This story is a part of the Keeping Kids Safe series. It originally appeared in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on February 1, 2017. The article is written by Gail Schontzler, Staff Writer. The photos are by Rachel Leathe, Staff Photographer.
LIVINGSTON — Snow was falling on Northern Lights Road and it was a chilly 9 degrees, but the Gentry family’s three adopted foster sons didn’t care.
The boys were having fun sledding and riding their bikes, making circles in the fresh powder.
“Hi, mom,” Andrew said, peaking playfully through the back door’s dog flap.
Sara and Jeff Gentry, who will soon celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, were veterans of parenting when they decided six years ago to take in foster children.
“We have an awesome life,” Sara said in the accent of her native England. “We’re paying it forward.”
“Our original discussion was if we could make a difference in one kid’s life it was worth doing,” Jeff said.
Not all their foster kids worked out. All foster kids are damaged, they said, and three weren’t ready for family life. But they ended up adopting three of their foster boys — first Jesse, 12, then Andrew, 10, and his brother Kyle, 8.
“Everybody thinks foster kids are like Chucky — horror movies,” Sara said. “There is a degree of matchmaking to make it work.”
Montana has a record of more than 3,000 children in foster care and not enough foster families to take them all.
“There’s such a shortage,” Sara said. “I’m always on a mission to get people to become foster parents.”
Sara said she’d like to dispel some myths. People tell her that they couldn’t be foster parents, knowing the kids would be returned home if, for example, their parents quit using drugs and got back on their feet. People tell her they’d get too attached and hate to see the kids taken away. But it’s OK, she said, if you understand from the start it’s temporary.
“It’s like the Pony Express,” Jeff said. “You’re entrusted with children — it’s not their fault — you’ve been given this valuable package to hand off to the next person.”
Sara said people often think because they raised their own kids, they’d know what to do with foster kids. But they don’t know how to work with children who have experienced trauma.
“I’ve seen a lot of people trying to do this. It’s hard,” she said. “If families get good support, it can work.”
When they got Jesse as a foster kid, his parents’ rights had been terminated. He had already lived in eight or nine foster homes. State caseworkers wanted to find him a permanent home, a family willing to adopt.
“Whoa, this is not what we signed up for,” was Sara’s first reaction. But by then, Jesse was making so much progress, she felt it would be wrong to say no.
He had been “an angry, defiant little boy — no respect for authority,” Jeff said. “He had no future unless somebody helped him.”
“We said, ‘No, we’re not going to put him back in the system,’” Sara said. “He’d started to trust, to feel safe.”
Today, she said, “Jesse is flourishing. All three of them are.”
The Gentrys feel they’re part of the reason, but a big thing is giving the boys things many families take for granted — consistency, structure, predictability, the chance to sleep through the night, safety. No more chaos.
“When there’s a performance at school, you’re there,” Sara said. “It matters to them.”
You know you’ve crossed a threshold, Jeff said, when you go from getting phone calls from school every day about problems, to getting compliments from people who have seen the kids change.
“That’s huge,” Jeff said. People have told them, “‘Man, what you’ve done with the kids’” and “‘I absolutely love Jess,’ or Andrew or Kyle.”
Meth and heroin are big reasons that a record number of Montana kids have ended up in foster care, they said.
Andrew and Kyle are Crow Indians and came from a family with five kids who ended up in foster care. When Andrew first came, Jeff phoned the boy’s old school to get his records.
“The woman said, ‘I don’t know you, but if there’s anything you can do for that kid … Drugs and alcohol are killing the tribe, killing the tribe down here.’ And she was Crow herself,” Jeff said.
“The department of family services has a horrible job — they’re blamed and badmouthed,” Sara said. “The kids are so angry. Can you imagine ripping kids from their home? Even if it’s the best thing, how the kids must feel — angry and hurt and sad.”
