Rob Chasteen-Scheer: From Homeless Teen to Tireless Advocate for Foster Kids
Rob Chasteen-Scheer overcame years of abuse and homelessness to become a father to four at-risk children. He is the founder of “Comfort Cases," a non-profit organization that provides backpacks with essentials to tens of thousands of foster kids. This past year, he has received much-deserved recognition for the charity's invaluable work: In March, Rob was honored at the Family Equality Council Impact Awards in Los Angeles, California. In August, he and Comfort Cases were featured in People; a few days ago, Rob was a guest on NBC's “Today." This article represents the first time Rob is sharing his own personal story in such a public way.
Rob Chasteen-Scheer knows hunger — real hunger. Although it has been many years since he experienced it, the painful memories of that hunger are always with him. He will go to great lengths to avoid it. And so, after a dinner with guests, he feels compelled to go to the grocery store. The pantry is often still full.
Abused and neglected throughout his childhood, orphaned at 10, homeless his senior year of high school after aging out of the foster system, Rob has overcome every challenge in his life to become a successful businessman, a loving husband and a doting father of four. But that gnaw of hunger can quickly drag him back to those earlier years, when he was living on the streets as he tried to graduate high school.
“That feeling of hunger is something you never forget — that pit in my stomach," he said. “I tell my children, 'Whatever you want to eat, whenever you want to eat.' I never want my children to feel that hunger. Because once you feel that hunger, you never forget it."
Rob (left) and Reece in an early family photo
Calling Life's Bluff
Rob often calls the circumstances of his early life “the cards I was dealt." There's no doubt he was dealt a losing hand. His mother married six times and had 10 children, of whom Rob was the youngest. Addicted to drugs, Rob's mother raised her family in conditions that he thought were normal — being shuffled from shelter to shelter, in and out of foster care, siblings in and out of jail. His stepfather was a sadistic predator, sexually abusing Rob from an early age.
“My father would hold a gun to my or to my sister's head and ask my mother, 'Which one do you want me to shoot tonight?'" he says. “And that was just fun for them. They would drink and laugh."
His mother died of breast cancer when he was 10. Rob was to be sent to live with his biological father, but those plans changed when the man died suddenly and unexpectedly. At this point, Rob's stepfather abandoned him, and the young boy was left to live with a woman neighbor who agreed to foster him. Rob describes his emotions at the news of his mother's death and his subsequent foster placement as feelings of tremendous relief; the abuse he had suffered had been that bad.
He would be dealt another bad hand, though. While Rob took comfort in the care his foster mother offered, his foster father didn't share his wife's compassion.
Rob (circled) in his Grade 5 Yearbook. This is one of very few photos that Rob has from his childhood.
“I remember, it was my 18th birthday. It was a weekday. My foster father, when he realized no more checks were coming, put my clothes into a trash bag and I became homeless my senior year of high school."
Only a year away from graduation, Rob had no family and no home — only a trash bag of clothes and in his heart “a desire to be better than what I was supposed to be — I didn't want to become a statistic." Somehow he was able to continue his studies. During the coldest nights, friends snuck him into their houses at night so he could sleep on their couch. Other times, he recalls hoping that kids at the school wouldn't make fun of the stink that enveloped his old clothes and unwashed body. He worked part-time at a taco shop, and in the evenings he slept in an unlocked public bathroom, often having to endure abuse from sexual predators. On Fridays at school, he would take leftover food from other students' plates in the cafeteria so he could be sure to have food to eat over the weekend.
After a year of homelessness, Rob called life's bluff: he graduated from high school. Looking back, he is unable to describe just what exactly kept him going, what it was that kept him motivated to succeed when the odds were so stacked against him. Everyone around him had failed him, yet he refused to give up.
“I would see other families, and I would see the love they had for their children, and the children for their parents, and I yearned for that," he says. “And I knew that I could have that. I just didn't know when."
From “Robert" to “Rob"
After graduation, Rob enlisted in the Navy. For the first time in a long time, he no longer had to worry about where he would spend the night or how to find his next meal. He went to Fort Meade, Maryland, and while he was waiting to be processed, he was put up at a hotel. He couldn't remember the last time he slept in a bed, and so the act of doing so now caused him to cry uncontrollably, like he had never cried before. As he took a shower, he felt his past cling to him like filth. “For maybe an hour, I was scrubbing not the dirt you could see on me, but the dirt I could feel inside of me," Rob says. “So much had happened in 18 years and I wanted to wash it all away. I didn't want to be this guy anymore. I didn't want to be Robert Chasteen anymore."
His ablution complete, he reported to the station as Rob. He had only ever been called Robert. What might seem a simple nickname to many marked the biggest turning point in this man's life.
He graduated with honors from boot camp and served as a yeoman in the Navy for two years. Afterward he went into office work for a mortgage company and worked his way up the ranks. By the time he met his husband, he was a senior vice president.
“I can't tell you the difference between they're, their, and there," he says, joking, “but I can tell you that hard work pays off and if you work hard you can make it."
When old high school friends saw him, they admitted they were shocked he had done so well.
“The friends who knew me as a young child, they would say, 'We thought you would end up a drug addict or on the streets,'" Rob says. “That's what they expected from me, and that's what most people expect from kids who were in foster care."
Rob holding Tristan with Makai standing in front of him; Reece holding Greyson with Amaya in front of him.
Accepting the past
When Rob met Reece, he had just come out of a serious relationship of 11 years. Rob had ended that relationship because he knew he wanted kids. His ex didn't.
“My very first question to Reece was, 'Do you want to be a dad?'" Rob says. “And he said, 'Yes, but not until after I get my master's degree.'"
The two men laughed. “I knew I wanted to date someone going down the same path I was — and that meant kids."
