© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Foster care advocate encourages youth to ‘accept the challenge’ and move beyond adversity

Trisha R. Gordon, Chief Growth Officer, poses for a portrait outside the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition in Brentwood on Wednesday, July 3, 2024.
Sophie Proe
St. Louis Public Radio
Trisha R. Gordon, Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition's chief growth officer, poses for a portrait in the agency's offices last week in Brentwood.

Trisha Gordon endured inside her teen mother’s belly as her father — a man 30 years her mom’s senior — physically abused her.

The beatings were so bad that Gordon was born at 5½ months. It was the late 1970s, and her survival didn’t appear likely.

“My brain, my heart and my lungs weren’t fully developed,” Gordon said. “And [my mom] was on drugs too. And of course, he beat on her so I probably didn’t fully develop as I should have in five months. So she left me at the hospital.”

Her mother, Mary Jo Gordon, also had three miscarriages before Gordon was born due to the abuse, she added. After being born, Gordon said she was "no-name Gordon" for months in the hospital because no one expected her to live.

“I was in an incubator for 5½ months,” Gordon said. “A hospital nurse took care of me, of course, and at nine months when I was still alive, she named me Trisha because I was born on St. Patrick’s Day.”

She was eventually returned to the custody of her parents, she said.

“Even after going through that, my dad continuously beat me, and I still have scars on my body at 48,” Gordon said. “These are scars that you shouldn’t even see that I got as a little kid, but when I would get these scars, he would reinjure them.”

There was often no electricity or food at home. Despite the dysfunction, her mother was her “rock,” she said, and taught her how to survive.

“I can remember sitting in the alleyways, waiting for people to discard food,” Gordon said. “My mom kind of showed me how to live on the streets. Like hey, here’s what you do, you wait until the rats scurry. I knew how to search the trash cans.”

After surviving a fire that someone set at her parents’ home in the mid-to-late 1980s, Gordon was placed into foster care at 11 years old.

The first year staying with her foster mom, Marilyn Kirkess — with whom she ended up with the entirety of her time in care — was not an easy adjustment, Gordon said.

“What they considered dysfunction was my normal,” Gordon said. “I mean [the home] was perfect, but I didn’t know these people. And then it’s like you’ve got to go to school, you’ve got to take a bath, you’ve got to comb your hair — all the things that I was not used to, so it was really a struggle. And I missed my [birth] mom.”

She remained in the State of Missouri’s custody until she was 21 — the age that foster kids are cut off from care.

Gordon is just one of thousands of adults who have aged out of the system in Missouri. And it’s no secret that Missouri’s child welfare system has struggled to perform essential functions over the years, according to the state's Department of Social Services Children’s Division, with too many children going into foster care and staying there too long. However, according to the State Department of Social Services, that number is shrinking.

The Missouri State Capitol on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Capitol last May in Jefferson City

In a report released last year, foster care officials said there are two main reasons Missouri’s child welfare system faces challenges — the inability to recruit and retain frontline workers and a lack of crucial staffing needed to operate a proactive and holistic child welfare system.

Children’s Division Director Darrell Missey said that at the end of June, there were 11,819 foster kids in Missouri, compared to more than 14,000 foster kids who were still lingering in the system at the end of 2021. He’s been director of the division for over two years and said during that time it’s conducted staff surveys and gathered other insight to assess how to improve the child welfare system and move kids into placement quicker.

“It's been steadily coming down since we have initiated our work here,” Missey said. “What I heard from [staff] is that they wanted to stay but they could barely afford to. People were having trouble making the salary that we had. Some websites listed our salaries in Missouri as the lowest in the union.”

Missey says the Children’s Division now has roughly 2,000 employees, which is almost full staffing. He said the extra hands are making a difference but noted there is much work still to be done. State legislators are working to establish changes to ensure child welfare agencies don’t break up families living in impoverished conditions.

“We work prevention, and we work to try to help families on the front end,” Missey said. “And we also work to make sure that we get kids where they need to be in a prompt manner, without spending years mired in the system on the back end.”

Darrell Missey, the director of the State of Missouri's Children's Division, on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, at St. Louis Public Radio’s headquarters in Grand Center.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Darrell Missey, the director of Missouri's Children's Division, on Aug. 23 at St. Louis Public Radio’s headquarters in Grand Center

Placing children

According to Missey, a foster child is any child who has come into the legal custody of the Children's Division or who has been placed in a home other than their own family home. This includes children who have been abused, neglected or have parents who simply can't take care of them for one reason or another.

About 5,000 of the total number of foster kids in Missouri are likely staying with grandparents, some are with other relatives, and others are placed in non-family homes, Missey said.

Fewer than five kids were staying at hotels awaiting placement at the end of June. Various adoption agencies across the state work to get kids placement in Missouri, but looking across state lines for families isn’t a straightforward process, Missey said.

They have to navigate the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children.

“What that means is that we cannot place a child across the state line without other state’s permission, and that other states have a whole bunch of time to check out any placement that we recommend,” Missey said. Prior to becoming director of the Children’s Division, Missey served as a judge in Jefferson County, just south of St. Louis County, for 19 years.

