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Only a few tackle the trying times

Just five families in Hillsborough accept foster care teens. Bob and Linda Briggs have been among the most reliable, opening their home to 525 teenage girls over the past 13 years.

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


TAMPA -- There are eight of them. Eight teenage girls milling around her, eyeing her in the narrow, wood-paneled kitchen where the blinds are drawn to shut out the late-summer heat.

With the speed of a master chef, she slices and dices. Many of these girls eat school lunches before noon. It is after 5 p.m. They practically churn with hunger.

"Nearly there, girls," Linda Briggs says as she reduces a carrot to slivers. The smell of sweet biscuits mingles with hearty Spanish rice. The salad is just about ready.

But dinner is the least of it.

"Mom, I need a newspaper to cut out the article about the submarine with the Russians in it," presses an earnest girl with round glasses.

"Okay," Mrs. Briggs says as she fishes in her pocket for a quarter that will buy a paper at the corner store.

Moments later, a pixieish blond tugs at her sleeve. "Mom, can I read you what I wrote in class today?"

"Yes, baby," Mrs. Briggs answers. "Of course you can."

She will listen and chop. Multitasking, she accepted long ago, is part of the routine in a house with eight -- usually more -- teenage girls.

For 13 years, Mrs. Briggs and her husband, Bob, have opened their home to teenage girls in the foster care system. By her calculation, 525 of them have passed through.

It is an astonishing number. But not as astonishing as another: The Briggses are one of just five families in Hillsborough County who accept foster care teenagers. Five families in a county of 1-million people, where an average of 400 teenagers each month dangle in the state's care.

Without enough foster homes, teenagers are sifted into substitutes such as group homes, detention centers and, until recently, makeshift bedrooms in the department's downtown Tampa offices. Unhappy and frustrated in these settings, teenagers often run away, making their homes on the streets.

The shortage of foster families for teenagers is mirrored throughout the state. In Pinellas and Pasco counties, five foster families take in teenagers.

Officials lean heavily on those who do. The Briggses have been among the most reliable of Hillsborough families. They rarely say no to another girl.

But on this hot sticky night, Mrs. Briggs' resolve is slipping.

A cold is clogging her breathing. Her head is pounding from her day job, driving a school bus. She is worried about her husband traveling alone in Tennessee to visit relatives.

And then there is Lisa.

Cool, aloof Lisa. Abused, neglected Lisa.

"I don't like salad," Lisa says provocatively as Mrs. Briggs slides carrot pieces onto iceberg lettuce.

It is a small thing. But it is one more on a growing list. That afternoon Lisa had sneaked into the bathroom to scrub the sink and bath, a chore she was supposed to have done the day before. Of late, she has been hogging the phone. And her bossy ways have been irritating the other girls.

Lisa has gotten under Mrs. Briggs' skin.

Yes, there have been other Lisas; there will be more Lisas.

Mrs. Briggs glances at a reporter whom she and her husband have allowed into their home in the hope of persuading more families to take foster care teenagers.

Yet tonight, Mrs. Briggs finds herself wondering: When a caseworker calls, desperate and pleading, asking her to house another teenager, what will she say?

Will it be yes for the 526th time? Or has she had enough?

* * *

The Briggses live in a five-bedroom, 21/2-bath ranch house of salmon-colored bricks in a suburban tract of former farmland. It is a startlingly tidy house. But it is a welcoming place, comfortably worn by the steady stream of newcomers. The velour living-room couches are body-contoured; the carpets seem beyond vacuuming's restorative powers.

For 13 years, an average of a dozen teenagers at any time have called it home. While Mrs. Briggs, 52, and Mr. Briggs, 58, are certified by the state to take in 10 children, they regularly house more.

It wasn't always a river undammed. In the beginning, teenagers trickled in. First came a brother and sister, sweet and quiet. But the brother prostituted the sister, so the pair had to go. Next two brothers arrived, but one went after the other with a baseball bat.

That was the end of boys.

But the girls kept arriving. Six sets of bunk beds soon filled three bedrooms. Today the kitchen requires a second table. Bathroom time is a precious commodity.

And yet, it is a house run with a kind of orderly commotion by dint of unbending rules -- dutifully recited by the Briggses with each girl's arrival.

