As the Colorado Legislature continues to slash budgets, the state’s foster care system remains chronically underfunded. Something’s got to give, right? The thing is, if we don’t pay now, as the kids grow up, it could continue to cost us all a whole lot more than money. Just ask Erika Righter and Shawn Larson.

December 2010

This article was a finalist for the 2011 City and Regional Magazine Award in the civic journalism category. 

The baby Gabriel* had been crying—screaming really—for two hours, and it seemed like there was nothing Erika Righter could do about it. She tried rocking the eight-month-old baby in her arms. She tried cooing in his ear while holding him close and breathing in his smell, that mix of sweat and baby powder. Of course, she had felt his forehead and cheeks. Sensing they were feverish, Righter’s instinct was to give him baby’s Tylenol, but when she’d called a help line near midnight on that night, October 23, 2009, she had been told not to.

Righter pushed her blond bangs off her forehead. She is always doing that: flicking back her blond bob whenever she is frustrated. She’s only 31, but her blue eyes at once convey a hardness and a softness, like a woman who has worried too much, cared too much. Fifteen years as a nanny, babysitter, and social worker prepared her for moments like this—she wouldn’t just sit there. She got up in her Highland bungalow and walked down the narrow hallway that connected her room to the kids’ room. Righter rustled awake Gabriel’s older sister, two-year-old Josefina, telling her they were going for a ride. Josefina grabbed her knockoff Cabbage Patch Kids doll and a stuffed cow. Righter buckled the children into car seats in the back of her red Ford SUV. The drive probably took less than 10 minutes, but Righter, as a mom would do, looked in the rearview mirror every few seconds to check on the kids.

At the emergency room at St. Anthony Central Hospital, it was one hassle after another. She couldn’t believe the intake paperwork. Finally, she watched nurses peel off the baby’s pajamas. He looked so small in that bed. They took his temperature and monitored his pulse. Righter was on the precipice of exhaustion. Like any new parent, she was learning as she went. Parents typically have nine months to prepare for a baby: paint the baby’s room, stock up on diapers, fret over which car seat to buy, moon over onesies, and read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Not Righter. She’d had just a couple of days to prepare. Seventy-two hours earlier, she got the call to become a foster care mom. Now, in the hospital, as she held Josefina tight and watched Gabriel’s chest rise and fall in a steady rhythm, Righter thought, It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

*Names of minors have been changed.

Shawn Larson paced at the bus stop in Wheat Ridge, trying to focus on the music in his headphones. On that fall morning in 1987, the 17-year-old couldn’t stay still. He moved his thin, bony frame back and forth in a staccato rhythm. If he stood tall, he’d be around six feet, but Larson’s shoulders were always sloped inward, making him look smaller than he really was. His blond head bobbed as the cassette tape whirred, repeatedly playing U2’s “New Year’s Day”:

“All is quiet on New Year’s Day / A world in white gets under way”

Larson was a ward of the state—a foster care kid. It had been 12 years since he’d last seen his mom—1975. The last time he saw his dad was around ’76, in California. Hell, Larson could barely remember them now. They were like snapshots in his memory, like the old View-Master slides he flipped through as a kid. He would hide in a closet and gaze at the crisp slides of an old car and redwood trees, while the adults in his life moved in and out of his focus. Click. His mom, just 21 when he was born and a decade younger than his father. Click. His mom, a true California girl with blond hair and a runner’s build. Click. His dad, who looked like Hulk Hogan. Click. Larson as a boy, with buck teeth and curly blond hair parted neatly on the side, shooting marbles, and trying to be normal. Click. Another man in the house with his mom. No room for a boy. Click. His dad remarried. Kid can’t stay here either. Click. He’s living with a childless couple from church, Vernon and Linda, and moving around California.

“I want to be with you / Be with you night and day”

Man, it was chilly at the bus stop. Larson had been in Colorado for five years now but still wasn’t used to the cold. His arms were covered in goose bumps. Cold was his first memory of Colorado: He’d moved here during the ’82 Christmas blizzard with Vernon and Linda. Vernon had landed a job as a principal of a small Pentecostal school in Englewood. Vernon would never be his dad. Larson could never really think of anyone as his “dad.” Vernon’s was just another home. Larson couldn’t even tell you for sure if Vernon and Linda legally adopted him. As far as he was concerned, it didn’t matter. His parents, together and then on their own, had abandoned him, left him with strangers, who left him with another set of strangers. Next thing he knew, Vernon and Linda were out of his life, and he was a teen in foster care, in the care of the state of Colorado.