After the Gentrys took Andrew, the state Child and Family Services and Crow nation asked them to take his brother, Kyle. Their grandmother and an aunt visited the Gentrys to see if they felt comfortable sending the boys to their non-native home. Since then, there have been visits back and forth with the boys’ Crow family.
“They FaceTime with their grandma and aunts,” Sara said. “They can call any time. It’s an open door.”
Sometimes the boys fight, argue, wrestle or try to scare each other.
“They’re very normal,” Sara said.
“These three are all-boy — they play soccer, bowling, basketball,” Jeff said. He takes them to learn archery and air rifle shooting at 4H.
Andrew, a fifth-grader, had fun skiing at Bridger Bowl, but he was especially excited about the upcoming Lego robot competition at Montana State University. He showed off the T-shirt for his team, the Demon Bots.
The Gentrys also share their home with a veiled chameleon, a bearded dragon and their beloved English Staffordshire terrier dogs. “They’re smart — they speak English,” Jeff quipped.
Sara works as care manager for Youth Dynamics, a nonprofit mental and behavioral health agency, and is finishing on her master’s degree in clinical social work. She works with foster families to help placements go smoothly.
Jeff was in the Air Force for 24 years doing maintenance on F-15 fighter jets, serving all over Europe and Turkey, reaching the rank of master sergeant. He now does maintenance and drives a school bus, when he’s not bow-hunting or driving the boys to the robot competition.
The Gentrys met in England. Jeff has a 29-year-old daughter, raising two grandsons. They have a 20-year-old son in the Air Force and Grace, 17, is still at home, finishing her last year at Park High school.
The secret to being successful foster parents, they said, is gaining trust, seeing below the surface of angry or defiant behavior, and working at building relationships.
Foster kids, Jeff said, have to “figure out they’re safe. They’re not going to get punched, or slammed into a wall, or told to scrub a toilet with a toothbrush. You’re talking about undoing years of neglect and abuse.”
“You read their files — they didn’t know where the next meal was coming from, you’ve got 6-year-olds changing diapers on 2-year-olds because mom is drugged or passed out.”
Sara said she doesn’t want to complain, but she wishes the state of Montana offered foster parents more support, training and respite care, though she knows it all costs money.
The boys tumbled into the kitchen for dinner, and were asked what it’s like to have been adopted by the Gentrys.
“They’re cool,” Andrew said. The best part? “It’s warm.”
“They give us food,” Kyle added.
“We give lots of food,” Jeff said.
“They’re a loving family and I’m very happy to have two brothers who got adopted as well,” Jesse said. “I get to play with them, hang out with them, and I love them. And I love my sister, too.”
Jesse said the advice he would give to other foster families is “don’t tell children they’re going to get adopted unless you really know.” Almost every previous foster family said it. So when the Gentrys told him they would adopt him, Jesse said he felt “happy and sad at the same time. I’ve been let down about seven times. But here I am five years later.”
Jesse was adopted in November 2014 and Andrew and Kyle’s adoption ceremony was in November 2016.
A photo shows everyone posing after the ceremony, smiling. Kyle said he felt good and sad at the same time.
Grace said it’s really good that her family adopted the boys. She likes to sit and play piano with the boys while they sing, or have the boys read to her to practice their reading skills.
“I love them,” she said. “It’s something more families should do. What (Jesse) has been through, no child should go through. Watching these kids change and become part of your family is really cool.”
“More people need to step up and help these kids,” Sara said.
“It’s the biggest gift of all,” Jeff said. “You open the door to a kid with a lot of problems, give them a home and a family. That’s a huge gift.”
“It’s not easy, but it’s worth it,” Sara said. “So worth it.”
More information about becoming a foster parent can be found by calling Youth Dynamics at 406 585-9402, from the Christian nonprofit Child Bridge (childbridgemontana.org), or on the Montana state website of the Department of Public Health and Human Services (dphhs.mt.gov/CFSD/Fosterparent).