Learning about Utah’s foster care system

One of my favorite things about serving in the legislature is sharing what I’m learning. Last month, I attended a DCFS Immersion training, and it was excellent! We heard from directors, caseworkers, a former foster care kid, a kinship placement family, a foster parent couple, and a mother whose children were in foster care for 18 months while she overcame addiction.

A lot of good things are happening nationally and in Utah when it comes to foster care. These are some of the powerful things I learned:

  • DCFS tries to protect children from abuse and neglect while simultaneously preserving as much continuity of family, home, community, and culture as possible. Research shows that the trauma, loss, and grief of being removed from your home can reverberate across the lifespan. They try always to remove the threat, not the child – but sometimes the child cannot be made safe at home.
  •  DCFS has 1,031 employees working in 36 offices across 5 regions of the state. The regional offices are staffed 24/7/365.
  • Last year, 848 cases resulted in one or more children being removed from the home, usually temporarily, allowing the parent(s) to put things in order for reunification.
  • DCFS strives to treat the family holistically, rather than the children separately. In most circumstances, parents and children do better the more they see each other, even if the children have been removed from the home.
  • Poverty should never be confused with neglect. (I knew this, but thought I’d mention it.)
  • ENDANGERMENT is the #1 reason parents lose custody of their children (usually due to drug addiction.) VIOLENCE against a child is #2, followed by SEXUAL ABUSE and NEGLECT. There are about 8 other reasons, but these are the main ones.
  • Children who age out of foster care are still entitled to many services. They can be on Medicaid until they are 26, just like kids whose parents have insurance.

The foster dad who spoke said that he strives to develop a relationship with the children’s father when kids come into the home, even if he has to visit the father in a treatment center or in jail. The foster mom, a former caseworker herself, said the purpose of foster care is not to provide kids with better things or a better life or an annual trip to Disneyland, but to heal the family. They want the family to be reunited whenever that is possible.

Olivia, who at 21 was formerly in foster care (she called DCFS herself when she was being abused at home – that is real strength!), had all kinds of good ideas for improving the child’s experience. One of the policies she has already pushed through was requiring DCFS to give each child a real duffle bag or small suitcase for their belongings instead of a garbage bag. All of her worldly belongings were in a black garbage bag as she moved from house to house, and people kept trying to throw it away.

The mother whose children were taken away for a while said she used that time to overcome addiction and build a new foundation. She had never had a good role model in her life, she said, and didn’t know what functionality and sobriety would look like. Team meetings and activities with her children, caseworker, and the foster parents helped her tremendously. She’s now been sober for three years. Her kids feel safe. “I’m seeing growth all around me,” she said.

Rep. Cheryl Acton serves Utah’s House District 43