Leader knows foster care from the in­side

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Cor­rie MacLag­gan

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.”

Jay Jan­ner Amer­i­cAn-StAteS­mAn

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.

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