Utah’s foster care system; parents, children and advisors

ST. GEORGE – There is an overwhelming need for support for the foster care system in Utah, from families willing to adopt to educating the public of the benefits and drawbacks of the system. A foster parent, child and advisor have each shared their stories with St. George News.

Jamie Brannan (left) and Stephanie Sanderson, St. George, Utah, Sept. 13, 2012 | Photo courtesy of Rebekah White
Jamie Brannan (left) and Stephanie Sanderson, St. George, Utah, Sept. 13, 2012 | Photo courtesy of Rebekah White

The Utah Foster Care Foundation is a private nonprofit organization contracted by the Utah Division of Child and Family Services to recruit, educate and support foster and adoptive families to care for the children in Utah’s foster care system.

The Utah Foster Care Foundation offered the following facts on foster care in Utah:

  • There are about 2,700 children currently in Utah’s foster care system (about 270 of which live in Southern Utah,) but less than 1,400 licensed foster families.
  • The primary reason children are placed into foster care is abuse and/or neglect in their homes. Substance abuse is a contributing factor in over half of Utah foster care cases.
  • Children in foster care often have special needs due to abuse, neglect or separation.
  • Nearly half of the children in the Utah foster care system are age 12 or older.
  • The average stay for children in foster care is one year.
  • About 40 percent of children who enter foster care return to DCFS or to their biological parents. Foster families still have the opportunity to mentor and support parents who are working to have their children returned to them.
  • There is a need for families willing to foster more than one child and foster children across a broad range of ages.
  • Children in foster care come from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds.  When they are unable to be placed with a family like them, they need families who are able to help them maintain their cultural identities.
  • A quarter of the children in the Utah foster care system are Hispanic, so there is a particular need for Hispanic and Spanish-speaking families.
  • While children age 12 and older make up about half of all children, this group accounts for less than eight percent of children adopted from foster care.
  • In 2012, 525 children were permanently adopted from the Utah foster care system. Most were adopted by their foster parents.
  • Older children are less likely to live in a family setting than the overall population of children in foster care.
  • Children placed outside a family setting are less likely to form lasting relationships with responsible adults who will help them move towards independence.
  • In 2012, 185 children aged out of Utah’s foster care system, which means they are 18 years old and legally independent, released from the custody of the state or any other guardian.
  • Children who age out have been in foster care an average of three and half years.
  • Less than half of the children who age out of foster care in the nation earn a high school diploma.
  • Children who age out of foster care are more likely to experience unemployment, teen pregnancy, homelessness and incarceration than their peers.
  • Contrary to a popular misunderstanding, foster parents can be married couples or single men or women living alone, homeowners or renters; a stable environment and caring personality are the primary requirements.

Originally from Henderson, Nev., Rebekah White and Brandon White are a married couple living in Ivins with their five children, who range in age from 2 to 12. They also shared their home with 18-year-old Jamie Brannan and 19-year-old Stephanie Sanderson, two young women from the foster care system.

During the four years Brannan and Sanderson were in their care, the Whites experienced the trials and triumphs of raising two virtual strangers who would eventually become members of their family.

The White family, St. George, Utah, Sept. 13, 2012 | Photo courtesy of Rebekah White
The White family, St. George, Utah, Sept. 13, 2012 | Photo courtesy of Rebekah White

St. George News interviewed Rebekah White, Brannan and Debbie Hofhines, an area representative for the Southwest Region of the Utah Foster Care Foundation, to gain perspective on each’s unique personal experience with the foster care system.

Debbie Hofhines

What are the benefits of the foster care system?

Foster care is a wonderful way to help the most vulnerable in our community, our children. Foster parents play an integral role in supporting the relationship children have with their biological family.  Many of our foster parents find it very rewarding to contribute to a family being healthy and whole and reunited.

What are the drawbacks of the foster care system?

Foster care is not right for everyone. Some families find it too difficult and end up giving the children back to DCFS.

What are the responsibilities associated with being a foster parent?

Foster parents care for the children’s most basic and most special needs, to help them heal, trust and feel safe. They can often be mentors or peer parents as well, to help the child’s biological family learn how to care for and offer structure to their children.

What is the process for becoming a foster parent?

There are many checks and balances in the process of becoming a foster parent, to ensure that children are being placed in the best environment possible.

What makes a successful foster parent?

Successful foster parents are those who can be a resource to children. It takes desire and commitment to meet the needs of a child. You have to be in it for the kids.

How are families impacted by bringing a foster child into their home?

We do an exit survey with foster families after they close their licenses.  Most people report an overall satisfaction and positive experience for themselves and their children, and say they would do it again.

Aside from becoming foster parents, how can people support the foster care system?

The best way to support the foster care system is to help us spread the word. So many people out there could help if they knew of the need. These are our children. They are our responsibility and our future.

What would you like our readers to know about the foster care system?

Most kids in foster care are there through no fault of their own. We endeavor to prepare and support families so they can be successful in providing what the children in their care need for a stable and successful future.

Rebekah White

Why did you decide to become foster parents?

We’ve been very lucky; my husband has a good job that can support us and we have a very healthy family. We wanted to extend that by opening up our home to a child in need. Even before my husband and I had children, we wanted to adopt.

What was the process like?

We filled out a thorough application, had background checks done, had our home inspected to make sure it was clean and safe and completed 32 hours of training. It was scary at first, because we didn’t know what we were getting into.

