The list of foster children who legally belong to the state of Colorado has 533 names.
Among them is a 15-year-old girl who has lived in 26 places since she went into foster care and became available for adoption at age 10. Another is a 19-year-old man who has spent 226 months – more than 18 years – as a foster kid, according to a list provided to The Sun by the state child welfare division.
All of them have had a judge terminate their biological parents’ rights to keep them, but not all say they want a new family.
Now the state human services department is asking Colorado to fund a new state-level employee whose only job will be to help the children on the list get adopted – a staffer to monitor how long children are waiting for permanent homes in all 64 counties.
Colorado already has nine recruiters, also called youth advocates, whose positions are funded by two nonprofits and state and county tax dollars. They specialize in deep dives into children’s case files in search of relatives, family friends, teachers, coaches and others who might adopt them. But those recruiters mainly work in the 20 counties that contribute financially to the program.
A new state employee not only would help counties that lack a recruiting specialist, but would keep watch over Colorado’s county-run child welfare system to make sure no children are waiting too long to find an adoptive family, according to a budget request to the legislature from the Colorado Department of Human Services.
The request to the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee was part of a $421,448 appeal for four new state-level positions to improve the child welfare system, including another worker to monitor safety within residential centers for foster children.
A new permanency specialist – focused on finding permanent homes – would serve as a “resource and a push” for county caseworkers, said the state’s permanency manager, Korey Elger. The person would look at statewide data and point out to counties, “Hey, what’s going on? We’ve had this young person here for a very long time,” she said.
Permanency specialists provide another set of eyes to help busy caseworkers who spend the bulk of their time investigating allegations of abuse and neglect and finding safe places for kids to live in a rush if they are removed from their parents. By poring through files, interviewing contacts and talking to kids, specialists perhaps will find a long-lost uncle that the kid knew when they were 5 or the parents of a close friend at school who are willing to adopt, Elger said.
“Our advocates are the ones who can reach out and talk to that uncle if that caseworker is busy,” she said.
Colorado has 8,603 children with open cases in the child welfare system, and among them, 3,785 have been removed from their homes and are living with foster families or in group homes or residential centers.
Of the 533 children who are legally free for adoption because their parents’ rights have been terminated, 380 say they want to be adopted.
The goal is that no child waits longer than two years to get adopted – yet the list of children now awaiting adoption in Colorado includes 278 kids who have waited at least that long.
The list isn’t getting longer, and in fact has shrunk in recent years as Colorado has focused on not removing kids from their biological families in the first place. But the needs of the kids on the adoption list have gotten more complex, said Elger, noting that children are scarred emotionally by more intense trauma than in the past and are entering the system with more acute mental illness and behavioral health issues.
And children with special needs take longer to get adopted – as do older kids, particularly those age 9 and up, kids who identify as gay or transgender, and Black children, especially Black teenage boys. The analytics came from a 2015 study of 5,700 children and teens who were legally available for adoption from 2008-2014 in Colorado. The research, conducted by the state human services department, found that it took longer to find adoptive homes for kids with a higher number of foster placements and for those who spent time in an institutional setting – a residential center – rather than with foster families.
Black children in Colorado, according to the research, waited longer for adoption than other races – no matter their age.
On the state’s current list of 533 children who are legally free for adoption, 99 are Black.
“You don’t want the hurt again”
The list of children who are legally free for adoption includes 164 who say they don’t even want to get adopted.
Under Colorado law, kids in the system who are 12 and older get a say in their “permanency goal” – and many say they plan to emancipate from the foster care system to live on their own.
But that doesn’t mean that Colorado’s nine permanency sleuths don’t look at their case.
“When a judge asks, ‘Do you want to be adopted, they say no,’” said Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, which was founded by the same Dave Thomas who started Wendy’s restaurants and funds Colorado’s nine adoption recruiters. “They don’t want to go through rejection, trauma, or they don’t want to be disloyal to their biological family.”
Some change their minds after talking to a recruiter, who helps them “understand the value of family,” in part by asking questions about their future, such as, who will attend their graduation or wedding, she said.
“The one thing on their mind is just to get out of the system,” Soronen said.
Often, saying no to adoption is a form of self-preservation. “You don’t want the hurt again … if you’ve lived places and they said they don’t want to be your long-term placement,” said Elger, with the state. “It’s easier to say no to them than have somebody say no to you again.”
The Dave Thomas Foundation started the intensive adoption recruiting program in 2004, beginning in seven spots around the country. Now, the organization has 470 youth advocates in 50 states, including the nine in Colorado. The intensive recruitment model, according to a 2007 foundation analysis, is three times more effective than the status quo – which in many states includes traditional casework and marketing campaigns such as websites with photos of available children.
“How do we address this notion that children are aging out of foster care when our job is to get them adopted?” Soronen said. “How do we not fail them again and again and again.”
Since Colorado began partnering with the national foundation in 2005, recruiters have found permanent homes for 190 children. On average, those children had lived in six foster placements and had been in the system for three years.
Nearly half of them – 48% – had already been adopted once and had been returned to the state in what’s called a “disrupted” adoption.
The nine youth advocates in Colorado are currently helping 133 children find adoptive families, or about 14 children per advocate.
In Colorado last year, 187 young people emancipated from foster care without returning to their families or getting adopted. An additional 126 ran away.
Nearly 700 were adopted.
44 counties aren’t part of the adoption recruiting program
Colorado’s foundation-funded adoption recruiters are housed at Raise the Future, a regional nonprofit that works to find kids homes and also contributes financially to the program.
“We recognize how incredibly busy and overwhelmed caseworkers are,” said Jill Crewes, vice president of Colorado programs at Raise the Future. “This program gives us the opportunity to come alongside caseworkers and offer this additional support.”
The agency, with offices in Colorado, Utah and Nevada, also posts photographs and short biographies online of children seeking homes. Among them is My’Kail, a Colorado second-grader who loves LEGOs, Skittles, pizza, dogs and riding a scooter. In his photo, My’Kail has a huge grin as he hugs Toy Story action figures.
Besides the photo gallery managed by Raise the Future, state officials say they’re having success with a new inquiry form that launched on the CO4Kids website in January 2020. The goal was to simplify the adoption process instead of forcing prospective families to find the right contact at the local county child welfare division or adoption agency.
People can fill out the inquiry form on the state website and it’s automatically dispatched to the right people. So far, more than 3,000 people have submitted one.
Counties and child placement agencies are also seeing higher attendance at foster and adoption information nights since the pandemic pushed the events to virtual platforms, making it easier for people to attend, Elger said.
She’s hopeful that adding a state-level permanency specialist will help Colorado further whittle down the list of kids waiting for adoption, and, in particular, give small, rural counties access to a recruiting specialist when they are struggling to find an adoptive home for a child in their system.
Right now, 44 counties are not part of the program. The 20 that participate are Adams, Alamosa, Denver, Douglas, Rio Blanco, Larimer, Pueblo, Teller, Jefferson, Park, Rio Grande, Mesa, Lincoln, Costilla, El Paso, Otero, Morgan, Saguache, Conejos and Logan.
The state will sometimes select a hard-to-place foster child for the program no matter where they live, but the added support would help more kids statewide, said Elger, recalling a recent case in which a county caseworker and state officials worked together to find a young girl a home.
The child wanted to live with her aunt, but the aunt could not afford to care for her. Child welfare officials contacted the state Medicaid department and were able to secure a spot for the girl in one of the state’s Medicaid programs for people with disabilities, which covered many of the expenses the aunt was worried she could not afford, Elger said.
And the girl was adopted.