foster parents has taught the Franks much about what goes on in other homes, and has heightened their awareness of certain issues. It’s made them careful of who they associate with and where they go.
“I started out working with girls that had been sexually abused,” she said. “That’s mainly what I worked with for years. Finding out more about that, being trained on it, made me come to realize that you have to be careful out there.”
Although caring for foster children comes with a long list of changes, not least the endless appointments, the Franks say that remaining that busy was never a problem for them. The difficult part, they said, is realizing what some of the children have gone through.
“When you read some of the things that some of these young ladies and young men have been through, it will make you hurt,” Steve said. “You can’t believe that somebody would do that to some of these children. Male and female; and I don’t mean male and female kids, I’m talking about perpetrators.”
Over the years, the Franks have had over 100 children placed in their home, several of which stayed with the family until they turned 18. After aging out, CPS helps the kids get on track and integrate into society, some going off to college while others choose alternate paths.
Not all of the children that have been placed in the Franks’ home remain in contact after they turn 18, but several do, some stopping by to visit, others calling or writing.
What happens after they age out is beyond the foster parents’ control, but knowing that some of them have been positively impacted and go on to lead healthy, productive lives is a reward well worth the effort, the Franks said.
“Sometimes the ones that do age out go right back into the same situation they came out of,” Brenda said. “At least you’ve got some kind of foundation—you’ve given them some kind of seed there—that maybe they’ll go somewhere with that. It’s hard. I’m not going to say it’s not, for them to leave, but that’s what they need to do.”
The Franks put emphasis on education in their home and encourage children to maintain good grades and to continue on to college after they’ve graduated and turned 18. Adopted and foster children receive their college tuition paid for by the state, and the Franks try to encourage as many of their children as possible to take advantage of that opportunity.
“If you can get them past the 17-itis—they go crazy when they turn 17,” Steve said. “When they turn 17, they go crazy. They run away, they do all kinds of things. Usually when they run away, they don’t come back.”
Mateo said a lot has changed since he moved in with Steve and Brenda Franks. When he first entered the house he was a “bad” kid, he admits, and frequently got into fights at school and was failing most of his classes. He didn’t feel like he was smart enough to do anything about his life and wasn’t worthy of positive treatment.
“He was kind of stand-offish and kind of hard to get to know,” Brenda said. “But that’s the way a lot of children are…it’s scary. I don’t think he wanted to like us when he first came in…like he was afraid to get attached.”
The first couple of weeks of a placement are difficult, Brenda said, because you don’t know each other. It took the Franks and Mateo a good six months to get comfortable with each other and get to know each other. It was a full year before he really began to turn his life around and change, he said.
When the Franks told him they’d like to adopt him, he was surprised, he said. He couldn’t believe that they would want a child that had done some of the things that he had.
“I think when he did realize that we love him and care for him and wanted him to stay with us, things just started changing so much,” Brenda said.
Mateo’s grades picked up in school, and in the first six weeks he’s made the A-B Honor Roll. He hasn’t had in-school suspension at all this year as opposed to over seven the year prior, and he’s joined the football team.
“We’ve been through a lot with him,” Brenda said. “He’s been through a lot with us, too. I don’t know. We just kind of grew together.”
Mateo is now in the 8th grade and has been in the family for over a year. He’s 13 years old, and says that after high school he plans to either become a marine or a professional cyclist. As a marine, he’d like to earn a degree, another development over the past year, as he stated he used to think he was “too stupid” to go to college.
The Franks agree that fostering can be scary and is a big step for parents to take. Anyone wishing to become a foster parent is encouraged to talk to others about it to hear what it’s really like, and maybe even to spend a weekend with a foster family in order to determine if it’s right for them.
“That’s another thing you have to think about as a foster family, whether you have one child or you have four or five children or more: any time you take that child or those children somewhere, you’re even more responsible for that child than if it was your birth child,” Steve said. “Because if something happens to the child [you’re both going to feel it] but you’re going to have all these state agencies on your tail. Your life is not your own.”
Referring to a Facebook message from a girl that aged out of their home, Brenda notes the reward that comes from knowing you’ve helped someone. The girl was with the family for only a year and a half and had struggled with many things, but in a recent message thanked the Franks for all they’ve done for her. They changed her life.
“We weren’t sure if we really helped her very much, but apparently she seems to think that we have,” Brenda said. “It’s stuff like that that makes you think it’s all worth it.”
Foster parents receive reimbursement from the state for taking children into their home, but Steve Franks said the amount comes out to less than a dollar an hour. It’s not something one should do for money, he said, but because one really wants to try and make a difference.
“It keeps us young,” Brenda said. “For us, it’s worth it. It’s worth all the years. I don’t know what my life would be without it.”