How did Jamie Brannan and Stephanie Sanderson end up in your care?

Two weeks after we submitted our application, DCFS called and asked if we would be willing to take in Jamie. We were blown away because we didn’t have a experience raising teenagers, but thought about it a lot and decided it was the right thing to do. A couple of months after Jamie arrived, they called again and asked if we would be willing to foster Stephanie.

What was your first impression of them?

Jamie was scared and angry. It was Stephanie’s second time in foster care, and she was more willing to adapt. She viewed living with us as a fresh start.

How did they interact with each other?

They were best friends one minute and enemies another. The dynamic went back and forth and sometimes it was very hard for them.

How did they interact with your biological children?

They were always kind to our kids and tried to have a relationship with them. They loved when our kids included them in activities.

What is your relationship with them like now?

We have a really positive relationship with Jamie. If she has questions about living on her own or anything else, she can come to us. With Stephanie, it’s mostly positive and kind of strange. She’s living with us now and she’s not sure what she’s doing with her life. We have problems like any family, but on the whole we have a positive relationship with both.

What are the benefits of the foster care system?

It gives children a chance to see a life beyond abuse, drugs and alcohol and hopefully allows them to have potential for a better future. For foster families, it teaches appreciation for the things you have by observing those who are less fortunate.

What are the drawbacks of the foster care system?

It’s a government-run program. Sometimes it’s not run very efficiently and it’s hard to get things accomplished. It was also hard trying to coordinate everyone involved in the girls’ lives. Between their biological parents, the foster care team and us, they all thought they knew what was best.

What experiences have you taken away from being foster parents?

We’ve watched these girls transform from being sad, angry and alone to radiating happiness and joy. They’re more self-assured that they can accomplish things in their life. They said, “I never would have graduated high school without you. I never would have gone to college. You made me believe I could do it.”

What makes a successful foster parent?

Empathy and patience. Anyone can be a successful foster parent if they can be understanding of where the child is coming from and what they’ve been through.

What makes a successful integrated family?

A family, from the parents to the biological children to the foster children, needs to be able to talk comfortably and openly about what they’re feeling and have the family as a whole determine what’s best for the situation. An important part of parenting Jamie and Stephanie was being very open and frank about rules and discipline.

What would you like our readers to know about the foster care system?

Many times, foster children come with a pre-determined image that they’re bad and will cause problems. They’re judged harshly when they just need someone to show them love and show them another way.

Would you consider fostering another child?

Perhaps, in the far future. We haven’t ruled it out.  At this point, our own children are going to become teenagers in the next few years and we feel like we need to focus on them now.

Jamie Brannan

How did you end up in the foster care system?

I was 14 when I entered foster care. My parents weren’t suitable to live with so I was living with a friend, but their parents got into trouble with drugs and I had nowhere else to go.

What was your first impression of the White family?

They were very friendly and welcoming. They did whatever they could to make me feel comfortable. Their biological children were a little overwhelming at first, but I absolutely love them and had a great experience bonding with them.

What was your first impression of Stephanie Sanderson?

It was nice when she moved in. I liked having someone close to my age who I could relate to.

What has your life been like since leaving foster care?

It’s been great. Living with the Whites and the help I got from DCFS prepared me to be on my own and take care of myself, and I feel like I’m doing a great job.

What experiences have you taken away from being a child in the foster care system?

Foster care was nothing but beneficial to me. It turned my life around and put me on the right path.

What is your relationship with the White family like now?

I feel like I have a great relationship with them and I still spend time with them. I definitely look up to them as parent figures.

What is your relationship with Stephanie Sanderson like now?

She and I have a great relationship. We’ve had our ups and downs but we have always been very close.

What are the benefits of the foster care system?

Foster care has many benefits if the youth choose to take advantage of them. I took a life skills class and learned a lot from that about how to support myself. Now I’m going to college and even buying a car.

What are the drawbacks of the foster care system?

I am sometimes judged unfairly because I was in foster care. Some people don’t understand the purpose of foster care and seem to think the youth did something wrong to end up in the system.

What do you want our readers to know about the foster care system?

I would love for everyone to know how amazing it is. It gives children a chance at life that they wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. It can be very hard sometimes, but I’m always willing to help people better understand the foster care system.

St. George News spoke with Sanderson, but she declined to participate in an interview.

Anyone interested in becoming involved in foster care is encouraged to contact the Utah Foster Care Foundation and first thoroughly discuss and research all aspects of what may be one of the most important decisions of their lives.

The Utah Foster Care Foundation Southwest Region office can be reached at 435-656-8065.

Updated March 14 to reflect a correction of a sourcing error. Foster children cannot return directly to their biological parents from a foster home, as originally reported. They must first be returned to the custody DCFS, who may then relocate them to another foster home or return them to their biological parents, depending on the unique situation.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.


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  • Tina Forsyth March 13, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    “Some families find it too difficult and end up giving the children back to their biological family or the system.”

    This article was very well done. I appreciate that you showed so many different perspectives. Just as a point of correction, foster parents cannot just give back the kids to the biological parents. That can only be done through the social service agency, by court order.

    • Alexa Verdugo Morgan March 14, 2013 at 11:43 am

      We have corrected the error, Tina. Thank you for bringing it to our attention and for your kind comments.

      Alexa Verdugo Morgan
      Reporter, St. George News

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