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Needed: Foster parents for Utah teens; Teens in foster care need 'a break' to turn around their lives

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 14 2012 7:20 p.m. MST

With foster children in the foreground, Maryanne McFarland, her daughter Rosa McFarland and her granddaughter Kieara McFarland make cookies at the McFarland home in Centerville, Monday, Feb. 13, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

CENTERVILLE — Rosa McFarland had pretty much resigned herself to the idea that her life would probably turn out like that of her birth parents.

Neither parent finished high school. They were drug addicts and their lives were chaotic to the point that McFarland, then in elementary school, made frequent calls to police.

By age 8 she was placed in the state foster care system, where she and her siblings had multiple placements. By the time she was in her early teens, she simply hoped to be placed in a foster home where she would "feel comfortable" until she aged out of the system.

The odds of a teenager in Utah's foster care system finding a family willing to care for them is steep. Adoption? Even steeper, and the odds drop the closer the child gets to age 18.

A 2011 legislative audit showed that among nearly 1,300 licensed foster care families statewide, only about 200 were willing to care for children ages 14-18.

"There's this myth out there that children in foster care, particularly teenagers, are there because they've done something wrong. Something has happened to them to cause them to be removed from their primary caregivers or families of origin through no fault of their own," said Maryanne McFarland, who would care and later adopt Rosa.

Some people become foster parents with the intent of adopting children they foster, which can mean they are more selective about the age of child they request.

"More people are open to that when the kids are younger," said Elizabeth Sollis, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Human Services. 

Some teens, particularly those who have been in state custody for a number of years, may be more difficult to place because of mental health issues or other therapy requirements. "There might be a stipulation that the child can't be in a home with other kids. That can make it (placement) more difficult, too," Sollis said.

What foster teens need most "is structure, a safe environment and a connection to a caring adult that they can carry through their lives," Mike Hamblin, director of foster family recruitment for the Utah Foster Care Foundation.

But with a scarcity of homes, stories like Rosa's become rare as teens move from home to home, or wind up in group homes.

"I never thought I'd have another family and that I'd belong," Rosa McFarland said.

"Who wants to keep a 17-year-old? Who wants to do that?"

When Maryanne and David McFarland met Rosa, they thought their association would last only a short time. Another couple was finalizing paperwork for her adoption and the McFarlands had agreed to take care of her until the process was completed, Rosa McFarland said.

But that first adoption was never finalized.

"They tried their hardest but it wasn't a good fit. I wasn’t in love with those people. I couldn't see myself being with those people forever," Rosa McFarland said.

When the adoption didn't work out, Rosa was headed to yet another placement, likely a group home. But by then she had become part of the McFarland family.

"We said, 'We don't need to go anywhere else'" to find her an adoptive home, Maryanne McFarland said. 'She belongs here,'"

With the love and guidance of her adoptive parents, she graduated from high school. She attended college for a while and now has a full-time job at an auto dealership. In recent years she's become reacquainted with some members of her birth family. Both her birth parents died of drug overdoses, she said.

"I didn't think I was adoptable. They did me the biggest favor saying they wanted to keep me," she said of her adoptive parents.

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