Counselor Jennifer Bourdeon leads a class for parents and caregivers on sensory processing techniques at Raise the Future’s Denver headquarters. Bourdeon is one of a handful of Colorado RTF practitioners who facilitate caregiver support groups. The Trust-Based Relational Intervention support model, or TBRI, helps families accommodate children who have experienced trauma. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Chapter Index: Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five
The glow of a nearby streetlamp caught the anger in the 11-year-old boy’s face as he stood alone in the dark.
His mother, Julie Bates, had called the police after her son, who had been in her care since he entered the foster care system at 3 months old, ran away from home. Days earlier, the young boy had tried to take his life. The boy’s siblings combed the streets near their Fremont County home, until Bates saw him in the distance.
“He would not have come back had I not seen him,” Bates said. “This was our lowest point. We were very broken as a family, very disjointed and very hopeless.”
The mother of eight had exhausted therapy sessions, lost faith in trust-building exercises and no longer counted on mental health treatments to handle the escalating behavioral issues she saw unfold in her home after adopting four siblings from the child welfare system.
But Bates, like many parents who are adopting children with trauma severe enough that it prompted the removal from their biological families, didn’t find the support she needed until her family was at their breaking point. Training is limited for Colorado parents who are adopting children with a history of trauma, The Colorado Sun found, and funding for the sole agency working for the state to provide such training is starting to run out.
The state began contracting with Raise the Future in 2018 to provide support and training to families after they have finalized their adoptions. Colorado has invested more than $4.5 million in the agency in the past five years to fund training, support groups, in-home coaching and respite to caregivers, guardians, reunified biological parents, adoptive families and professionals for free.
What are “disrupted” and “dissolved” adoptions?
An adoption is considered disrupted when the child reenters foster care after the adoption has been finalized, or when a child is placed in an adoptive home and the adoption proceedings are called off before the adoption is finalized.
An adoption is dissolved when the adoptive parents legally sever ties with their adopted child in court. The child goes into foster care and can be adopted by someone else.
No family who has received trauma-informed coaching by the agency has reported a disrupted adoption, according to Raise the Future.
But the services were largely funded by one-time federal dollars that started to dwindle by 2021, limiting the support offered to many counties. A 40% budget cut this fall has forced the agency to make even more significant cuts to its programs.
Raise the Future is suspending its respite care and caregiver support groups in every county, stripping support from more than 200 families across the state, the agency said. Services for families living in nine counties in the Denver metro area will be extremely limited and only operate if the agency can find adequate funding through grants.
Last month, the agency dipped into its reserves, paying $75,000 to continue supporting families in need after its contract with the state expired and before the new contract was renewed, said Ann Ayers, the agency’s CEO.
“You kind of hate to see the state invest in a program that is really, really working and then pull back from that program. We’re going to hope we can find funding to get this back and recovered because we don’t want to let any families down,” Ayers said.
“These children who are already in the system are the ones that I think we need to be most worried about.”
Chapter Two: “I felt like we were all alone”
Bates and her husband, a pastor at a local church, had raised four biological children when they turned to the foster care system with the intention to adopt, a decision fueled by their religious faith and the desire to help the community.
But the foster care classes and years of parenting experience didn’t prepare the couple to handle the children’s spiraling behaviors, spurred by the trauma the siblings faced before entering the foster care system — or the resentment that quickly grew among their biological children.
“There’s kind of silence in the adoptive community about, ‘Do your kids draw pictures of shooting you? Do you have alarms on all of your doors? Do your kids hide weapons under their bed?’ No one ever talks about that,” Bates said. “And so when that was happening in our home, I felt like we were all alone.”
Colorado’s Failed Adoptions
Hundreds of children in Colorado’s foster care system were failed twice — first when they suffered abuse and neglect and had to enter the system, and again when those adoptions failed and they reentered care. Through dozens of interviews with adoptive families, young adults who were sent back into the system, child advocates and child welfare officials, The Colorado Sun found a lack of support for both children and parents.
