Leader knows foster care from the inside
When people find out that Gigi Edwards Bryant grew up in the Texas foster system, they tell her they’re amazed that she’s successful. That she made it.
With the State of Texas watching over her, Bryant often thinks in response, “Why shouldn’t I have made it through?”
But Bryant, a small-business owner, mother of three and civic volunteer, understands why people say that. She understands because the system failed to protect her. And she’s heartbroken over the way she believes it failed her brother. She doesn’t want it to fail anymore.
As Gov. Rick Perry’s recently appointed chairwoman of the Department of Family and Protective Services Council, Bryant hopes to use her experiences to help shape a system that she says struggles with many of the same problems as it did decades ago.
“We’re still looking at the same process that breaks children, stopping children from dreaming to be the best they can be,” Bryant said. “I never stopped dreaming.”
Texas officials think she’s the first former foster child to lead the council, which advises the state agency on issues such as protecting children and elderly or disabled adults and rules for day cares.
“Her personal journey will really help us to be more in tune, to be more aware, to be more understanding and to just make sure we’re always putting in the forefront what we’d want for our own children and families,” said Joyce James, deputy commissioner of the department.
Bryant says that through the advisory council, she’ll work to address the over-representation in the foster system of African American children, who also stay in the system longer than other children. And Bryant says she wants to see a foster care system in which children
Continued from A make it because of the experience, not in spite of it, as she did.
“When ‘foster’ is added in front of a child’s name, certain things happen that would not happen if it was your own child,” Bryant said. “It’s not a title a child asks for.”
Bryant, 52, is a fifth-generation Austinite. She entered the foster system at age 6 with her three siblings after their mother was arrested for killing a man.
Bryant, her brother and two sisters, still in blood-spattered clothing, were taken from home. Their mother was placed in a state psychiatric hospital, where she received electric shock treatment and was never herself again, according to Bryant. She didn’t get her kids back. Bryant never knew her father.
Meanwhile, the children were separated and placed in foster homes.
For Bryant, that was the start of living in about 20 homes, mostly in the Austin and Corsicana areas, by the time she left the system at 18. Her school and church changed every time she moved. She’s been Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran and a member of the Church of Christ.
“We never completed a thing,” she said.
Worse, she said, the system failed to keep her safe. She was sexually abused by foster parents and by other children in various foster homes, she said, until she learned that wasn’t supposed to be happening. And though she figured out that she could be moved to another home if she reported the abuse, she never received counseling, she said. She said she is not aware of police ever having been contacted.
Her brother, Charles Rector, disappeared at 14 and resurfaced years later in jail, she said. As an adult, he was convicted of the 1981 kidnap, rape, shooting and drowning death of Carolyn Kay “Katy” Davis, 22, whose naked, bruised body was found in Lady Bird Lake.
Bryant reconnected with her brother and was a witness to his 1999 execution. After the lethal drugs began flowing, the American-Statesman reported at the time, Rector, 44, said softly: “I love you, sister.”
Bryant links Rector’s fate to his time in the foster system.
Bryant and those who knew her as a teenager say that she was able to endure her time in the system because she was fiercely determined to succeed. Influenced by her biological great-grandmother’s focus on prayer, her Christian faith sustained her, she said.
“I just believed there had to be something else,” she said.
Along the way, she found people who cared.
Judith Martin was a caseworker to Bryant when, as a teenager, she was pregnant and determined to keep her baby.
“Gigi was definitely a memorable kid on my caseload, oh my, yes,” Martin said. “She was clear about who she was and where she wanted to go. She wouldn’t just let people make choices for her. And shining through all that was her spirit.”
Modean Wilkins, Bryant’s last foster mother, said: “I saw her wanting more in life than the average 16-year-old.”
Wilkins remembers Bryant taking great care with her allowance and babysitting money. If she got $20, she’d keep $10 and put $10 in the bank, Wilkins said. When she graduated from high school, she had saved enough to buy a Volkswagen.
Today, Bryant is president of GMSA Management Services Inc., a business development consulting firm. She is on the board of the Austin Community College Foundation and the advisory council of the Assistance League of Austin and is a member of the Douglas Club, a volunteer organization.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Edward’s University after a decade of taking classes while working and raising her daughter, now 35, and older son, now 30. She also has an 18-year-old son. She holds an MBA from the University of Texas at Dallas.
After years of what she says were abusive relationships, Bryant is now married to her “best friend,” Sam Bryant, who is the father of two children of his own. Together, the Bryants have four grandchildren.
Gigi Bryant’s daughter, Shantel Wilkins (no relation to Modean Wilkins), said her mother kept her and brother Marcus Wilkins “on the straight and narrow,” encouraging academic achievement to the point that summers were spent reading and handing in book reports to their mom. “We weren’t watching TV and hanging out,” said Shantel Wilkins, whose brother Marcus played football for the University of Texas and in the NFL.
Bryant had been on the Department of Family and Protective Services Council for four years when the governor tapped her in March as chairwoman. She said she made sure Perry’s aides knew about her experiences in the foster system, telling them that “if they wanted me to hide that, I’m not the right person.”
James, the department deputy commissioner, said Bryant has long volunteered to share her experiences with child welfare workers.
Bryant has “always encouraged us to listen to the young people,” James said. “Part of her experience was we did not listen to her when she outcried about what was happening to her. It was like no one heard her.”
Scott McCown, a former state district judge who is executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the advisory council holds less sway now than it did years ago, when it was a policymaking board.
But the council, which meets quarterly, does review rule changes, such as this year’s proposed tweaks for day care centers (the council expects to make recommendations later this year on whether to lower adult-child ratios). And Audrey Deckinga, Department of Family and Protective Services assistant commissioner for Child Protective Services, said of council members, “We take their advice very seriously.”
Bryant says she’ll work to discourage the department from separating siblings in the foster system. “Why are we still talking about kids needing to be with siblings?” she asked. She said of her brother and sisters: “We could have been together and known each other.” She is not in touch with her sisters.
Bryant frequently gives speeches about foster care. She talks about the horrors she endured in the system but also of her optimism for the future and desire to make improvements. She says she doesn’t want people who hear her story to feel sorry for her — rather, she wants them to do something to improve the life of a child.
“Would I have chosen this life for myself and my siblings?” she asked during a speech at a Central Texas Council of Child Protection Boards event in May. “No, but it makes me who I am.”
Gigi Edwards Bryant, chairwoman of the Department of Family and Protective Services Council, talks with Ricky Douglas, a case manager at Caring Family Network in Killeen. Recently appointed by the governor, Bryant is thought to be the first former foster child to lead the council.