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.
Righter was hell-bent on making sure Daniela’s “foster kid” label would not define or destroy her young life. “A lot of people think that 16, 17, or 18 is too late,” Righter says, today, over a coffee. “Neurologically, they are still going through changes. We can—literally—rewrite the future.” Doctors agree: The human brain, particularly the frontal lobe, is still in development well into our 20s. Judgment, the ability to choose right from wrong, is one of the last pieces of the neurological puzzle. Knowing this, Righter tried to be patient as the bills kept coming and Daniela contemplated her next move.
Daniela was 19 by then, and eligible for programs like Warren Village, a low-income housing option for single parents in Denver. Daniela had applied to the program and been denied, but Righter encouraged her to appeal the decision. Daniela had to write an essay to do so, but she put it off. Each day Daniela would say that she was going to write it, but wouldn’t, until finally Righter had enough. “I want you to go, but this is about you,” she said. “If you want to go, go. Let me know.” On the day before the deadline, Daniela finally sat down and wrote the essay. “And she chose to go,” Righter says. “It was her choice.”
When Daniela moved out this past February and into her own apartment at Warren Village, Righter made sure she had those small things that make a house a home, things that a foster kid typically doesn’t have, like framed pictures, a photo album, and furniture. This would be Daniela’s house—the home she made for her children. Righter stayed in touch, but she also backed off, watching from a distance to see how Daniela would land. “I needed to let her go a bit and not come to the rescue,” Righter says.
Meanwhile, Righter made it a personal mission to recruit foster parents, or, at least, to make the system better. She urges her friends to consider becoming foster parents. She tells acquaintances about ways they can become a mentor for a foster child. She talks about someone creating a better data tracking system so that every time a six-year-old girl ends up in a new home, she doesn’t have to recount to a stranger the way her father repeatedly raped her. She wants young professionals to buy a stroller—just one—for a new foster parent. She wants businesspeople to sign up for weekly one-hour visits with a foster care kid. She’s like a jet stream, carrying and building in emotion as ideas spill out.
She wants to help one kid, like Daniela. Through the chaos of pregnancies and foster care, Daniela managed to graduate from high school. She had a chance to walk across the stage to celebrate a year later. “You have to go,” Righter pleaded, but Daniela kept waffling. Maybe she would. Maybe she wouldn’t. “You have to, you have to,” Righter kept repeating. “It is really important for you to take time to recognize these huge steps and achievements you’ve made. This is something your kids can be proud of you for. You graduated high school. It is a big deal.” And she kept trying: “You finished school after living in 10 homes.” Finally, Righter acquiesced: “Listen, this is your decision, but I will be there, and I want you to be there.”
Parents talk about those moments that make it all worthwhile; those moments when you forget your life because the child’s life is what matters. Righter had heard it all before, but when Daniela crossed the stage—she’d come to the ceremony, after all—Righter understood. It made the ER, food pantry, and bills worthwhile. “It’s changed my entire life,” Righter says. “There are kids, like Daniela, who are just waiting—they don’t even know it yet—they’re waiting for the opportunity to turn it around, but they probably won’t ever get the chance.”
For a few months this past summer, it looked like it was all going to work out. Daniela was OK. The kids were OK. The young family had housing and Daniela had a full-time job. She applied for state-funded daycare, and she’d even enrolled in nursing school. Her classes would start in the fall. Righter was ready for her next foster kid placement. That was months ago. Now, the crib in Righter’s home sits empty. She’s working part-time with Volunteers of America, where, Righter being Righter, she is connecting elderly volunteers with at-risk children. She still wants to be a foster parent, but knows she can’t do it without a job and child care—something the daily stipend doesn’t cover. Recently, she got a call on a Friday asking her to take care of a newborn whose mother gave birth in prison and needed an emergency placement. “They said, ‘You need to take this baby,’ ” Righter says. “I said, ‘I can’t unless you guarantee me child care.’ ” Righter had to turn down the placement. She also received a letter from her foster care agency, Adoption Alliance, which said that reimbursement rates are likely to drop.
And Daniela: She’d applied months ago for child-care assistance, but she hadn’t heard back, and so she gave up her job and her plans for nursing school this fall because she needed to stay home with her kids. With no income, her housing is in jeopardy. Just weeks ago, her phone was turned off, and Righter had a few panicked days when she couldn’t get in touch with her. Talking about Daniela, Righter says, “The whole...” she stops, and for a moment, it seems like she might cry. Her eyes fill with tears. She looks at the ceiling, and she gulps. But then comes that determined flip of her blond bob and a wave of a hand, and the moment of desperation is gone. Her mind is already moving, working toward solutions. What if they had tickets to go see an orchestra perform? What if we set up a babysitting circle for foster parents? “This is what’s devastating to me,” Righter says. “We worked so hard. She did so well. And this is what is typical of the system, unfortunately. We make it impossible for people to succeed—to sustain success.”