● Failed twice: An average of 100 children a year over the past 10 years were returned to foster care in Colorado after being adopted by their “forever family.” Read more
● Reforming subsidies: How are families supposed to handle adopting foster children with intense issues without enough financial support? Read more
● Raise the Future: The state is looking for ways to help and train adoptive parents, and there has been success with the nonprofit Raise the Future, but budget cuts could doom the programs. Read more
● Treating trauma: The top reason adoptions fail in Colorado is “child’s behavior problem.” What are reactive attachment disorder and adoption-related loss, and why is the mental health system failing to treat them? Read more
It wasn’t until years after finalizing their adoptions that the county’s department of human services connected Bates with Raise the Future and its specialized training to help parents meet their children’s needs through the help of brain science. She called the services transformative for her family.
“We had no resources before Raise the Future,” Bates said. “When we finally reached out to them, we waited until we knew we couldn’t handle him anymore because I didn’t want them to come in and take him and I didn’t want the other kids to be taken either. You have that fear.”
The state first contracted with the agency, formerly known as Adoption Exchange, to provide a network of support services for adoptive parents outside of the state’s foster care system.
“It’s really hard, especially for adoptive parents, to come back to the system and go, ‘Maybe I’m not doing this right,’” said the state’s permanency manager, Korey Elger.
The statewide program began in 13 of Colorado’s most rural counties, where support was needed the most, and expanded inward.
“We heard really loudly that our rural counties didn’t have these resources and some of our metro counties did,” she said.
The programs are largely funded by federal adoption incentives aimed at supporting kids and parents after an adoption is finalized. Counties that choose to fund programs through Raise the Future independently of state funding can decide if the resources are made available to all families, including those currently in the foster care system or at risk of entering it, Ayers said.
But depending on where a family lives, resources and training can be out of reach for some of the families most in need of support.
“It creates such unbelievable inequity,” Ayers said. “Geography — it becomes a barrier and if they move there, the services are available to change.”
Funding was cut last year forcing the agency to rely on alternative funding, like grants, to provide support in nine metro counties, she said. Even larger funding cuts were made this fall, forcing the state and Raise the Future to reevaluate the program.
In its latest contract with the agency, the state cut the budget to $500,000 from $829,000, data from the state shows. In-home coaching sessions and training that teach about how trauma impacts the brain will still be available statewide, Ayers said, but support groups and respite care will be paused indefinitely.
“We talked about what were the most effective resources that they were using and trying to really hone in that contract on the programs that we found the most effective,” Elger, with the state’s department of human services, said. “We’re always hoping for additional funding to provide more services.”
The state has a separate contract with the agency to fund caseworkers, through the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. The national nonprofit works to find families for kids who have had a failed adoption and those who have been in foster care the longest, many on the verge of aging out of the system. Since 2005, the foundation has helped find families for 214 children in Colorado, according to a spokeswoman for the nonprofit.
Ten caseworkers through the program are working across 18 counties to help find homes for children who have been lingering in the foster care system the longest, reaching only about half of the state’s kids who need the help, Ayers said.
“Colorado risks going from being a leader in this space to not being a leader in this space. And that, on behalf of kids and families, is really concerning,” she said. “You’re the one that starts the wave, and then you don’t ride it?”
Chapter Three: Understanding trauma through brain science
Facilitator Jennifer Bourdeon stood in front of a dozen parents and caregivers and held her hand in the air with her fingers folded over her palm and curled around her thumb.
Using psychiatry professor Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain, she lifted her fingers to the sky to expose her thumb — or the part of the brain that senses danger — to demonstrate the impacts of trauma on the brain.
While in the “flight, fight or freeze” mode, children who have been exposed to dangerous situations in the early stages of their lives will have a difficult time regulating their emotions, Bourdeon explained. Abuse and neglect, even while in their mother’s womb, can impair a child’s brain development.
In their own words
“We’re still processing years after we’re done. It’s still coursing through our veins.”
— Bryon Downing
“Every part of it, they failed me. But it did not define who I was. I took charge of my own story and made my own definition of what success is.”
— Ryan Young
“It’s hard for these families because we feel like we didn’t do enough if it doesn’t work out. But sometimes you just can’t fix something that got irretrievably broken.”
– Carla and Frank Bennett
Hear more about Colorado’s failed adoptions, straight from the people who’ve lived them. >>
“It’s like having their fingers in a light socket at all times,” she said.