Rob talks about his sexuality as something he had known since a young age. But during his early years he didn't have many chances to explore. He just knew he was attracted to other men, and he was only able to explore gay life in his early 20s. Unfortunately, that was the mid-to-late '80s, the height of the AIDS crisis.
“Everybody was saying that if you had sex with men, you were going to get this 'gay cancer,'" he says. “I was scared to death. I had worked so hard to get to where I was, and now, if I had sex with someone, I was going to die?"
He educated himself and came into his sexuality, but like so many gay men from those days, he lost many friends.
Coming out as gay was easy in comparison to coming out to Reece about his past.
“When I did tell him about my past, I said, 'We don't talk about that,'" he says. “I thought that as long as nobody knew about my past, I could continue to live this life that was so grand and great."
The two men had been together for four years when Rob started pressing adopting overseas. One Saturday morning, as the two had breakfast, an ad came on television — a rerun of Barbara Harrison's “Wednesday's Child" segment, which every week featured a different foster child in need of adoption. Reese asked Rob, "Why aren't we adopting a child out of foster care?"
“I said, 'I know what those kids are like. I'm not talking about this,'" Rob remembers. “And Reece said to me, 'Do you know how many kids you've let down by not talking about this?'" And I started to cry. I cried like I hadn't cried since I was 18 years old, in that hotel room. It was an aha moment. People deserve to know how hard I worked and to be proud of where I came from and where I went."
That Monday, Rob took off from work, and the couple went down to Child Services in Washington, D.C. where they started their long journey to foster-adopt a baby. Even after the classes, the home visits, the certifications, they knew the waiting list in D.C. for adopting a baby was at least two years. But that didn't stop Rob from dreaming of becoming a dad some day.
In January 2009, a case worker called with two children — a sister and brother. They had been in care for three months and had been through two other foster homes already. While they were waiting for their baby, Rob shares that he and Reese felt that "...if we could change a child's life just for one day while we're waiting for a baby, it will be worth it for us," he says.
The siblings came to Rob and Reese's brownstone for their first visit soon after. Amaya, 4, was expressionless; her brother, Makai, was 2 and looked much younger. Severe tibia trauma had stunted the growth of his legs; he was being carried like an infant.
“I looked at Reece," Rob says, “and he was just as in love as I was."
After months of waiting, suddenly they were given an opportunity to become parents to two kids. They had to decide if they were ready to change their plans and provide a forever family for Amaya and Makai instead of the baby they had been waiting to adopt. Without any hesitation, they said yes.
When they went to pick up the children from their foster home, they found the kids waiting for them with trash bags of clothes by their sides.
After only a couple of months, two more boys, a pair of young brothers, became available. Greyson had three broken ribs and a brain hemorrhage from having been shaken; Tristan had a huge scar. His mother had allowed her boyfriend to carve his initials on the boy's chest.
Despite these kids being labeled “problem children," Rob and Reece were not only willing to take them, but they wanted to take them. However, an administrative rule initially prevented the dads from keeping all four children and they were literally told to choose either Amaya and Makai or Greyson and Tristan. Instead, Rob went to City Hall to insist the dads could offer loving care for all four of the children.
This was not his only visit to City Hall, as he found himself having to advocate on his children's behalf time and again. D.C. Child Services was not accustomed to having to deal with such a tireless advocate, and so they eventually transferred the family to a private organization, where the kids received considerably better attention and a higher-level of service. “We were too much for them to handle," Rob says, laughing.
After years of dreaming, after a childhood of cold nights in cars or homeless shelters, and after an early adulthood of working through the ranks of a company while hiding his past, Rob became a father of four in the span of about three months. He fought to adopt and to care for all his children, both in court and with child services.
When the adoptions were finalized in 2010 and 2012, he gave the children's biological parents a phone number.
Comfort Cases, Rob's nonprofit, in action
“We told them, 'We will always have this phone. We will never disconnect this number. If you go into treatment and you want to be part of your kids' lives, you can you can always break bread at our table. You just have to make the right choices.'"
In the years since, the phone has only rung once: Amaya and Makai's great-grandmother, who has since become a de-facto grandmother to all four children.
Some of the children remember life before Rob and Reese adopted them, and Rob gives them the advice he didn't get when he was their age, holding his own trash bag of clothing, wondering what would happen next.
“I say to them all the time, 'You embrace your past, you talk about it,'" Rob says. “We have to lead by example, and for so many years, your dad didn't do that."
Stopping the cycle
Rob looks at the Christmas decorations in his living room and considers how far he has come. Amaya is an honors student. Makai, the boy Rob and Reece were told might never walk, is a runner and gymnast. Greyson is a star football player and a very kind young man. Tristan, at 8-year-old the youngest of the children, is the apple of Rob's eye. “My heart is smiling," he says.
Comfort Cases backpacks
The call to action that Rob gives all his children has taken root in Amaya, who helps her fathers with their nonprofit, Comfort Cases. The organization provides backpacks filled with basic needs like pajamas and toothbrushes to children in foster care, so that no child ever has to experience carrying his or her entire life's belongings in a trash bag.
As 2016 ends, Comfort Cases will have sent out 25,000 backpacks filled with essentials to kids in need in the D.C. area. Soon, they hope to go national.
For Rob and his family, it's all about stopping the vicious cycle, the whirlpool of abuse and neglect that sends so many promising children sinking forever downward.
“What happened to me was bad," Rob says. “But if I allowed that to overtake my life, my biological parents, they would have won — they continued this cycle of abuse. It just wasn't going to happen with me. This cycle was stopping here and now."
Editor's note: Next, read the story of Rob's daughter Amaya, who incurred the wrath of One Million Moms after she was featured in All American Girl.