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

Within days of the teenage Larson telling his school counselor that Richard Brindle had molested him, Brindle turned up dead. The newspapers glossed over the details. The obits didn’t note a cause of death. Larson believes that Brindle, overcome by shame, committed suicide. After Brindle was gone, Larson moved into another home and, eventually, left the foster care system. For a time, he could almost see a normal life for himself.

He had a girlfriend, Shawna, a petite blonde. They’d met in study hall. On dates, they’d play bingo or go roller skating. There was a normalcy to it—a rhythm of birthdays, holidays, and family meals; the rites of passage that make up a life. Together, they dropped out of school. And when the teenage couple found out they were pregnant, marriage seemed like the right next step. The wedding took place on May 7, 1988, in the Denver-area trailer park where Shawna’s parents lived. Her family was there, and Larson, dressed in a white tux with a baby blue cummerbund, cobbled together an assortment of people to stand for him.

The wedding, and the rest of his new life, went the way of a disaster. He’d left the foster care system, but what came next? He didn’t have anyone to help him bridge the crucial years between childhood and adulthood. He didn’t have role models. What he did have were parents who’d given him up, fleeting institutions, and a molester. By the time Shawna gave birth to a baby girl on October 20, the couple had separated and Larson was roaming aimlessly, spending some time in California looking for his biological family.

He was drinking—tequila mostly—and soon he was facing a felony charge for breaking into a liquor store. Each day, he promised himself that he’d change, but each day he’d find himself with an empty bottle of tequila. One night in his Denver apartment, he reached for a .357, and contemplated ending it all. To hear him tell it, he squeezed the trigger, but he buried the bullet in the couch’s cushions.

The years started to run together. He’d hold down odd jobs until the boozing made it impossible to clock in. Shawna moved out of the state and took their daughter. The last time Larson saw his daughter, she was 12. He took her to the zoo. There was irony in showing her the caged animals because it was only a matter of time before he was behind bars himself. His 30s were what he calls an “epiphany on drugs.” He tried everything from crack to crystal meth to heroin. The time—days in prison and on the street—started to weigh on him as he neared 40.

His whole adult life was either spent in a fog of substance abuse or behind bars. He was incarcerated again in August 2007, the result of a combination of drug charges and parole violations, when he received a letter from his daughter. The letter was short, but to the point: She’d gotten married and was hoping to go to Bible college to become a youth minister. The letter had no return address, and Larson couldn’t track her down. He never heard from her again. He laminated the letter. In it, Larson’s daughter informed him that someone else had stepped in to be her “dad.”