The class, offered through Raise the Future, was the first in a series designed to help parents meet the needs of traumatized kids through a holistic model, known as Trust-Based Relational Intervention.
The class teaches caregivers ways to better understand children’s behaviors and how to effectively respond by building trust.
“With TBRI, we’re going to teach you how to really dig deep and look beneath the surface of what we can’t immediately see with our eyes, to find out what the underlying need for that child is,” Bourdeon said.
The model was created by Karyn Purvis of Texas Christian University and is taught by Raise the Future facilitators across the state and through online webinars. Last year, the agency also held three therapeutic family camps to help teach parents and their kids how to use TBRI techniques to manage behavioral issues before they escalate.
Bates attended one of the three-day camps with her husband and three of their children at Purgatory Resort in Durango. The entire family was invited to attend for free. Each child got their own room and meals were catered.
There’s kind of silence in the adoptive community about, ‘Do your kids draw pictures of shooting you? Do you have alarms on all of your doors? Do your kids hide weapons under their bed?’ No one ever talks about that. And so when that was happening in our home, I felt like we were all alone.
— Julie Bates, a mother with eight kids
When they returned to their Florence home, one of their children revealed a “startling” problem, Bates recalled. She and her husband responded using tools they learned in the camp, thanking their child for their honesty and assuring they would help. Instead of getting angry, Bates said she held her child tight in her arms and they cried together.
“It was that camp, specifically, we had just developed more trust because we had been with them all week and could just focus on them. We didn’t have to worry about all of our other stuff,” Bates said. “They could trust us with the truth.”
No camps have been held since summer 2021 because of a lack of funding, according to Raise the Future.
In the past five years, 2,283 people in Colorado attended training hosted by the Raise the Future, impacting about 500 families each year, according to the agency. Through in-home coaching sessions, Raise the Future’s facilitators have taught TBRI to more than 80 families with about 200 kids in their homes.
“TBRI was developed for children with trauma histories, but it’s a human model,” said Brooks Kaskela, Raise the Future’s director of family support services. “It’s just a model in human interaction and relationships.”
In Larimer County, she had led TBRI training for those working at a community mental health center, people working in the juvenile justice system and employees for the county’s department of human services.
During a mid-August class in Denver, facilitator Bourdeon delivered a similar message to caregivers, adoptive parents and advocates, reminding them they are not alone in their challenges.
“You may be here because you tried a lot of things and nothing’s working. You may feel irritated, frustrated, hopeless, because we’re dealing with really big behaviors and things can get really scary,” Bourdeon said. “So if you’re here and you’re frustrated and you’re hopeless, just know that you’re not the only one.”
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Chapter Four: Other solutions in Colorado and beyond
The avenues of help for Colorado’s adoptive families vary across the state’s 64 counties. Though not required by the state, Boulder County has a designated team tasked with checking on the needs of a family after an adoption is finalized and helping connect them with resources.
Staff make calls to families, organize support groups, hold training with Raise the Future facilitators and connect families with therapists who understand adoption, said Suzanne Daniels, who supervises the county’s kinship and post-permanency program. The program is funded through a federal grant.
“Our hope is we can connect with families and have them feel a little bit less isolated,” Daniels said.
The team has organized community events, at farms and ice skating rinks, to make sure families know where to find resources and feel comfortable asking for help before they get to a crisis.
When we finally reached out to them, we waited until we knew we couldn’t handle him anymore because I didn’t want them to come in and take him and I didn’t want the other kids to be taken either. You have that fear.
— Julie Bates, who says the family had no resources before Raise the Future
“Then they see us, they need us, they can talk to us. We’re not scary, we are not going to try to remove their children. We’re here to help,” Daniels said. “So we’ve tried to build the program so that we can have some soft touches on families.”
The county follows a recommendation made in a 2007 adoption study, commissioned by Colorado State University, after researchers found Colorado needs more enhanced post-adoptive resources. Phone calls and visits to adoptive families are an effective approach to assess the families’ needs, the report said.
Illuminate Colorado, a statewide nonprofit, aims to help parents through a system of peer support groups, known as Circle of Parents. Classes are designed to be conversational and often focus on a specific need in the community, said Toni Miller, the program manager.
