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

Between classes and work, Shawn Larson meets regularly with his chaplain at the New Life Program—part spiritual leader and part counselor—Danny Major. The first day he met Larson, Major was surprised. The guys he counsels usually have someone—a family member, an old girlfriend, a kid—who’s still in contact, but Larson insisted that he had no one. When Major pushed, Larson became more adamant.

“Shawn, no one is alone,” said Major.

“There’s no one,” said Shawn.

Moments after the meeting, Larson was back on Major’s threshold. “Chaplain,” he said. “I need you to take a special interest in me.” It was an intimate plea, but not unusual. His drug and alcohol abuse have, most likely, irrevocably damaged the frontal lobe of his brain, the control center for social response and telling right from wrong. Which is, perhaps, why Larson feels stunted, like he never grew up. He’s a teenage Peter Pan who’s still a ward of the state, though now that means he’s on parole. In his mind, the years between now and the bus stop are flyover country.

The more he talked to Major, the more Larson wanted to stop talking. He quit listening to music because it made him feel too much. Sobriety just reminded him about how much he’d lost—or missed. Was he Irish? How else do you get a name like Shannon Larson? Shannon. He hated that name. He changed it when he was a teen, not legally, but he’d been Shawn from then on. What was his first word? How old was he when he took his first steps? What was his favorite toy? All of those little details that he wanted to remember but couldn’t. “I remember screaming in my room, on my knees, on my bed,” Larson says. “Screaming in tears for help.” It wasn’t coming. “Every place that I ever went I felt so empty I wanted to die. Even as a kid with Vernon and Linda I just wanted to die. I had no concept of what death was, but I knew I didn’t want to be.”

Since Larson left the system, thousands of Colorado kids, like Daniela, have entered foster care. During that time, little headway has been made for a national foster care model. States employ their own methods of delivery, data retention, and oversight. In Colorado, like 13 other states, foster care is determined county-by-county, meaning that the state has 64 foster care systems. Complicating matters is the fact that foster care facilities are both public and private, like Adoption Alliance. In short: Colorado has 64 models to deal with 50,000 calls of reported abuse and neglect each year—some of which lead to foster care placements.

In 2008, Governor Bill Ritter created a task force to evaluate this complex system. Ritter was prompted, in part, by a string of deaths that had occurred—or as some critics have argued, were caused by Colorado’s child welfare system. Ritter called the deaths “outrageous” and tasked the group of politicians and pundits to determine if the system was able to protect—even help—the children it purported to watch over. Earlier this year, the committee put forth 29 recommendations, ranging from a statewide ombudsperson to training centers.

The recommendations came out during the most severe budget crisis since the Great Depression, so there were plenty of ideas, and as far as how to pay for it, there’s been plenty of spin: Ritter has presented a 2011–2012 CDHS budget with a near 1 percent “increase,” which doesn’t match inflation. There’s political economics and real-world economics, and in the real world, that increase doesn’t bring the foster care system in line with the cost of living. Teresa Huizar, executive director of National Children’s Alliance, an agency that provides funding for several child advocacy centers in Colorado, worries that the worst is yet to come. “The infrastructure we are tearing down now will take many more years to rebuild,” Huizar says. “It takes a slash of a pen to eliminate something that has taken 10 years to build and will take 20 years to rebuild. Infrastructure is hard built.”

Foster kids don’t have that much time. Too soon they become adults, like Larson. “I went way deep inside of myself, and that is where I stayed because people scared me,” he says. “There’s such a hole. There’s such an emptiness there. Most of the time I feel out of place. I carry that still. I don’t know how to act in a normal setting.” Larson says his favorite movie as a teen was Wisdom. The starring character can’t get a job after college and starts robbing banks. He’s a different sort of thief, a modern-day Robin Hood who burns up mortgage papers and loans to help people get out of debt. It’s a surreal, perfect world where he gets the girl and carries a big gun. When it all goes horribly wrong in the end, the main character wakes to find it was only a dream.

If that’s what Larson had been hoping for, that he’d wake up and everything would have been nothing more than a bad dream, he knows there’s not a chance of that now. In August 2010, Larson dropped out of the New Life Program. He was spotted in downtown Denver, in areas where you’d go to score a fix. He was arrested and is now in the Bent County Correctional Facility, near Las Animas in southeastern Colorado. Only a month before he ran from the New Life Program, Larson told me: “Maybe people didn’t do enough. And maybe people would conclude that I didn’t do enough to be better off than what I am now. But then I could counter that and say that maybe I did do a lot more than you can ever imagine. Maybe I did enough.”