Stories as told to Sarah Protzman Howlett
More than 5,500 children around Colorado are currently in foster care.
Living with a foster family brings much-needed stability to the lives of these children who have been abused or neglected, and ensures their basic needs are met. It’s also a step toward a potentially better future for themselves and their families.
“A change in parenting [meaning entering foster care] can change the way the child heals from the trauma of abuse and neglect,” says Renee Bernhard, founder of Westminster-based Foster Source, an organization that supports foster families.
However, the decision to remove a child from his or her biological family is not a simple one; in Colorado, it is a last resort. Joseph Homlar, director of the Division of Child Welfare at the Colorado Department of Human Services, says the state’s emphasis on supporting parents who need additional coaching on appropriate parenting practices meant children in Colorado were removed from their homes about 30 percent of the time throughout 2019.
Still, for the 30 percent, there remains a lack of Colorado families willing to foster.
Bernhard says two-thirds of foster parents quit within one to two years because the child’s needs prove to be too big a burden. “The families say it’s so hard, but that many would do it again,” she says.
While reunification with the child’s biological family is the main goal, with adoption as another option, the process to establish permanency can take a year or more. This can create uncertainty for foster families who want to adopt.
There are, however, many people in our community who have raised their hands to do this important work. Here are four of their stories.
Age 42, Commerce City; CNA
Biological children: daughter Jazmine, 23; son Myles, 26
Adopted children: sons JoJo, 11; Mateo, two and a half
Foster children: sibling set of three (ages nine, two and a half, and five months), and a 15-year-old girl
I was a single mom who never planned on fostering. My sister worked in child protection and saw a significant need. She had talked to me about being a foster parent. You don’t understand what I see, she said. We need parents like you. She eventually got me to a training class, and I was like, Where do I sign? My first foster child came to me 12 years ago; since then, I’ve fostered 39 kids.
When I started fostering, I said I would never adopt. JoJo, now 11, came to me at 10 and a half months old. His mom had used drugs and alcohol throughout her pregnancy, and then he had been in a foster home that was being investigated for child abuse. They asked me if I could do respite (temporary care for another family’s foster children) for one night, which turned into a month. In November 2010, I adopted him.
Mateo is a shaken baby survivor who I met at the hospital in October 2017. He functions like a newborn and is not even the size of a one-year-old, and is in hospice care at my home. The doctors told me Mateo will never talk or walk, bond to me, or know my voice. Whatever time he has here on earth, he needs a loving home, so in November 2018, I adopted him. People say I have a distinct laugh. Mateo’s eyes now follow the sound of my laugh.
When I interact with my foster kids’ biological families, I remember that none of us should be defined by our mistakes. Nobody grows up saying, “I want to be addicted to alcohol or drugs, or be in a domestic violence relationship.” My role is to nurture and care for a child until they can return home or find an amazing adoptive home.
Right now I also foster a sibling set of three and a 15-year-old girl, who only speaks French. I do not speak French, so Google Translate has become our best friend. Although I had plans to travel the world as an empty nester, this foster care journey has enriched my life in ways I never could have imagined. It has been the hardest, most rewarding experience I’ve ever had.
Yes, Your Family Can Help
In 2016, Renee Bernhard founded Foster Source, a Westminster-based agency that provides support and continuing-education resources to foster parents. She says many people are afraid to dip a toe into this world because they think they have to become a foster parent to make an impact. Not true, she says. “Everyone can do something to support a foster family,” says Bernhard, who is a mom to two biological children and a foster son she later adopted. She says any foster family will appreciate and use:
- Movie passes
- New pajamas
- Diapers in size 4, 5, and size 6 for disposable training pants
- Zoo passes
- Target gift cards
- Starbucks gifts cards (for the parents)
- Colorado Rapids or Rockies tickets
- Gift certificates to hair salons
Age 33, Arvada; florist, wedding planner, and cosmetic dental practice employee
Foster children: Two sisters (his nieces), ages 14 and 15
I didn’t grow up in the best family and was in foster care myself in Denver since I was three. My mother had seven biological children, my father had five, and my stepdad had 13. I don’t really know all my siblings, but I always knew I wanted to take care of kids to give them a better life than I had.
About two years ago, I got a phone call from my sister Marie* who was in court. Social services had removed her kids from her home, and she wanted to know if I’d take them. She had five kids and her oldest child had a baby herself, so it was really six. I found out that Marie had a drug issue and her kids weren’t in school. I had no clue.
Two weeks later, another of my sisters, Mercedes*, called me. She had six children who were removed from her home. I took them all in temporarily. All the kids’ stuff was infested with bugs; I had to buy all new things for them. I was lucky that I had a lot of savings. As a kinship caregiver, before I got certified, I wasn’t given money from the county to care for them, but was referred to Family Tree (a nonprofit human services agency) for help at Christmas, and I filed for food stamps and child support. I made everything happen and still worked my jobs. I scheduled, scheduled, scheduled. My niece Angela was 18 at the time and living with me, and she helped cook and clean.
Eventually, the social workers made the decisions to transfer some of the kids to different family members or foster homes that could care for them; I just worked around what they decided.
I’ve had to help my sister Mercedes realize that her mental state means she’s not going to be able to care for all of her kids. I wish I were in a position to take in her two youngest ones that are in foster care elsewhere.