There are more than 40 active groups across the state. In Colorado Springs, there is a group for moms. In Cortez, a group supports single parents. Circulo de Padres, designed to help Spanish-speaking fathers and their families, meet in Adams County, Denver, Lafayette, Lamar and Thornton. Other groups are specifically designed to support pregnant moms struggling with substance abuse disorders.
Facilitators help ensure the groups run smoothly, but each meeting is largely parent-run, Miner said. Organizations must fund the groups, covering costs for food, child care and a meeting place, though many groups are held in rooms donated by churches and libraries, she said.
“We firmly believe that parents are the experts in their own lives,” Miner said. “And a lot of times they just really need that person that could be sitting around the table with them or those people that are sitting around the table with them to be like, ‘Me, too.’”
In 2021, 525 parents participated in groups, up from 427 in 2020. More groups have been added this year and organizers hope to continue to draw awareness to the resources available. The support groups are designed for all parents and caregivers but doesn’t track how many adoptive parents have benefited from the program.
Broomfield County also has an adoption crisis team that reaches out to families to check on their needs and connect them with resources, like mental health services.
Raise the Future uses the Trust-Based Relational Intervention support model, or TBRI, to help families accommodate children who have experienced trauma like institutionalization, multiple foster placements or neglect.
Through in-home coaching sessions, Raise the Future’s facilitators have taught Trust-Based Relational Intervention to more than 80 families with about 200 kids in their homes.
“The department’s philosophy is to meet the family where they are and does not have a predetermined way in which we support them,” said Tiffany Ramos, manager for child, adult and family services for the department’s human services.
It’s only been in the past few years that many states began tracking what happens after foster children are adopted, and only a handful of state child welfare agencies are diving deeper into the numbers to figure out how to improve.
Georgia and Minnesota, for example, are creating review teams that will look for where the system broke down and recommend policy changes.
In Colorado, there is a child fatality review committee, which includes medical and child safety experts. The team created under a 2011 state law takes an in-depth look at child fatalities and near-fatalities, looks for places where the child protection system failed and submits an annual report to lawmakers. But Colorado, which only started tracking the number of failed adoptions of foster children in 2020, does not have a team to review what goes wrong.
Minnesota has been tracking disrupted and dissolved adoptions for several years, entering them into the state’s “social service information system.” In 2019, Minnesota officials began gathering data on the ages of those children at the time of adoption and when the adoption ended, whether they were adopted with their siblings, the race and ethnicity of the adopted child and the adoptive parent, and whether the child was adopted by a relative. Georgia’s child welfare department created a “post adoption unit” last year.
“These insights are vital to identify strengths, areas needing improvement, and gaps in the child welfare system,” said Tikki Brown, assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. “The goal is to gain better insight into common challenges, needs or resources to support all involved.”
Colorado Department of Human Services officials, when asked what they planned to do with the newly produced data on broken adoptions, said they would look into policies in other states.
The Bates family plays with dogs McQueen and Romeo in their yard in Florence. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Chapter Five: “It’s the successes that make us keep trying”
John Bates, 12, tossed a football with his dad in their backyard on a crisp October afternoon before heading to their monthly dinner and support group with other adoptive families, organized through Raise the Future. His twin sister, Joanna, held out treats for Romeo, the family’s golden retriever, and McQueen, their chocolate lab.
A Raise the Future facilitator who used to come visit the family every week, sometimes for hours at a time, to help with behavioral issues now comes once every six months.
As Julie Bates’ children have grown, her five oldest daughters — three biological and two adopted — have developed a tight bond through singing and performing at churches.
Desiree, adopted at age 12, is now a junior in college working toward earning a counseling certificate to help children with challenges similar to the ones she overcame as a foster kid. Christine, who was adopted when she was 8, is finishing up her senior year in high school and is a department manager at a local thrift shop, using the money she has earned to buy a car.
As a girl, she used to hoard food and steal from her family. Now, her mother describes her daughter as “extremely generous.”
“It’s the successes that make us keep trying,” Bates said. “As long as we are breathing, we will be trying.”