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.
The McFarlands have seven children, all adopted. The couple has also fostered some 40 girls in state custody over the past nine years. Maryanne McFarland just calls them "my girls" and her relationship with many of them continues.
The McFarlands are the trusted pair many of the girls call when they've had a bad week, they need advice about a car repair or they want to share the happy news of an engagement or a pregnancy.
"My girls are just regular girls. They want to go to prom. They want have their nails done. They want to be girls and have fun and reach their goals. They have the same dreams as any teenage girl," she said.
Teenagers end up in foster care for the same reasons as younger children, "abuse or neglect in their biological homes," Hamblin said.
Finding them support by increasing the number of foster families is the focus of the Utah Foster Care Foundation, which will conduct three public forums featuring teenagers who have been in foster care as well as foster families that have experience with caring for teens.
Teens who don't forge bonds are less likely to graduate from high school, thus at higher risks of unemployment and homelessness. One study reports 30 percent of children who age out of foster care end up incarcerated.
Locally, roughly half of the teens and young adults served by Volunteers of America — Utah's programs for homeless youth — were in the state's foster care system at some point in their lives, said spokeswoman Michelle Templin.
"That's a pretty big number of kids who were involved in foster care or aged out of foster care who didn't have the skills or the financial resources to move into self-sufficiency," Templin said.
"There a lot of kids who need foster adoptions. They're really important to help young people grow into adults."
Maryanne McFarland said she and her husband have gleaned many life lessons from their experiences with the girls.
"When you hear their stories you think 'When is this kid going to get a break?' You'll see one thing upon another upon another that has happened. You think 'That kid needs a break. That break could be you.'"
Rosa McFarland, now 27, has profound appreciation for the difference her adoptive family made in her life, as well as their ongoing efforts on behalf of teenage girls they care for as foster parents.
"They did me the biggest favor saying they wanted to keep me. I didn't think I was adoptable," Rosa McFarland said. "Nobody wants to be on their own. They want to be loved and cared for and comfortable."
Starting Wednesday night in Orem, the Utah Foster Care Foundation will host three public forums this month on the rewards and challenges of fostering teenagers.
Wednesday, Feb. 15, 6 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.
Utah Foster Care Foundation Offices
274 West Center Street
Wednesday, Feb. 22, 6:30 p.m. - 8 p.m.
Utah Foster Care Foundation offices
5296 S. Commerce Drive, Suite 400
Saturday, Feb. 25, 10 a.m. - noon
Holy Family Catholic Church
1100 East 5550 South
Participants should RSVP at (877) 505-KIDS
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