The girls arrived at all hours of the day with what little clothing they owned stuffed in garbage bags. They’d show up bewildered, angry, even indifferent, and Erika Righter would welcome them into JC’s Journey. When it seemed everybody else had turned their backs, this is where they came, a group home and center in Lakewood for teenage girls in the foster care system. Righter would shuffle through their paperwork and try to piece together their story. Are you hungry? Do you have a nickname?

She’d process them, all the while wondering why we can find pets after a hurricane, but these kids show up here, foster care kids, without a file. Righter had talked to enough of these girls to know that to them she was just another social worker prying into their lives; in a day, or a few weeks, Righter would disappear, move out of focus, and another social worker, or another somebody, would take her place. Some of the girls, perhaps all of them, were already resigned to what Righter was learning to accept: There wasn’t a whole lot of care in foster care.

When the United States moved away from the Dickensian orphanages in the mid-1900s, foster care—a system for placing neglected and abused children in state-monitored homes—seemed like the best available solution. It was in 1967 that foster care became a federal mandate, yet it was left to each state to create its own system. The state put its foster care program under the control of the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS). And CDHS, the state’s second largest agency, created a series of foster care programs comprised of both public and private agencies. Viewed as a slice of the proverbial pie, less than 1 percent of the state’s child population requires foster care. However, that amounts to more than 8,100 children. On average, foster care kids are in the system for about two years before either aging out at 18, or returning to their biological families, or being adopted—becoming one of the fortunate ones who finds a “forever family.”

At JC’s, Righter saw about 20 of these foster teens in 18 months. With girl after girl after girl treated as little more than yet another “intake,” Righter knew she wanted, needed to do more—no, to be more—for these girls. If only for one of them. It was a twisted thing, she thought, to know you have parents and family, but not to live with them. Teenage girls, she’d learned, were among the hardest to place in a forever home. Families were reluctant to take these girls because they were too old, too damaged. What if they got in trouble? What if they got pregnant? Righter figured if she could help just one kid, it’d be worth it. So, in July 2009, she applied to become a foster parent. She filled out the paperwork, went through the 30 or so hours of required training, and underwent the background check.

Along the way, she burned out at JC’s. The long hours and trail of sad teens had gotten to her. She didn’t even have health insurance. It was the worst possible time. The economy had bottomed out and she didn’t have a Plan B, but she just needed a break. On her last day at JC’s, in October 2009, Righter noticed a petite, pale Hispanic girl with long dark hair who’d come in. Of all the broken girls Righter had seen, she’d never met a teenager as devastated and depressed as this girl was.

Her name was Daniela, and she had a little girl of her own. Daniela was going to school and had started working late into the night. She’d leave her daughter with her mother while she worked. Fed up with the babysitting duties, Daniela’s mother called child services, hoping for a little tough-love assistance. There was a communication gap (Daniela’s mother speaks very little English), and instead of helping with daycare, the state put both Daniela and her baby in foster care. Within months, Daniela was still in foster care and she became pregnant again. When Daniela and her foster care parents had a falling out, the state had trouble finding a new placement home for Daniela and the two kids. And so Daniela ended up at JC’s, while the kids were shuttled off to another foster care placement.

Righter couldn’t get this girl out of her head. About two weeks after she quit JC’s, Righter got a call from Adoption Alliance, a private but state-approved foster care agency. They wanted to know if she was ready. No problem, she said. She had a crib. She had diapers. She’d transformed the front room of her house from an office into a baby’s room. She had warned her new boyfriend that being a foster parent was something she needed to do, and amazingly, he’d said he was on board. Yes, yes, yes, Righter was ready to take on a child, but Adoption Alliance wanted to know if she was ready for two—­Daniela’s children.

The plan Adoption Alliance and the state came up with for Erika Righter to take custody of Daniela’s kids might have been the best under the circumstances, but it sure didn’t feel like it. On October 23, 2009, Righter picked up the children, two-year-old Josefina, and baby Gabriel, at Daniela’s mother’s house—the grandmother who had called child services in the first place. Daniela and her mother were distraught. The kids didn’t seem to know what was happening.

As Righter drove away with Gabriel and Josefina, she thought, Oh my God. What have I done? Righter had gotten into this trying to help, really help, one child. Yet in trying to help hold a family together, she now seemed to be pulling the family apart. Glancing into the rearview mirror at the two small faces in the back of her Ford SUV, she realized that indeed, this wasn’t babysitting or looking after a friend’s kids. Just like that, these children were her responsibility. They were her kids. Except, of course, they weren’t her kids.

