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

Erika Righter had the kids in her home for only three-and-a-half months, but she was struggling. That isn’t unusual: Turnover rates for foster care parents are high. As many as 50 percent of parents leave the system each year, and there are never enough homes. (Log on to Craigslist.org and you’ll find pleas for new foster care parents.) The reasons guardians drop out of foster care vary. Some retire or decide to focus on their biological family. Others miss the support systems inherent with traditional families—the baby showers, babysitting favors, and more. For others, the stress becomes overwhelming or they simply can’t afford it.

To make matters worse, Righter often felt like the state’s caseworkers undervalued her opinions. This struck Righter as incongruous. The state trusted her with these kids 24 hours a day, yet didn’t take her feedback on what was and wasn’t working. The caseworkers’ priority, it seemed to Righter, was on preserving the placement—the roof—not on enhancing the children’s lives. She wanted to move past the bureaucracy to help Daniela think about college, to find more books for Josefina, who was becoming a voracious reader, but the focus was on the bare necessities.

The paperwork, meanwhile, was barely inching along. Righter had a hint of how slow things happened that first night when Gabriel’s fever spiked. She knew he just needed baby’s Tylenol to stanch the fever, but as his foster parent, she needed authorization to give him any medication—which she didn’t have. When she picked up the kids that first day, there was no medical authorization form, which would have allowed her to administer the Tylenol. The only option then was to take him to the emergency room. It seemed ridiculous to bundle up two kids on an October night and haul them to an ER for a dose of Tylenol, but that was the rule. Righter was OK with rules that protected kids, but she didn’t understand why Gabriel’s paperwork didn’t accompany him to his new placement—her home. The whole episode could have been avoided with a simple piece of paper.

That was just one of the paperwork snafus. Daniela’s medical insurance card didn’t work for a month, so she could not receive dental or medical treatment, including birth control. Some of the confusion was because there were so many adults involved in these kids’ lives. Daniela had one team of social workers, and the children had another. There were contacts at Adoption Alliance, and judges, and teachers, and nurses, and more, and none of them were on the same page. States, by federal law, are required to make sure that caseworkers have monthly face-to-face visits with at least 90 percent of foster children. Only about 84 percent do in Colorado. Daniela and her children fell through the gap. Caseworkers didn’t come for weeks, then months.