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.
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.