The popular saying goes: It takes a village to raise a child.
That saying could not be more true for children who are involved in child welfare. But there is a tremendous need for foster families, both locally and nationally.
According to Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth (SAFY), which is a foster care nonprofit, 2020 studies reveal there are about 5,500 children involved in foster care and child welfare in Colorado.
“We have a lot of kids who aren’t able to be in their homes for one reason or another,” said Jenna Coleman, executive director of SAFY of Colorado. “We want to (be able to) keep them in a homelike setting.”
SAFY got its start in Ohio in 1985 and expanded to Colorado in 2014. SAFY of Colorado is located in Fort Collins, but serves youths from any Colorado county, and currently has about 25 licensed foster homes across the Front Range, including the Denver-metro area. Foster homes are needed everywhere, and SAFY would love to get more in Denver.
“We need foster families now more than ever,” Coleman said.
Children in foster care tend to do much better when they’re in a home, Coleman added, versus a residential facility like a group home. One reason, she added, is because a person’s home is not an institution. The foster child can continue to learn to function in a household setting, with experiences like family bike rides or taking the dog for a walk, for example.
“The lived experience that people have equips them to help others,” said Carley Clark, SAFY of Colorado’s foster parent recruiter. “We believe the more diverse our foster homes are, the stronger our community is.”
SAFY welcomes “people of all backgrounds to become foster parents, including single, married, same sex couples, retired and divorced adults interested in being the difference in the life of a child or teen,” states its website.
While there are some qualifications a person must meet to become a foster parent — be at least 21 years of age; have a stable income; have a spare bedroom, whether as a homeowner or renter; and be able to pass local and state background checks — the most important is to accept children from all backgrounds and support them until they’re ready for permanency. Permanency can be different for each child, but includes the child returning to birth parents or family members, adoption or preparing them to live on their own if aging out of foster care.
Michael Duston of the Littleton/Centennial area has been fostering teens through SAFY since 2019.
“It’s so worth it if you have a heart for children,” he said.
Duston, 33, has an employment and volunteer background in child welfare and teaching, but it is his own experience that inspired him to foster. Duston was born in Colorado Springs, then lived with a foster family in Pueblo for about two years when he was adopted and raised by a family in the Littleton/Englewood area. Duston said he feels blessed, and wanted to be able to give back.
One doesn’t have to be perfect to be a foster parent, Duston said.
“What kids need most is love — someone there who is trying to be involved and care for them,” Duston said. “Kids can sense when your heart is in the right place.”
Children gain a lot from the time they spend with a foster parent or family, but so does the person or family that is fostering a child, Coleman said. They get to see the child or children make progress in many ways, including with their schooling/academics and social-emotional growth, Coleman added.
And then there’s the “little things,” Coleman said, “like discovering favorite foods that both the (foster) family and child have in common.”
While fostering a child is hard work, SAFY’s licensed foster families are supported in the journey, Clark said. She added that SAFY provides a variety of resources — from initial training to social events with other local foster parents — and a network of professionals, all who are invested in best meeting each child’s needs.
But, Clark added, “foster parents tend to know more than they think they do. At the end of the day, it’s the connection with the child that’s the most important.”