RIVERTON — Stephanie Olsen isn't one to sugarcoat her message.
Being a foster parent can be heart-wrenching, exasperating and the stuff of seemingly endless demands.
"I never shy away from saying it's difficult, because it is. There's lots of tears. But there's a lot of happy moments, too," she said Thursday at Riverton City Hall, where she was honored as Utah's Foster Mom of the Year.
Olsen and her husband, Dan, have three biological children. They have adopted seven children whom they fostered, and the adoption of an eighth foster child is in the works. They are also caring for three young children in state custody ages 3 to 7.
Most of the kids the couple has fostered are children who are more difficult to place, such as older teens and large sibling groups. But when the Olsens were recently asked to care for three young siblings, the entire family stepped up to help, Olsen said.
Part of the reason is because the Olsen children who were previously in foster care know why it's important to keep siblings together. But it's also because the family understands that the state Division of Child and Family Services is in dire need of licensed foster homes.
Presently, there are 2,900 children in state care and about 1,300 licensed foster homes, which allows for placement of 2,400 children, said Charri Brummer, DCFS deputy director.
Licensed foster families are being asked to take multiple placements, or children are cared for in emergency shelters such as the Christmas Box House or other placements, Brummer said.
Substance abuse is a growing issue among families served by the division and at the same time, more children are coming into care, she said.
"So we have to stop and say, 'Is that because of the opioid epidemic?' We don't know. But we know that more children are coming in and need loving and nurturing homes where they can be loved and taken care of until they can return to their homes" or are adopted by kin, people who have fostered them or other "forever families," Brummer said.
According to Utah Foster Care — a private nonprofit organization that contracts with DCFS to recruit, train and support foster and adoptive parents in Utah — two-thirds of children in foster care return to live with their birth parents or other kin.
But hundreds of children are adopted through foster care — 615 in Utah last year. Most were adopted by their foster parents.
Older children and sibling groups can be the most challenging to place and the division prefers to have a diverse array of foster parents to help children in care maintain their cultural and racial identities.
Olsen credits Utah Foster Care with providing training and ongoing support to help her and her husband handle the demands of 14 children, as well as the help of family and friends.
"A lot of people ask me how I'm able to do what I do. Usually my answer is, 'I don't know. I just do it.' The answer really would be through my faith, lots of time on my knees, a lot of therapy thanks to the therapist who works in our home and the other therapists that we work with and the support of my family and friends. I couldn't do it without them as well as DCFS caseworkers," she said.
Riverton Mayor Bill Applegarth said it was an honor to recognize Olsen because the Olsens are Riverton residents and because of an experience in his childhood when his "very nurturing" mother took in the daughter of a distant relative.
The girl, whose name was Donna, wasn't in state custody but she needed a safe, supportive and loving home because her own was in disarray, he said.
Years later, Donna's daughter reached out to the Applegarths and through her, Applegarth said he gained an appreciation of the role his mother had played in Donna becoming a loving mother.
As for Olsen, she "has always been able to look at the needs of the child and what is in their best interest, and put her own interests aside.
"Stephanie and her husband, Dan, became foster parents with a specific goal in mind. Years later, they're still at it and have changed their plans and goals to accommodate children in need," Applegarth said.
Olsen said she doesn't pretend to be a perfect mom or have all the answers, but even if a child stays with them for only a few months, they know he or she will benefit from the love, structure and security they give them.
"Our goal has always been if just one of these kids can have a second chance and take advantage of that, it's all worth it," she said.
Olsen said she hopes there are other Utahns who likewise want to help. She encourages them to reach out to Utah Foster Care for more information and to learn more about the demands and the rewards of becoming a foster parent.
"It is difficult. It is challenging, but I would do it again," she said.