It (fostering) is rewarding, very rewarding. My two teenage girls were in eighth grade when they came to me and pretty much hadn’t been in school since elementary. They are now playing sports, passing their classes, and looking at colleges. They have bank accounts. They’re talking about becoming doctors.
I’m gay, and Adams County made it so comfortable and easy to get certified. I was not discriminated against in the least. No matter who you are as a parent, there are children that will fit in your home.
*Not their real names.
Financial Help for Foster Parents
Foster parents provide essentials such as food and clothing for their foster kids, for which they receive monthly reimbursements. According to CO4Kids.org, rates vary depending on a child’s age and level of care needed. Medical and dental care are also generally covered by Medicaid.
In the event of kinship care (caring for the child of a relative, friend, neighbor, or other significant relationship tie), foster parents do not receive reimbursement in the same way that a non-related foster parent would. Resources for kinship care are available, but they require some research to determine the government benefits and financial help for which you qualify. Visit the Kinship Connection page of the Colorado Department of Human Services for more information.
Melinda Sue Coburn
Age 34, Longmont; substitute teacher and CASA volunteer
Biological children: daughter Phoenix, seven
Adopted children: Adaira, six; Brec, two
Foster children: Stetson, one
My husband Sean and I weren’t sure we would have kids, but when we moved here from Kansas, we came to a meeting for Project 127, a Christian fostering organization. We attended one of their info sessions and left with a broken heart. Once you know about this ugly corner of the world, you can’t unknow it.
Our first child was actually a foster—a little guy named Grayson. He had 12 other siblings who had been adopted. He was with us for three months and eventually went to live with a family who had his half-sister. It was the hardest thing Sean and I have ever gone through in our marriage. Expecting to have this baby and then learn how the diligent search system really works was hard on us. We thought we weren’t cut out for this, so we got pregnant with Phoenix.
When Phoenix was three months old, though, we started talking about opening our home again. We got the call for Adaira a short time later. We have been serving with child protective services for more than 10 years now and have hosted 14 children. Every call we’ve gotten, the decision has been made within minutes. If you’ve gone through the training and your home is open, you’re expecting these calls. I have these wild stories that cram nine months of nesting into one hour.
Baby Brec came to us at just a couple days old, and we finalized his adoption this past Halloween. We all went to the courthouse in our Halloween costumes. Baby Stetson joined the gang last year—he’s one year old and we’re already in love. We have maintained our certification so that other children can come to stay with us in the short term.
Now that Phoenix is older, we have big conversations with her. Both she and Adaira can talk to you about mental health, substance abuse, and homelessness in a way that many adults can’t even articulate. We’re not going to go into every detail, but we can talk to them in a way they can understand.
Our families and friends support and love all of our children, too. They drop off meals and bring diapers and hand-me-down clothes. If you are looking for all the nice people of the world, they’re right here in our community.
Age 48, Colorado Springs; occupational therapist and licensed realtor
Foster children: 11-year-old boy and nine-year-old girl (biological siblings)
I had good friends who were foster parents. I saw kids coming through their home and going back to their families, and how hard it was for them—but I also saw such a need for people to provide short-term, loving homes for these kids. So I decided to challenge myself. If not me, how could I ask my neighbor or my friend to do it?
There are so many foster homes with two parents or a single mother—very few single foster dads. I’ve been married in the past, but I want to be a role model and show that it can be done with just me. My life has improved so much since I became a foster parent. These kids have given me more than I have given them.
For the first two years, there was still the possibility of the kids returning to their biological mother. The father was never in the picture. There were weekly supervised visits with their mother, but eventually, adoption became the best option and she relinquished parental rights. (After a parent’s rights are terminated, the child is deemed “legally free.”) We have no relationship with her now, which is really difficult for them, but she and I agreed it’s for the best. I have a lot of sympathy and compassion for her. She has a history of mental illness and struggles even to care for herself.
The kids are doing well now. When they came to me three years ago, I called the case worker every other day asking for advice. Both had struggles including outbursts of anger, destruction of property, and theft. I had my own positive childhood to draw on, but ongoing training and workshops have been really helpful for me. (Foster parents in the state of Colorado must have 32 hours of training each year to maintain their certification.) These days, the kids snap out of things more quickly than in the past and have more positive coping skills. In the past three years, I have also been a respite provider. On some weekends, I have had three or four kids in my home.
I want to stay licensed and I’m open to fostering more kids, even soon. There is such a need, and I’m thankful I can be part of all this. These kids deserve so much.
Sometimes biological parents relinquish their rights voluntarily, but more often there comes a point that the court determines the parents are unable to safely care for their children in their home. The county then petitions the courts to terminate the rights of parents and the magistrate makes a decision. Thereafter, a child is deemed “legally free.”
Respite Care & Advocacy
Adults who wish to help the foster system by caregiving, without being a full-time foster parent, can do so in a couple of ways:
- Respite care: Foster parents can’t just choose anyone to babysit their foster children; they must use a certified respite care worker when they need a break. Training and a background check are required for respite caretakers, and you can become one without being a foster parent.
- Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers: After a background check and training, CASA volunteers are paired with a child, with whom they’ll meet regularly throughout the child’s case, to form a safe and consistent relationship. The volunteers attend court and update the judge on how the child is doing, and advocate for their needs.