In bed by 9, lights out at 10. Chores done on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Allowance due upon completion of chores. Each girl washes her own laundry on an assigned day. No swearing. No touching the kitchen cabinet that holds Mrs. Briggs' good china. No dating until 16.

Call us Mom or Dad, if you like, though Mr. and Mrs. Briggs will do -- a formality no girl has adopted.

And absolutely, positively no dropping out of school.

The rules, for the most part, go unchallenged with one glaring exception: the phone, a rotary-dial antique to prevent 900-number calls to psychics. A United Nations peacekeeping force couldn't keep the girls from ramming heads over the policy: 15-minute calls half an hour apart, but only between 5 p.m and 9 p.m.

"It's like their umbilical cord," Mrs. Briggs says.

Although Mrs. Briggs works as a school bus driver and the state provides $455 monthly per teenager, money stretches thin. The monthly food bill is $1,200. Add to that electric bills topping out at $600 and gas bills rarely less than $80. And then there are clothes, movies, yearbooks and Christmas gifts, which Mrs. Briggs begins buying when she spots sales in June.

"It's important that they have those things," Mrs. Briggs says. "Otherwise, they would feel separated from all the other kids who have that stuff."

Mrs. Briggs is a no-nonsense, sturdy woman. She has a fine-boned nose and hazel eyes, but rarely wears makeup. Her honey-blond hair spirals into untamed curls that seem to stand on end when she is stressed.

"She's the sergeant," says Mr. Briggs, a retired Kash n' Karry dispatcher with a tinny twang and angular face. "I'm the peacekeeper."

But Mrs. Briggs is hardly a woman of cheerless rigidity.

One night, the phone rings and a girl particularly partial to phone gabbing answers.

"Hello. Is this Linda's mortuary?" a woman on the other end of the phone asks. "You stab em, we slab 'em?" The girl hesitates and then lets out a howl. "Mom!" It is Mrs. Briggs calling from the other phone, the one she and her husband share. Mrs. Briggs dances into the kitchen, triumphant.

Humor mingles equally with large doses of tolerance. A broken dish? "That's okay, honey," Mrs. Briggs says when a platter being washed crashes to the floor. "I know you didn't mean it."

It is a tolerance both she and her husband missed in their own childhoods.

"I know what it's like to be on your own," says Mr. Briggs, an Iowa native whose parents, unable to support six children, sent him to live with family friends at age 13.

Mrs. Briggs endured a painful upbringing in Illinois. "My dad was not a happy man; he was abusive, but my mother was a cradle Catholic," she says. "It was a commitment for life."

As adults, the unhappy memories trailed them, propelling them to reach out to troubled children. After tending to their own -- three girls from previous marriages and a boy they had together -- they volunteered with pregnant teens. When a friend suggested foster parenting, they thought long and hard. A year later they said yes.

"There was a need and we knew it," Mrs. Briggs says one afternoon at the kitchen table while the girls are at school.

But more than that, she adds quietly, "I wanted to change the world." She and her husband knew they could not move mountains with toddlers and pre-teens.

"I don't have the patience for the younger ones," Mrs. Briggs says, her husband nodding.

But teenagers, she says, were different. Their jauntiness, their self-discovery, appealed to her, while her off-kilter humor and adherence to structure resonated with them.

"Teenagers are fun," she says. "They really are."

And then a girl like Lisa comes along.

* * *

Lisa, with long black hair, tawny skin and thickly lashed brown eyes, was one of three sisters who had arrived at the Briggs home four months earlier. They came to escape another foster home where they were made to work in the yard all day with no water or food, among other indignities so bad the foster parents were criminally charged.

Their time at the Briggs house was rocky from the start.

Her younger sisters, tomboyish Patricia and self-conscious Carla, shadowed Lisa.

"She is a mommy and a sister," Carla says of Lisa.

Lisa's example wasn't a good one. She kept to herself, rarely talking to Mrs. Briggs. With her natural air of super composure, she seemed arrogant. She did her chores, but in Mrs. Briggs' opinion, grudgingly. The other girls were intimidated by her overbearing manner.

