Ann Perricone sat at her kitchen table in south Denver where she and her husband live with six children. They have two teenage daughters of their own, and they are also fostering a 19-year-old high school girl and her children, ages 5 and 1.
“Do you want to go outside? What’s out there? What do you see?” said Perricone to the one-year-old toddler.
A 20-year-old boy they started fostering when he was 16 also lives with them. Even though they never adopted him, the Perricones said they consider him a son, and a permanent member of the family. Ann and her husband Mario have been foster parents for the last eleven years.
“The attachment automatically happens,” said Ann.
Over the years they’ve taken in more than 50 children – all with the support of their daughters.
“These kids walk through our front door or are carried through our front door and you automatically fall in love with them,” said Ann. “Some are harder to let go than others. The longer they’re here the harder it is to let go.”
But Ann said she and her husband never wanted to expand their family or adopt and have always supported the idea that reunification with the biological family is the goal.
That doesn’t mean things always work out. The Perricones said they've have had four children that had to be placed elsewhere after first coming to their home, one a case of serious neglect.
“Within the first few days — she was three — she would smear feces on every surface she touched,” said Ann. “That was just really difficult for me. I like my space to stay really clean.”
Her husband added that they weren't warned about it and said it is not normal behavior.
Those types of incidents haven't dissuaded the Perricones from continuing to open their hearts to children in need, but it could be enough for others to stop doing the work.
“When they don’t know those things, that’s when foster parents burn out and that’s when kids in foster care end up in group homes instead of forever homes,” said Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont.
Colorado is facing a shortage of foster parents. A new state estimate says Colorado needs another 1,200 foster parents to meet the need.
Lawmakers took up the issue during this year’s legislative session. Singer sponsored bipartisan legislation that allows foster parents to have access to a child’s medical and education records before they take them in, to prevent issues like the Perricones describe.
“If you know what’s going to happen you can start to prepare yourself and better take care of that kid to they can get the help they need,” said Singer.
Colorado doesn’t have a statewide system for foster care placement; individual counties handle it. Reggie Bicha is head of the Colorado Department of Human Services. He said this has led to different standards across the state, including which records foster parents can access.
“The statutes in Colorado were not very clear about what information foster parents can get for children in their care,” said Bicha. “Depending upon which county they were in their attorney might suggest that foster parents weren’t entitled to medical records or educational records or social service records.”
The new law also prioritizes paying foster parents the full cost of child care under the Colorado child care assistance program that gives money to low income families. It's a federal program and there are limited slots available.
“Foster kids are entitled to that program," said Bicha. "What we've done is made it more clear that they need to be a priority population, and that every where in the state if a foster child needs to be in a licensed childcare setting, this childcare assistance should be available, in addition to the foster care stipend that the parents are already receiving.”
A separate bill ensures foster parents are compensated for transporting children to the same school they were already attending, rather than moving them to a new school. The goal is to improve educational outcomes for children and also help retain foster parents by making the transition to a new home smoother.
2017 was the first year that the Colorado Department of Human Services tried to track data on the foster parent shortage. But it's still not clear what the shortage is in each county, or how the figures have changed over time.
“We do have times where we cannot find foster care placement for children and we have to look at higher levels of care," said Mimi Scheuermann, the director of Child Welfare and Adult Protective Services in Denver. “But that doesn’t always mean that we don’t have enough foster homes. It may mean that we don’t have the right foster home for the kid in need of placement. We don’t have the data to distinguish between those situations.”
Some counties do track the shortage. Mesa County on the Western Slope said 40 teenagers were placed outside of the county this year because of a lack of foster homes.
Ann and Mario Perricone think more can be done to help recruit and retain foster parents across Colorado – like creating mentoring or retention teams, or at the very least conducting exit interviews.
“If it’s not working out for these families, what can be done to keep them?” said Ann. “They leave but there isn’t a conversation of what could we have done to help make this job easier for you.”
Reggie Bicha said child placement agencies and counties already have diligent recruitment plans, and the state plans to follow up to see what progress is made. He agrees that more conversations with foster parents about their concerns would be helpful.
“We want to make sure we’re getting kids into the right homes and families getting the right kids,” said Bicha.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.