“Ok, let’s go… now!” Karen Reynolds Scott strides through her front door, no-nonsense but not harried in spite of the clock inching closer to church time. She’s a singer and an ex-cheerleader, and her voice projects over a bouncing basketball and whirling bike tires. The ball falls still. The bikes too. Their three operators—boys ages 12, 7 and 8—scramble toward her 15-passenger van. The others emerge, a 15-year-old girl, two friends, her boyfriend, three more teenage boys, and an 11-year-old girl. The teens rush to claim the family’s second vehicle, a minivan. Her husband, Bruce, follows. The oldest two, a 20-year-old girl and 19-year-old boy, will stay behind with the 14-month-old who slept badly the night before and needs to nap. The parents count their passengers to make sure no one is left behind. It happens sometimes.
At church, they fill an entire row. Karen scans their faces. She leans to me, her guest, and whispers, “I’d fill two rows if I could.”
Meet Karen, a mom driven to save as many children as she can from lives of neglect and abuse. Meet Bruce, her partner in this quest, the household provider and the only father figure most of these kids have ever had.
Karen and Bruce took in their first foster children, a sibling pair, 17 years ago through a nonprofit group they were connected to at the time. Their birth daughter, Emily (the 20-year-old), was 3. The couple brought home their second foster, Giana (the 15-year-old), a girl who had been born to an incarcerated mother, when she was just 12 hours old.
The Scotts have cared for dozens since, including one of the siblings they first fostered, a boy, who returned to them when he was 12 and stayed through high school graduation—the first in three generations in his family to earn a diploma. They have officially adopted Giana, begun the adoption process for the 7-year-old, and opened arms, home, fridge, to friends of the kids, neighborhood kids, relatives of the kids, and whatever other lost souls come their way.
Four years ago, the Scotts formed a nonprofit, Keeping Kids in Distress Safe (KKids), to open opportunities to receive grants and gifts. It is not a “fancy” nonprofit—no budgets, buildings, paid staff or name recognition. No, KKids exists in Karen and Bruce’s three-bed, two-bath, well-worn house in North Fort Myers where they have at least eight sleeping under their roof, and seven more who live with single parents in neighboring houses but count on Karen and Bruce as co-parents and financial providers. The Scotts are legal guardians to four of those kids. The children they’ve parented—at least 30 over the years—remain part of the family for life, should they choose. There is no such thing as “aging out” of the Scott clan.
Their budget is “scary,” Karen admits, with a grocery bill topping $700 a week. Good nutrition is a nonnegotiable. They rely on Bruce’s commission-based income as an auctioneer as much as they do the donations that come in, mostly via word-of-mouth. They don’t think like a “nonprofit” and they don’t think in terms of “services.” They think like parents.
They also don’t receive state money to help support the children. That’s by choice. The Scotts are considered ‘non-relative placements,’ a category of care providers recognized by the state but not entitled to stipends offered to licensed foster care homes. Taking stipends, Karen says, could trigger a reduction in the parents’ government benefits, and they’re barely scraping by as it is. Besides, she adds, “We do not want (the families) to think we’re motivated by money.”
Which, of course, begs the question: What does?
Karen and Bruce meet me for the first time at a restaurant in downtown Fort Myers because a sit-down interview at home is impossible (I’m the oldest of seven—I know). Karen is easy to spot: dark curls, strong profile, perfectly applied makeup and smart fashion sense. I’ll come to suspect that grooming is the one thing she does for herself, even if she does it on the fly between diaper changes and drop-offs. Bruce is silver-haired but youthful in every other way. The next time I’ll see him, he’ll be plopped on the floor playing with the baby and rambunctious 5-year-old.
She greets me with a hug and he with a warm handshake. They don’t indulge much in small talk. Time alone is scant. Instead, they delve into a litany of complaints about the foster care system and the reforms they believe should be made. In the days to come, I’ll understand better why they are frustrated. But tonight, I wait for an opening and nudge them back to their story’s beginning.
“It was by accident,” Bruce declares. They were delivering furniture that had not sold at auction to a thrift store benefiting a home for sibling groups. There, the couple learned about the tremendous need for foster families, fueled by the opioid epidemic. “Let’s do it!” decided Karen, whose parents had fostered teen girls when she was a child. Bruce agreed.
The organization steered them to three siblings in need of care; the younger two came to the Scotts; the older went to a friend of theirs. The children, unknowingly, had turned on a light, revealing a sad world running parallel to the one Karen and Bruce were building for Emily. They could have pretended not to see it. Instead, they opened their eyes wider.
“Hi Mommy,” there’s a giggle above Karen and fingers entwined in her curls. She’s sitting on the first riser at her church, which has transformed into a gymnasium, watching a half dozen or so of her kids dribble and shoot. Faith is the underpinning of her calling, and the family spends a lot of time in their spiritual home. She looks up and grins at Aiden, the 7-year-old she and Bruce decided to adopt after the state failed to identify any biological relatives eligible to care for him. He’s all energy, all speed, all boy.
