Benita’s Decision | Fall 2012 Spotlight | photo by Rob Taylor |

At age 13, in the 8th grade, Benita Warren had grown tired of fending for herself. Her half-sister had moved out years earlier, leaving her alone with an alcoholic mother prone to abusive and unstable behavior. The two moved constantly, and social services workers were always a few steps behind, showing up periodically for as long as she could remember.

Foster care would be a relief.

So in November 2004 Benita took the unusual step of asking to be removed from her mother’s home. “It just got to the point where it was no longer manageable,” she says. “There was a lot more confusion than promise between me and my mother.”

Benita entered foster care with Methodist Home for Children and soon was a favorite among social workers. She was sweet and anxious to make people happy. She sang with a beautiful voice. She was intelligent and a willing advocate for herself, once telling a Bertie County judge that she wanted braces—and getting them. That’s how Michelle Kennedy, MHC adoption and licensing supervisor, remembers her.

Kennedy also remembers her own dismay, and that of other case workers, when four years later Benita removed herself from care. “Benita had a chance. We all pleaded with her,” Kennedy says. “I wrote her a letter and said, ‘Please reconsider. We love you and want you to succeed. We don’t want you to go on to regret this decision.’ ”

But the teenager who put herself into foster care was determined to take herself out. Two weeks shy of her 18th birthday, in December 2008, she announced plans to decline continuing residential support (CARS), a program that helps foster children who are aging out of the system by extending funds for college, transportation and housing through age 21. With that decision, Benita was stepping away from her childhood, her safety net and her place with longtime foster parents, Ella and Julius Henry.

Benita and the Henrys

Benita visits her longtime foster parents, Ella and Julius Henry, during school breaks

The Henrys were devastated. Benita had lived with them in Winterville for the better part of four years, and she’d become one of the family. They called her “daughter” and taught her responsibility. They got her into therapy to manage the emotional fallout of her childhood—anger, guilt and trust issues—and they counseled her when life let her down. Benita was not ready to go it alone at 18, and the Henrys knew it. “We were trying to get her to see that,” Ella Henry says. “We told her, ‘You need to be under somebody’s wings, to slowly venture out to your adulthood.’ But she wanted to prove herself. That, and she didn’t want someone telling her what to do.”

Benita thought she’d gained freedom, but later realized she’d struggle for everything. Nothing would come easily—starting with her first step into adulthood and the decision to move in with her birth mother in Macon County in January 2009. She had hoped to salvage something from their fractious relationship, she says, but instead of healing, “everything fell apart,” triggering a four-month period of drifting. She crisscrossed the state, living sporadically with an abusive boyfriend in Macon County and friends’ parents in Greenville. In July, her former guardian ad litem bought her a bus ticket to Charlotte and invited her in. She enrolled that fall at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, but left a year later to join the Army. She returned within six months, in May 2011, with an honorable medical discharge.

Nothing had turned out as Benita had planned. Back in Greensboro, pulling herself together, she reached out again to the Henrys and to MHC. “She came back and apologized,” Ella Henry says. “She said, ‘You told me so. Go ahead and tell me I told you so.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t have to tell you so. You learned your life lesson all on your own.’ ”

Benita got back into school with financial help from MHC’s Hackley Education and Learning Program (HELP), and she earned her nursing assistant degree from Guilford Technical Community College. Now 21, she works with elderly dementia patients at a Lexington home health agency and continues at Guilford Tech to earn transfer credits so she can re-enroll at N.C. A&T. MHC continues to support her with HELP funds as she works toward her four-year degree.

In the meantime, Benita relies on the Henrys’ support and love as her family. They are her encouragers and her guides—even helping as she’s built a connection with the biological father she never knew. “To this day, the Henrys are my mom and my dad,” she says. “I go home for holidays, I go home just to go home. I’m still part of the Henrys. To them, I’m not just a foster child. I’m actually their child. It would have been nice to have been adopted by them, but that’s what I feel like. I feel like I’m adopted by them, and that’s what my friends know. They are my adopted parents.”

She’s thankful to have this family relationship even without the benefit of a CARS agreement. But she sees now that continued care would have saved her a lot of emotional and financial hardship and prepared her for adult situations like renting an apartment, following a budget and grocery shopping. She had to learn these skills on her own and she’s cautious, as a result. “My friends will call me the ‘old lady’ because I’m the one who makes a list before I go to the store. I’m the one who will budget my money. I’m the one who will sit back and look at my paycheck and say, ‘No, I can’t. No, I have to do this, I need to do that. This bill needs to be paid.’ ”

Benita wants her experiences to guide others who are still in the foster care system. “True, [foster care] is not always peaches and cream,” she says. “I would advise them, when they reach 18, don’t be a hothead like me and try to move out because it can be hard if they need that extra help. If they know at the end of the day that they’re not ready to be on their own, they need to take advantage of the CARS agreement and get the help they need. I wish I had sometimes.”