For Lisa, 17, the Briggs' home was just another place to wait out her childhood. Another place to try to find forgiveness for the birth mother who was too mentally impaired to care for her and her seven siblings. Another place to figure out who her father was: a man of Asian descent, as her birth certificate says, or a Mexican, as her mother vaguely recalls.

What Lisa really wants is to be free of the string of foster homes the state has assigned her. Her boyfriend's parents have agreed to take her and her sisters into their home. She has clung to the hope for months, waiting for the state to approve the move.

But on a Sunday night shortly after the start of school, time is running out.

Lisa's attitude is roiling the house. Two newly arrived girls, toughs who regale the other girls with street stories, say she rolled her eyes at them. They have allied themselves with the other girls against Lisa and her sisters.

Nearly every girl has come to Mrs. Briggs complaining about Lisa, and her patience is ebbing. Something, she knows, has to give. Mrs. Briggs calls a family meeting. With the girls gathered around the kitchen table, Mrs. Briggs minces no words.

"You have been acting like a bully," she tells Lisa. "You don't run this house. Things must change."

The new girls giggle, happy to see their nemesis getting a talking-to.

Lisa fumes silently. She won't talk, not to this woman. She will call her caseworker tomorrow. She will request a new home for herself and her sisters.

Mrs. Briggs tells the three sisters to move their stuff. They were randomly assigned bedrooms when they arrived. Now they will share a room.

They gather their spare belongings and shift them down the long hallway. They clamber into bunk beds to wait for tomorrow and help from Tina Hammond, their caseworker.

* * *

Hammond has 41 cases. It is a load that includes Lisa and her seven siblings, many of whom have severe emotional troubles and are sprinkled in other foster homes. For the past month, she has been acting as her unit's supervisor, adding extra duties. Her voice mail is perpetually full.

At 7 p.m. she arrives on the Briggses' doorstep. It is two days since the family meeting and she is here to restore peace. Mrs. Briggs launches the first salvo.

"There are nine girls in this house and she needs to abide by the rules," Mrs. Briggs huffs.

"I have an attitude because the rules apply to me and not the other girls," Lisa says, her words enunciated, her tone even. "She thinks I have an attitude because I don't talk to her about my problems. I can't. I can't trust adults."

Lisa's sisters, Carla and Patricia, dissolve into tears. They curse the new girls.

"Everyone in this house has issues. No one's issues are bigger than anyone else's. Everyone has been abused," Hammond says, her voice rising with the frustrating truth of the words. "But we have to make this work."

It has to work, she says, because there is nowhere else for Lisa and her sisters to go.

Nowhere good anyway.

"Can we put some rules down on paper and make a contract?" Hammond asks. "Maybe we could change the phone rules, since they seem to be one of the big problems."

Lisa listens, but Mrs. Briggs grows more agitated.

"Why is it that I have to answer to everyone?" Mrs. Briggs screams.

She is on her feet, her eyes blazing.

"I'm not your mom. And you treat me with disrespect. That really burns me up and makes me want to say, "Get your duds and get out of this house!"'

Mr. Briggs jumps to his wife's defense.

"We lay down the law," he says. "This is our home. We will draw up a contract if that is what we deem fit."

Patricia and Carla, shaken, slip out of the room.

Hammond fixes her gaze on Lisa. Her tone is low, serious, dire as she explains that Lisa must make peace with Mrs. Briggs.

"You have to," she pleads. "You're not going to find a better home. If I have to move you, it will be to a group home, because almost no homes take teens.

"That's why I need you to work extra hard. You are the highest functioning of your siblings. You have a good life to look forward to if you can just get through this tough time. You are one of the only siblings that has a chance of making it to college. I don't want you to make the wrong decision or allow your abuse history to consume you."

Tears spill onto Lisa apple cheeks. She murmurs, "Okay."

Perhaps, Lisa offers, they can work on the arrangement with her boyfriend's parents. Hammond nods, but Mrs. Briggs interjects.

"What happens if you guys break up?"

It is a big question -- for another day.

"I need you to concentrate on Lisa and do what you need to do to keep Lisa on track," Hammond tells Lisa.

Lisa, subdued, dabs tears from her eyes. But Mrs. Briggs is still agitated. She announces that she wants time away from Lisa. "I need a 24-hour cooling-off period."

