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As predicted, calls to the statewide child abuse and neglect hotline were down in 2020. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Finding foster homes for children is a challenge throughout Colorado, but in rural areas, the shortage is even more dire.

In the San Luis Valley, a lone foster care coordinator this summer covered 3,000 square miles and six counties between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains while awaiting a new hire. In those six counties, there are just 13 foster homes. 

Denver, by contrast, has seven coordinators working to recruit and support foster families. Most counties have at least one. 

When a child is removed from their home, and no foster parents are available nearby, the state has little choice but to send them to distant locations, increasing the trauma of being taken from their parents. In some cases, kids who could be placed in foster homes end up in group homes at a greater cost. In rural areas such as the San Luis Valley, poverty and short-staffing in human services agencies make finding family placements even more difficult.

But the shortage is statewide. 

The Colorado Department of Human Services in October 2017 announced an ambitious goal: add 1,200 new foster families to its roster of 2,000 within 24 months. As of July, the agency was 900 families short of the goal, with 2,297 families, including certified kinship families. 

Matthew Tulley, the sole foster care coordinator in the San Luis Valley between May and August as the region struggled to hire a second coordinator, said he understands it’s a big ask to become a foster parent.

“Folks are trying to just survive with their own families,” said Tulley, of the Alamosa County Department of Human Services, part of the six-county San Luis Valley Regional Foster Care and Adoption coalition. “I think it’s also a very daunting task to be a foster parent. It’s scary. It’s unknown. It’s a lot of work, that’s the biggest thing.”

He cites a “laundry list” of rules and a 90-day certification process as just a couple of the barriers to placement.

In the San Luis Valley, in utero exposure to opiates has increased the demand for foster care. But the valley’s high poverty rate means fewer local families are able to take on an additional child, even considering the $36.36 per day per child foster parents are paid. 

In the six-county region that makes up the 3,000 square mile San Luis Valley, two foster care coordinators are with finding foster homes and making placements. “It’s more difficult to place kids in foster homes in the valley because it’s one of the poorest regions in Colorado,” explained Matthew Tulley, one of the two coordinators. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Being rural, foster homes are far and few,” Tulley said. “And especially being in the San Luis Valley, one of the poorer regions in Colorado, it makes it even more difficult. That poverty level is hard to just get above, and that’s one of the main reasons why kiddos are in care to begin with. And so it just keeps piling on.”

In addition to the 13 foster families in Tulley’s region, there are eight “kinship” homes. Those homes have agreed to foster specific relatives, and are less likely to take in unrelated foster kids. 

Among the 13 foster homes, there were five open spaces at the end of August. Tulley receives emails from the state asking if the valley has any extra space, and while he tries to help when he can, it’s hard to offer a spot to a child from a different county when the next local kid needing a home might come at any moment.

“We all try and help each other out throughout the state,” Tulley said, “but we’re also kind of greedy with our foster parents because you just never know.”

The shortage runs in both directions. Tulley often has more kids than he can place locally, which sends him searching for homes across the state. The Alamosa County Department of Human Services has placed kids 130 miles away in La Plata County, 176 miles away in Montezuma County and in Pueblo, 120 miles away. His most distant placement has been in Thornton, 225 miles away.

Foster coordinators are required to check in with each family once a month and in rural parts of Colorado, and driving between homes can quickly eat up the day, taking away from the time coordinators can spend on recruitment. 

Consider the vastness of the San Luis Valley alone: It’s an hour and a half drive from Villa Grove on the north end to Antonito, near the New Mexico border.

Influence of Families First act

The Families First Prevention Services Act, a federal law that goes into effect in January in Colorado, makes foster availability even more important, as it will limit the number of kids who can be placed in group or residential settings known as “congregate care.”

In an ideal world, county child welfare departments would have a robust list of foster families interested in working with all ages of kids in each county, including teens, said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families.

“It’s important to try and keep them in their community so that they can maintain some semblance of routine and familiarity with the neighborhood that they’re in,” Castillo Cohen said. “And especially for our school-age kids. It allows them to have that sense of day-to-day normalcy of going to school, seeing their teachers and their friends even though their living situation may be different.”

When kids are kept in their communities, it’s also easier to set up family visits, and for other relatives or siblings to stop by. 

If there isn’t a foster home available in the community, a county looks to outside child placement agencies, third-party operations that do their own foster recruiting and charge the state for their services. As of March, 26% of kids removed from their homes in Colorado were placed by those agencies. The San Luis Valley has only one such agency. 

Counties also ask neighboring counties and their recruitment agencies for help, turning to group homes and residential placements as a last resort. In March, 22.6% of kids — about 660 statewide — were in congregate care settings. In contrast to the $36.36 per day it costs the state for foster care, congregate care rates range between $115 and $231, depending on the type of placement.

Due to exposure to traumas and difficult situations with kids, turnover among foster-care coordinators in the San Luis Valley is high. This meant Alamosa County Foster Care Coordinator Matthew Tulley managed foster families and children in their care in a six-county region on his own this summer, while a second coordinator was hired. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When state foster placement isn’t available, Tulley said, kids often wind up in more expensive — and unnecessary — congregate care.

“And so that really creates that issue, are we best serving these kiddos?” Tulley said. “But at the same time, they need a home and we’ve got to find them their safety.”

Castillo Cohen says dedicated recruiters at the county level are the best way to get more families enrolled in the foster system. But there’s a shortage of recruiters across Colorado, and in the San Luis Valley recruiters must also perform home visits. While the valley doesn’t have a dedicated recruiter, Tulley said the state has helped out with some web campaigns, which have attracted about 15 more candidates. 

“That’s phenomenal for the valley, really it is,” Tulley said. “We’ll probably end up with about three to five actual certifications, but that’s notable.”

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @joseph_purtell