Foster care makes critical difference for local teens

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Placements become more difficult as kids get older

By Ramsey Scott

For the hundreds of area teens whose family situations make it impossible for them to live at home, a foster home can make all the difference in succeeding in school, social situations — and life.

Of the 1,000 youths in need of foster placement in Jefferson, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, 400 of them are age 13 and above. And the difficulty in finding foster homes for these teens is one of the big reasons their futures are in peril.

“We definitely have less openings. We do have homes wanting younger kids, but with 13-year-olds and up, it’s harder to place,” said Gina Pierotti, placement desk coordinator for the Collaborative Foster Care Program, which serves the three counties. “I think that the parents could be a little uncertain about having a teen in the home and what it may look like.”

When foster placements aren’t available for teenagers, a group home or residential treatment setting is the next alternative, Pierotti said. But for reasonably well-adjusted kids, that type of setting just increases the chances of them being exposed to negative behaviors.

“Those places are there for kids who might need services and treatment. When they don’t really need that setting, it could have an adverse effect on them, and they can pick up bad habits,” Pierotti said. “So it’s a big issue when we can’t find homes.”

Kids who can’t be placed in foster homes experience more negative outcomes than their peers — especially when it comes to performance in school and their future prospects after they age out of the system, said Steve Dieter, a program manager at Jeffco’s Children, Youth and Families department.

“The outcomes aren’t as good. They don’t have those permanent connections when they leave our system,” Dieter said. “They don’t have that person to call when they need help. There’s less connections for them to lean on.”

Faces of the system

Anita, who lives in Jefferson County and asked that her last name not be used, has been a foster parent for more than four years. In that time, she’s fostered more than a dozen kids, including Josh, 13, who has been living in Anita’s home since September.

Josh, who was born in Colorado but grew up in California, had to move back to Jefferson County last year because of family issues. He’s been in and out of the foster system since he was a small child, living with grandparents as well as in foster homes.

“I want to go back to California. It’s sunny in Cali. It was a Seattle day last night here,” Josh said, referring to this spring’s damp and unsettled weather. “Socially, I’m not a shy person. I’m really open. So for me, it’s easy to make friends.”

Josh said he wanted people to know that children unable to live with their families just need a home where they feel safe and can be a kid.

“I’m just a normal kid. It’s my environment that has just changed,” Josh said.

Anita’s biological son Dylan encouraged her to start fostering kids. Her neighbors had provided foster care for a couple of teenage boys, and Dylan became good friends with them.

Not all placements go smoothly, but that comes with the territory, Anita said. She said the staff from the foster care program provides invaluable support.

“The kids really just want somewhere to belong,” Anita said. “They really do want that consistency, that normalcy, that routine. It always seems to take a little adjustment for them. But they’re just needing a home that they’re feeling accepted in.

“I’ve had a few that were really challenging for me, especially being a single mom. But we always try whatever we can do to make it work for the kids. And when it does work out, it’s very rewarding to help them and open up your home for them.”