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

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.