It is 10 p.m. Fatigue eclipses more talking. Hammond heads for her office, where she left paperwork.

Hours later, at 3 a.m., the two new girls sneak out the back door, fleeing the Briggs home and leaving the back door wide open.

* * *

Runners, as they are known in the foster care world, are painful losses. Little good awaits girls on the streets. They are prey, Mrs. Briggs says, for men who sense their vulnerability and desperation.

But on this day, the departure of the new girls brings sad relief. At breakfast, tension in the house deflates. The alliance against Lisa and her sisters has lost its leaders.

The routines of school and work once again dominate. By dinner, a kind of detente reigns. Dishes are washed. Homework is done.

The phone rings shortly after 9 p.m. It's a caseworker. One of the new girls has been found and wants to come back.

"No," Mrs. Briggs says. "That wouldn't be a good idea."

By 10 p.m., the girls are asleep in bunk beds and the 24-hour cooling off period is over. Mrs. Briggs slips into a small bedroom and wakes Lisa, leading the groggy girl to the living room.

"I am not out to get you," Mrs. Briggs says. "But you are not the only girl in the house."

Lisa replies, "I feel like you think I am bad."

"So change it," Mrs. Briggs tells her.

Talk swirls around ways for Lisa to improve her behavior, then circles back to Lisa's 18-year-old boyfriend of one year. He is stationed in South Carolina for Marine basic training and recently, Lisa learned, had a fling with another girl.

His parents are willing to take in Lisa and her sisters. Lisa describes their home as beautiful, filled with soft rugs and vases of dried flowers. It would be like living with a real family, she says. But state officials have not made a decision, and there is no telling when they will.

Sleepiness overwhelms. Mrs. Briggs spreads open her arms.

Cautiously, Lisa leans into them.

* * *

Hugs are a big deal in the Briggs house. When a new girl arrives, rules are explained and arms outstretched. "It catches them off guard," Linda explains. Only two of the 525 have said no to a hug.

"A hug tells me if the child is workable," she says. "It tells me how damaged the child is."

Hugs are a crack in the armor, a tentative beginning to a long and often difficult journey.

They are no substitute for the gritty chores of parenting.

And so, on the night after her talk with Lisa, Mrs. Briggs takes a deep breath and follows the suggestion of Hammond, the caseworker.

"Rules for the phone are going to be reworked and put in writing," Mrs. Briggs announces to eight girls gathered round the table after a Taco Bell dinner.

Lisa volunteers to be note-taker and neatly scripts old rules. And some new ones. Thirty minutes between calls, even if no one answers at the number called. Girls who work can give their employers the Briggses' personal phone number.

"There's not going to be any more garbage about the phone, right girls?" Mrs. Briggs asks.

The girls roundly mumble no.

The meeting is about to adjourn when Lisa raises her hand and shifts her gaze to the heavy-set girl across from her -- the one who had complained most virulently about her.

"I don't want you to be afraid of me," Lisa tells the girl. "I'm not here to hurt you."

The girl eyes Lisa warily and nods.

The exchange takes Mrs. Briggs aback.

"Thank you, Lisa," she says, searching for words. "I'm proud of you. That was good."

* * *

Lisa is not the first girl to provoke soul-searching in the Briggs house. Five years ago, they went so far as to tell state officials they were done. Then they learned only five Hillsborough families take teenagers.

"We decided that teens deserved better than that," Mrs. Briggs says. But vacillation still grips them both.

"The lack of appreciation, it makes me wonder why I do it sometimes," Mrs. Briggs says.

"I'm 58. I'm retired. There are things I'd rather be doing than being stuck at home with five or 10 kids," Mr. Briggs says.

Ultimately anchoring them to foster care are the girls they have helped -- women such as Gloria Norris, who visits the Briggs one night as tensions are mounting.

An angry, rebellious teen, Gloria was a nightmare.

"When she was here, she didn't believe me, she didn't trust me," Mrs. Briggs says. "She was absolutely a pain in the butt."

Now 21, Gloria is still sifting through damage inflicted by parents the state took her from when she was 14. Single and pregnant, she is planning to return to Hillsborough Community College. She recently joined a church and says she has found salvation.

