The Only Certainty Is Instability: A Teenager Navigates the 'Broken' Texas Foster Care System
Christian Enriquez entered the Texas Foster Care system when he was a teenager and says he experienced its dysfunction first hand. He bounced from emergency shelters to Residential Treatment Facilities (RTCs) – a type of live-in group therapy home – and foster homes. Now he lives at LifeWorks, a non-profit organization in Austin that advocates for and provides housing to youth aging out of the foster care system.
LifeWorks feels like home, he says. Enriquez is sitting down on a couch in the LifeWorks administrative office. He’s a stylish 18 year old. He’s wearing a printed white button-down t-shirt covered in tiny bird silhouettes. His easy-going demeanor doesn’t betray everything he’s been through.
Enriquez was born in Mexico and raised in east Texas. His mother had left his family when he was young.
The reason he wound up in the system isn’t tracked by the state – at the age of 12, his father was deported. With neither parent available he was left to fend for himself.
“I was homeless with me and my brother,” he says. “My little sister got sent to my aunt’s but me and my brother were left in the house and no one knew about us. So me and him had to do our own thing, until he ended up leaving to Mexico too somehow – I don’t know, he got a ride – and I was left alone.”
Enriquez spent several years taking care of himself. His father’s co-worker asked Enriquez if he wanted to work in his father’s stead. Enriquez said yes.
“I started working from 13 all the way to 16 until I actually got an injury and they found out that I didn’t have – that I didn’t have parents here,” he says. “So they put me in [Child Protective Services].”
Enriquez had been hit in the head with a pipe and knocked unconscious. When he woke up, he was in a stranger’s house.
“This is not my house, you know, and I was freaked out,” he says. “I left, but the people were really, really friendly. But they let drugs come into the house and that stuff that shouldn’t happen – alcohol – and staff giving drugs and alcohol to clients. That was my first experience with CPS and I was like, wow, this is CPS. So it was pretty crazy.”
After that first contact with CPS, the state sent Enriquez to an emergency shelter. From there, he was moved to Promise House, another emergency shelter.
“It’s a very known emergency shelter, and that was a shutdown facility,” he says. “That was a little bit better. It was better. Not so good, but it was better. And more than anything I had a place to stay, food and everything.”
Enriquez says he felt his caseworker at the time – she ended up leaving – was someone who knew him, who was looking out for his interests.
“I had a good relationship with her, but she wouldn’t believe me – some of the stuff that would happen. So it was like I kind of felt alone at those times,” he says. “One time I got slammed in an RTC. I didn’t do anything, you know. … The staff – sometimes they’d be mad and they’d take that out and if you told your caseworker about it, they would be like, ‘Yeah he was restraining or he was resisting.’
“I’ve seen people get their arms broken. I’ve literally seen someone get their head slammed and they told them that person did it and he’s going through issues, you know like they would never believe. They’re going to believe an adult.”
From that second emergency shelter, Enriquez was moved to a foster home.
“I kind of felt out of place because I was the only Mexican there,” he says. “The foster parents, it would be like ‘You can leave and go whenever you please, but if you don’t make it back by dinnertime you don’t get a plate. And if you make it past 12 o’clock the doors are locked and you’ve got to stay outside.’ That was the type of foster home. There were drugs also going in there and I got moved because I told my caseworker about it.
So CPS moved him to another home.
“It was a really good foster home, it was nice, I liked it,” Enriquez says. “But they kept on forcing adoption on me. And they would give me money, give me money trying to basically buy my love and I told them I didn’t want to get adopted.”
But the family kept pressuring him to get adopted.
“I ended up leaving the home because I felt suffocated,” he says. “That’s not what I wanted. I was homeless for another short period of time until I heard about LifeWorks. I hitchhiked from Grayson County, Sherman, Texas, all the way out here. It was a five-hour difference.”
Enriquez has been living at LifeWorks since last July. He tried to get back into the state CPS system, but says he couldn’t.
“CPS ran the clock out on me, not letting me get back into CPS,” he says.
Since he couldn’t get back under the state’s care before he aged out of the system at age 18, he couldn’t receive the benefits that came along with being a foster child. He lost his Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) benefits that would train him to live on his own, support him in preparing for college and learning to drive, and give him other financial assistance. He also was blocked from enrolling in health benefits through CPS and a college financial waiver.
“Their supervisor tried to call my caseworker and she blocked the numbers and everything like that and she wasn’t letting it – just running the clock out on me until my 18th birthday,” he says. “I don’t have any of my benefits or anything like that and now I’m struggling really big and I have a baby on the way too. So it’s really, really hard.”
Being a ward of the state shaped his life, Enriquez says.
“It makes me see differently about how there are really messed up people out there and I really want to get into social work,” he says. “If I could find a field that I could help kids out there to hear their voice, that’s something I would like to do.”