“In my court, I had all kinds of children come into care who had relatives who lived in Collinsville, who lived in Belleville and lived in Columbia, Illinois,” Missey said. “And we could not place them over there quickly because we had to wait for Illinois to check them out, and that often takes a lot of time.”

Missey said it’s a smoother process in Kansas City because there's an agreement with the State of Kansas that staff members can go across the state line to seek placement for children.

“This is a great arrangement that we are seeking with the other states too,” Missey said. Kids are, however, allowed to be placed with relatives who live in other states without having to navigate the ICPC process, Missey said.

Between 80 and 90 kids are on the run daily, Missey said.

“Every child welfare system has some of that,” Missey said. “And it's not always the same kid, because we'll find somebody and then somebody else will run. We are doing everything we can and we’re working with our State Technical Assistance Team, that's another team inside the Department of Social Services. We are working very hard to locate them and get them back home.”

Some of the missing kids are over 18 years old, he said, but the department is still responsible for them because legally the state has custody until they’re 21 or until the court releases them from the foster system.

Howard Benson, 74, and his wife Vickie pose for a portrait in their home, High Ridge in Jefferson County, on Tuesday July 2, 2024.
Sophie Proe
St. Louis Public Radio
Howard Denson, 74, and his wife, Vickie, pose for a portrait at their High Ridge home last week in Jefferson County.

Be intentional

Some of these circumstances can be detrimental to kids’ self-esteem, self-worth and overall development, said Heather Craig, a recruiter for Respond, a nonprofit that educates and recruits Black St. Louisans to be foster parents.

For seven years, Craig and her husband have fostered over 30 kids, although she said they closed their foster care license last July. They have two biological children and adopted three more kids.

Adoptions can sometimes take years to finalize, she said.

“The system is not a home,” Craig said. “The system is not permanent. And so I think the longer that they are out of a home just increases the likelihood for poor outcomes. We already have kids that are in care, they graduate high school at a lower rate, and they are less likely to attend college, coupled with everything else.”

Vickie and Howard Denson founded Respond in 1989, and it was closed in the early 2000s. The Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition revamped it in 2023. When the Densons adopted a little girl, they said, some adoption agencies in Missouri were unwilling to work with them due to their skin color.

They founded Respond after recognizing Black people weren’t as informed about the foster care and adoption process in Missouri and saw a need to educate more Black families. Although Respond’s purpose is to educate and recruit Black foster parents, skin color isn’t the most important thing at the end of the day, said Howard Denson, 74, of High Ridge.

“It is far better to have a loving family than a loving family of a specific race,” Denson said. “And what it boils down to is do [parents] know what they're getting into? It's more than just their relationship with the child. You have to consider the child's relationship with their family members and school. The culture the child will be living within is a complex situation.”

Foster care takes special people, he said. Kids often come from adverse situations where abuse and some form of neglect have taken place.

“It takes special people to be able to love without limits and then be willing and able to let go,” Denson said. “Even if you don't believe where they're going is in the best interests of the child. Sometimes the court is sending that child back into the abusive situation that created the need for foster care parents in the first place. The foster parent may not think that child is ready, but it is the judge who gets to make the decision.”

Howard Benson, 74, and his wife Vickie talks to press in their home, High Ridge in Jefferson County, on Tuesday July 2, 2024.
Sophie Proe
St.Louis Public Radio
Vickie Denson holds her glasses last week at her home in Jefferson County.

Even though kids in foster care tend to have poorer outcomes than other children, Gordon said that isn’t her story. And she added that it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s either.

After spending more than a decade in the system, she said she learned to redefine words as a means to take control of her narrative. She said she eventually adjusted to living with her foster mom and enjoyed being active in school activities and taking her education seriously.

She went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in political science and master’s degrees in business administration and human resources, and she also has certifications in entrepreneurship and information systems. In January, Gordon became the chief growth officer at the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition. She has 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector and most recently served as vice president of community investment with United Way of Greater St. Louis.

After being forced out of the system, she said she felt lost and disconnected from the various resources the foster care system provided her. But she didn’t let that become an excuse not to succeed, she said. Her faith in God, hard work, connections to others and belief in herself have pushed her forward, she said.

She encouraged current and former foster youth to "accept the challenge" and move beyond adversity. The word foster for Gordon is an acronym for Find, Opportunities, Strengthen, Teach and Release.

Kris Husted and Lacretia Wimbley talk about needs within Missouri’s foster care system

“It is a constant reminder of, since foster care is no longer available, how do you find and fulfill opportunities that will strengthen you, continue to teach you, empower you, restore or release what you need to move forward when you’re stuck in life?” Gordon said.

“We can go through some really, really tough stumbling blocks in our life, but they don’t have to hinder us. Whatever situation you’re going through right now, this is just a temporary challenge, that you’re being prepared for something bigger.”

Lacretia Wimbley is a general assignment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.