She says she owes her happiness to Mrs. Briggs.

"She was there for me for five years," Gloria says to a beaming Mrs. Briggs, who reaches out and strokes Gloria's hand. "I just wish I'd known it then."

* * *

Mrs. Briggs sensed the time was coming. She was down to seven girls. A new one had to be on the way.

On a Tuesday night, a week after her talk with Lisa, the call comes.

"Here we go again," Mrs. Briggs says.

Within the hour, she arrives.

She is small and lithe. She has Chiquita banana boxes and garbage bags filled with her belongings. She wears a red miniskirt and a white T-shirt. Crinkles of worry line her forehead.

"What's your name, baby?" Briggs asks. The girl whispers it.

The other girls fall in around her. They are full of questions. "Don't you miss your sister?" Carla, Lisa's sister, asks. "I couldn't live without mine."

Patricia, Lisa's other sister, realizes she knows the girl. "She lived in my first foster home, when I was little," she explains as she tosses an arm around the new girl's shoulder.

The girls help carry her boxes and bags into a bedroom with an empty bed and offer help unpacking. She declines. They reach into the bags and boxes anyway.

A white, gauzy lump tumbles out of a garbage bag. One girl snaps it up and hangs it in the closet. But the chiffon prom dress, the kind that hangs in every girl's closet pristine and treasured, is wrinkled like a prune. She tries to smooth the creases, to erase their mark, but it is little use.

The new girl eyes the dress swaying on the hanger. She continues unpacking.

* * *

Lisa is the only girl not piled into the new girl's room. She is in the kitchen leaning against the counter, eyes trained on Mrs. Briggs sitting opposite her.

In the week since their talk, Lisa has worked hard to improve, to be more compliant, to open up to Mrs. Briggs. She has tried to trust her. It has been far less difficult than she imagined.

"I'm beginning to feel like I can actually talk to her," she says. "That I'm not a bad person all-around in her eyes."

In truth, Lisa has been left with no choice.

The boyfriend's home, the place Lisa had so desperately longed to call her own, never will be. The boyfriend, Lisa discovered, has had flings with not one girl, but several. E-mails told the story. Lisa had confronted him, and his parents sided with him. They said she was stirring up trouble.

Mrs. Briggs is aware of Lisa's predicament. But she is moved by her efforts to improve her behavior. "Her whole attitude has changed," she says.

Mrs. Briggs appreciates that. Not because it makes her life simpler, but because it reminds her of the lesson of Gloria.

"If I can change just one girl, just one, the whole thing is worthwhile," she says.

And so on this night, she plays mother to Lisa.

"I think it would be a big mistake going to his house," Mrs. Briggs tells her gently.

Lisa murmurs, "I know."

"It's natural for his parents to side with him," Mrs. Briggs tells Lisa.

Lisa nods. There is no need to say anymore. The meaning is clear: Lisa and her sisters will stay.

Epilogue

Three months have passed since Lisa gave up on the idea of moving in with her now ex-boyfriend. Today, she is one of 10 teenage girls living at the Briggs home. Lisa is working as a receptionist at a hair salon, a job she loves but which Mrs. Briggs loves more. It keeps Lisa out of the house, giving Mrs. Briggs breathing space.

In hindsight, Mrs. Briggs says, the summer firestorm with Lisa was no worse than others in 13 years. "Everybody has good days and bad days," she says. "Sometimes we just have more bad days than good."

Lately there have been enough good days that Mrs. Briggs felt inspired last week to speak out at a Hillsborough Children's Board meeting about the foster care crisis.

The Briggses say they plan to get out of foster care in two or three years. Definitely in three years.

And yet, they say in the next breath, there is just no telling. "Every time we are bound and determined to get out, we'll get in the car and go driving. And after a couple of minutes, we'll both turn to each other and go, "Nah," she says. "And then we go back home."

-- Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or schweitzer@sptimes.com.

If you want to be a foster parent

There are no age limits and no marriage requirements for being a foster parent. All applicants are subject to a criminal background check and a home evaluation. Foster parents also must take 40 hours of parenting classes.

For information, call (800) 981-KIDS.

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