Feature

Unwanted

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 started with simple lessons: Yes, give the baby a bath when you want to. Yes, you know what to feed them. Yes, you can do this. The plan was to give Daniela choices because so much of her life as a foster kid was dictated to her. Righter wanted to rebuild Daniela’s maternal instincts; to reassure her that she—and she alone—was the best mother for her children. When Righter could hear the kids making a fuss downstairs at night, she’d text Daniela’s cell phone, asking, “What’s up?” rather than storming down the stairs. When one of the kids acted out, Righter would give Daniela parenting tips instead of taking over discipline duties. And although Daniela declined to be quoted for this story, she’s the first to say that, yes, Righter’s strategy indeed enabled Daniela to slowly rebuild her confidence.

Each day that passed, though, Righter knew it would all end—Daniela would leave. It’s a heartbreaking thing, for sure. Foster parents work with a child, raise them, and send that same child away when the state says so, often shuttling the child back to the same broken or abusive homes that landed them in the system to begin with. It’s not a natural life passage, like sending a kid off to school for the first time or unpacking boxes in a college dorm room. This is saying goodbye abruptly and painfully. It’s more than most people can bear—but something that Righter believes she can do.

Righter was born and raised in Boston, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a businessman. As a kid, she was an effusive talker, like today, with sentences spilling together and punctuated with eye rolls and “uh-huhs.” She’s got an easy confidence, sometimes bombastic but always in control. By the time she was four, she had a little brother. One day, when her mother went to wake her brother from a nap, he wasn’t breathing. Her mom performed CPR on his little body while they waited for the paramedics to come. She sat next to her mom in a police cruiser that trailed after the ambulance carrying her brother’s body to the hospital. Once there, a social worker took her into a quiet room and sat with her in a rocking chair until family members came to pick her up. Her brother was dead.

She was just a kid, herself, but she learned what sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) was and watched her parents grieve a death they couldn’t predict or prevent. She stopped talking until a therapist slowly coaxed her to speak again. So Righter knows life is full of hard goodbyes, but she knows too, firsthand, that kids can cope. Motivated by her brother’s death, as a teen Righter volunteered at a children’s hospital. “I carried a doctor bag,” she says. “I wanted to fix everyone.”

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