No one knew better than Righter that Daniela was their mother, and the family ought to be together as much as possible. While the foster care system had determined that Daniela must continue to stay at JC’s, Righter and Daniela almost immediately agreed there was nothing to stop Daniela from spending every waking minute at Righter’s house. But every visit that began with smiles, as Daniela hugged her children, ended in an emotional separation. Especially that very first night after Daniela visited Righter’s house and the children, and then returned to JC’s.

Josefina and Gabriel didn’t understand why Righter had taken them from their mother, or why their mother had then come to Righter’s house and left again. They wanted to be with her, not with Righter, or anyone else. Gabriel wouldn’t stop crying, especially that first night. Two hours later Righter was in the emergency room at St. Anthony, watching nurses tend to the baby. Ultimately, the hospital staff just gave Gabriel baby’s Tylenol, which had been Righter’s instinct all along.

Righter believed Gabriel’s fever was symptomatic of separation anxiety. If Righter’s stomach felt empty and hard, and it did, the children must have been feeling so much worse. The separation anxiety only intensified. Every day, as soon as she awoke, Daniela came to Righter’s house, and every evening, Righter would send Daniela back to JC’s. She’d close the front door, knowing what would come next: Josefina. How could anyone expect a two-year-old to understand why her mom left every night? She’d lie on the floor kicking her legs and waving her arms and wailing until she was exhausted. Gabriel wasn’t doing much better. Every night he’d scream, in what Righter could only describe as night terrors. People told Righter she was overreacting and that a baby couldn’t possibly understand the trauma his family was going through. Bullshit, she thought.

As the days wore on, Righter became more convinced that if Daniela remained separated from her children, she’d lose them; they’d lose each other. Something had to be done. In late November, Righter arranged for Daniela to move into Righter’s basement. The laundry started immediately. It ran all day. Daniela seemed to take comfort in that mundane household task and in getting something done. Righter’s utility bills got bigger with each load, which was just the start of the expenses. Righter had put in a new safety railing for the basement stairs. Then the kids needed clothing. Diapers. Formula. Bedding. The list of needs just kept growing.

Righter had already spent around $2,000 getting ready for the kids and updating the house. She had no money coming in after leaving her job at JC’s. She wanted to look for a new job, but she couldn’t afford daycare and the process to get state-funded child care seemed to be going nowhere. Monthly mortgage payments and the water bill—Why did Daniela have to do so much laundry?—were piling up. Baby monitors. Car seats. When she tried to save money and opt for cheaper diapers, the kids seemed to go through them twice as fast. Righter had a stroller, but not one for two kids. When a friend offered to give her a double stroller, Righter gladly took it.

Foster care parents have long battled the stigma that they profit from the kids who come into their homes, that foster care is a booming business. Righter was paid $23 a day for the baby, $32.28 for Daniela, and $23.38 for Josefina. Without a job, and without daycare assistance, that meant that Righter had about $2,300 a month to clothe, feed, and lodge three children, along with herself—just about $500 above the state poverty line. She’d given up on making ends meet; she was broke. She’d been trying to teach Daniela to ask for help when she needed it, and now Righter was the one who needed help. On a particularly cold day in December, she did something she never thought she would have to do: She went to a food pantry.

A statewide audit of the Colorado foster care program in 2007, the most recent audit, concluded that state allowances to foster care parents were too high. Citing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s cost-of-living analysis, the audit stated, “provider rates for foster care grew more than local inflation over the last five years.” The report proposed that the state could have saved about $3.1 million a year if the rates were lowered by about 13 percent. That would mean a monthly drop of about $300 for Righter, putting her—and the kids—nearer the poverty line.

Comparing foster care parent allowances to local inflation may not be the most fiscally or, for that matter, socially responsible measure. Colorado’s child welfare system costs about $380 million annually, but the national costs related to addressing child abuse and neglect is nearly $104 billion, which includes things like hospitalization costs, child welfare services, and the adult criminal system. (The monthly bill for an inmate in Colorado is around $2,300, the same amount Righter received to raise three children.) For foster kids turned adults, for the taxpayers at-large, the costs keep adding up. More than 60 percent of foster kids end up homeless, incarcerated, or dead within two years of exiting the system—like Shawn Larson.