She turns her attention to the basketball court. “That’s it! Go, A___!” She shouts to one of the teens, a quiet boy in glasses. She puts a great deal of effort into nurturing their talents, building their self-esteem and prompting them to consider their futures. “You know, when they grow up in poverty, they do not project to the future at all,” she explains.
She’s steering the 19-year-old, who works at a supermarket, into trade school. Another boy, now a young adult, went to culinary school, an interest sparked by watching Bruce cook family meals.
Karen says God steers her parenting, but that’s not the only force driving her. Her mom, strict and strictly Christian, refused to let her only daughter pursue her childhood dream to be in show business. “Makeup was a sin. Ear piercing was a sin. We could not dance,” Karen says. “That’s why I’m the opposite. If they want to take Indian totem pole building lessons, I say, ‘Great! Let’s do it!’”
Though Karen has produced two CDs, which she sells on her KKids website to help raise money, she’s satisfied to put her kids center stage and cheer them from the wings.
One evening, I spend a little time with Emily to learn about the family from her perspective, as oldest daughter. She winces a little when i follow her into the yard and see its condition. “I’m just so used to people judging us,” she confesses. The family is ever under the scrutiny of caseworkers and the children’s parents, who vacillate between running to the Scotts for help and turning on them. Karen believes the couple’s success makes the biological parents feel like failures.
Seven kids, I remind Emily of my upbringing. Sure, there are weeds. But there are also tie-dyed t-shirts drying after a family craft project. There are three kids bouncing on a trampoline, two more lounging on the swings, and Bruce arranging chairs around a fire pit for a bonfire. “I love how open our family is,” Emily says, surveying the scene. “We don’t ever turn away people who are in need.”
Inside, a group of little kids clusters around the 5-year-old, gawking at scribbles on the dining room table. The accused child shakes his curls in unconvincing denial. Karen is careful not to holler; she knows that doing so “triggers” kids who’ve experienced trauma.
Karen seems to be good at staying cool—and making light of patience-testing situations. She’s written two books chronicling her parenting adventures, the first titled, i can’t poop if god is watching, after something Giana once said; the second, the things that come out of my mouth, poking fun at the clan’s zany interchanges. The tone of her books, like the way she carries herself, exudes energy.
But today tired eyes betray her. She admits she’s not sleeping well, worried about the 2-year-old whose mother had suddenly retrieved him. Karen knows this mom—intimately. We’ll call her Chelsey. She’s the big sister of their first two foster kids, and over the years Karen and Bruce have labored to help her, her siblings, her mom, her grandmother, her aunt, and her cousins, with their needs, as well as the needs of the children. The 5-year-old, the 12-year-old and the baby are part of that clan.
Chelsey had legal rights to her son and saw him on occasion, but she’d let the couple do most of the parenting while she bounced between drugs and drama. She’s among the reasons why the couple have scaled back their involvement with parents who refuse to turn their lives around, focusing their attention—and resources—more exclusively to the children.
Karen, fuming, blames a caseworker for the rift. As required by law, she and Bruce had reported concerns over recent occurrences in Chelsey’s life, fearful for the 2-year-old’s safety when in her care. During a stormy exchange, it was obvious Chelsey knew who reported her transgressions and where she’d gotten her information, Karen says.
This isn’t the first such dispute among biological parents, child protective workers and the Scotts. And the 2-year-old is not the first to have been wrested from Karen and Bruce too soon, in the couple’s opinion. They do their best to support biological families, but they—Karen especially—will go to battle if they know the parents aren’t yet ready to provide safe, stable homes. They know how precarious these families’ situations are—twice, they’ve had to break the news of a parent’s death to a child. One was to their adopted daughter Giana. “i understand the constitutional rights of the parents, but do we sacrifice a child’s wellbeing and future for the parents’ rights?” Asks Bruce.
This is the bigger fight they wage.
During the hours when the children are in school, Karen spends her time advocating for reforms she believes are necessary in the state’s child welfare system. She wants to ensure children—not just their parents—are adequately represented in court; lobby for more oversight of child welfare organizations; and mandate more extensive training for caseworkers, especially in regard to the surging opioid epidemic. Karen is working with state lawmakers to propose legislation, and she acts as a resource to other foster families. “change comes through legislation and education, and that’s what we’re doing,” Karen says.
When I was Giana’s age, I brought only my closest friends home, fearful of how my peers would perceive the noise, the mess, the wear-and-tear inevitable in a home shared by so many. Giana used to harbor similar hesitations. No longer. “Once i brought my first friend over here, she was like, ‘this is fun. Your family is filled with love.’” The kids that happen to be there are folded into game nights, sports practices, family outings, and whatever else the parents have concocted for the day. Karen likes to keep them busy.
Seeing those teens descend on the house tells me more about what Karen and Bruce have accomplished than anything. So too does seeing that long line of kids sitting at church. The 12-year-old has his arm slung around the 8-year-old. They are not brothers by blood, but their bond might be just as strong.
It’s this firm grounding in family, love and faith that Karen hopes will set children on a path toward a better future. “We want to be the launching pad so that they can go and do great things.”