Rob Scheer grew up in a home where his drug- and alcohol-addicted parents pointed an unloaded gun at him and his siblings and stubbed out cigarettes on their legs. After his parents died, Scheer, then 12, and his brothers and sisters were scattered into the foster care system. There, he suffered more abuse before being kicked out to the streets when he turned 18.
Despite all this, Scheer says he always wanted to be a father.
“I had a really bad childhood. I never had any dad role models—all the men in my life I considered monsters. I wanted to rise above that and love a child like I had never been loved,” he says.
In fact, on his first date with his now-husband, Reece, Scheer asked him if he wanted to be a father. The answer was yes. After marrying, the Scheers decided to adopt children in the foster care system.
Starting a family
The first brother and sister pair who arrived at their home dragged plastic trash bags with their meager belongs. So did two brothers whom they adopted not long after. In 2018, the Scheers adopted their fifth child, a boy who was nearly 18 and about to age out of the foster care system with little support.
“I was absolutely shocked. I remember it like yesterday. Each child had trash bags. Just like I had all those years ago,” he says. “That moment really opened my heart again. I remember what that felt like, to feel like I didn’t matter, like I was disposable, invisible. I couldn’t believe this was a big fail as a society for us. It was like the invisible problem no one wanted to address.”
So Scheer, who is now 53, took on the mission to address it, starting the nonprofit Comfort Cases. The organization began as a way to give foster children in the D.C. area a hopeful start in their new homes, with a backpack or small duffle bag packed with new pajamas, a stuffed animal, book, toothbrush and other necessities. It has expanded to help children in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Since 2013, Comfort Cases has distributed more than 120,000 bags.
A banker by profession, Scheer juggled his job, kids and his growing nonprofit until 2018, when his memoir, “A Forever Family,” was published, and he crisscrossed the country on a book tour for it.
Pre-pandemic, Comfort Cases’ Rockville warehouse was a beehive of activity, with a small army of volunteers sorting donations, assembling bags and getting them ready to ship around the country. Today, much of the work has ground to a halt. Donations have dropped by three-quarters, and money from speeches that Scheer gave around the country has dried up. May’s fundraising gala was canceled.
Now, his family pitches in to help pack cases, many of them going to local children to save money on shipping.
“We’re all just rolling up our sleeves. There’s been a huge decrease in donations. I get it. People are losing jobs and going hungry. But I know there will be light at the end of the tunnel,” Scheer says.
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One reason he’s optimistic is the continued interest his work has generated. He, his husband and their children have been featured on the “TODAY” and “Ellen” shows. TV cameras have captured his kids and their menagerie of animals at their Darnestown farm for a variety of broadcasts, most recently for a documentary called “Dads” produced by Bryce Dallas Howard, which premiered on Apple TV just before Father’s Day.
“They filmed a lot of dads, but they kept cutting them out until they got to the final six, and we were still in the film. I was thinking, oh my gosh, she’s from ‘Jurassic Park’ and Ron Howard’s daughter. It was just crazy,” Scheer says.
He is quick to point out that he asks his children, who range in age from 11 to 19, before any taping if they’re OK with the cameras coming into their lives, and he says they have been fine with it.
Room for improvement
In addition to Comfort Cases, Scheer is an advocate for foster children. His work includes a weekly podcast and op-eds in newspapers such as The Hill, where he shares his ideas for improving the foster care system.
“We have failed these kids from the very beginning. We take them away and say we give them a better life. When they turn 18, we throw them to side. Our system isn’t broken, it’s absolutely shattered,” he says.
The statistics are daunting: As of September 2018, there were more than 437,000 children under age 18 in foster care, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 400 of them live in Montgomery County. Twenty-five percent of youth in foster care suffer from PTSD, and children in foster care are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with PTSD as combat veterans. More than one in seven girls who age out of the foster system will be pregnant by the time they are 21, according to Scheer.
His recommendations include finding better ways to keep birth families together with supportive services, including a focus on mental health. He’d like to see each congregation in a house of worship across the U.S. commit to helping one foster child through young adulthood, saying that could “practically eliminate the child welfare system.” Scheer would also like foster kids to get a small stipend in a savings account, which would be given to them to help pay rent or for a down payment on a car as young adults, as well as help in financing education after high school.
“Knowing where I came from, the kind of childhood I had as a boy, I’m proud of where I am today. I went through the storm, and I came through to see the rainbow in my children’s lives,” he says. “I go to bed at night and feel like I have a purpose. I look at my children and see this is what I want to teach them, to be part of a family, part of a community, to be loved.”