The Way Home: What Happens After a Life Spent in the Texas Foster Care System?

It was early July 2001, and Trish Virgil was going to make a lemon meringue pie. “In our family, 12 years old meant that you get to finally learn how to make homemade pies,” she says now, smiling.

But, Virgil says, when she got home from the store with her mother, police had surrounded their trailer. While they were out, Virgil’s older sister, 17 at the time, had called the police on their stepdad, who’d been sexually and physically abusing both girls for years.

Virgil, her sister, and their brother, who, at 13, was a year older than Virgil, would go directly into foster care, and not for the first time. When Virgil was 2 and the family was living in Phoenix, Arizona, the siblings were put into the state’s custody after their mom went on a drink-and-drug-fueled bender and left them unattended.

That first time, Virgil and her brother spent four years in care before reuniting with their mother; her sister arrived a year later. Then, after her mother met the man who would become Virgil’s stepdad at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Arizona, they eventually settled in Dobbin, an unincorporated community outside Conroe, in the late ’90s. That, Virgil says, is where the abuse began.

“All three of us were being physically abused,” Virgil, now 28, says today. “My stepdad would literally beat us with a belt and then ask us if we were bleeding yet.” She pauses, glancing down. “So.”

When the cops arrived that July evening, they separated the siblings and questioned them. “At the time, I had a bruise the size of a fly swatter on my arm,” Virgil says, “and when they asked me if my stepdad did it, I was honest with them.”

Although Virgil is well aware her stepdad was abusive—“all forms of abuse, verbal, sexual, emotional, physical, you name it, he was doing it”—she still sounds wistful when she talks about those pies, as if the key to the happy childhood she never had was wrapped up in that moment missed, when her mom would teach her to knead that flaky homemade dough.

Instead, Virgil and her siblings went back into the foster care system, embarking upon a long and winding journey under the care of the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). Although she’d escaped her stepfather, she would continue to undergo physical and sexual abuse for the next six years, as she cycled through roughly 10 homes in Montgomery and Harris counties, with 10 different caseworkers assigned to her. She would never permanently settle with a family.

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