Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pain and Joy of Utah’s Foster System

This article was published in the Winter 2022, Hall of Fame Issue
by Joshua Heath (SVP, Public Relations of Codeword Agency)

Our Unexpected Journey

We were halfway through a three-day holiday weekend (myself, my wife and our then 15-year-old son), and we had just sat down to relax when the phone rang with a call that would change our lives forever.

The caller was a caseworker with the Utah Department of Child and Family Services, and he explained that police were about to take a newborn baby girl into protective custody due to prenatal exposure to drugs. As a result, we needed to be on standby to receive her in our home within the hour.

With the help of some amazing family and friends, we were able to scramble and prepare for a little girl — whose short life had already been more adventurous than ours — to be a guest in our home. Shortly afterward, law enforcement officers brought the most beautiful little girl to our home. While my wife sat down and filled out some paperwork with one of the caseworkers, the other worker asked me if I would like to feed her.

Nothing in my life could have prepared me for what happened next. I looked down at this helpless little girl, whose clothes were still dirty from being left on the floor for hours and who hadn’t eaten yet that day. Awkwardly I plucked her from her car seat.

As I brought the bottle to her lips, her eyes opened slightly, and she looked up at me. That moment was the second time in my life (outside of the moment when I first met my wife) that I fell in love at first sight.

I realized that this beautiful person I was holding had limitless potential that, without intervention, may not be fulfilled. As newer foster parents, we had just enough experience to know that this little baby faced an uphill battle against the circumstances of her arrival into this world and against a government bureaucracy full red tape. I also understood that she needed a safe place to live while things got sorted out. But personally, we were just so honored to be a part of her journey for as long as we could.

The Oft Invisible Needs in Utah

What happened to this little girl is more common than most may think. In 2021 more than 9,000 children were confirmed victims of abuse or neglect throughout the state of Utah, with more than 1,400 removed from their homes and put into the foster care system. This brought the total number of children served by Utah’s foster care last year to over 3,900.

Child abuse and neglect is a problem that impacts every corner of Utah regardless of who you are, where you live, or how much money you make. In fact, my research and experience have taught me that there are people in your neighborhood, maybe even next door, that have been impacted by this issue. As a result, there are individuals in every Utah community who need our help right now, and there is something for everyone to do.

Chris Harrington, President and CRO of Entrata is no stranger to the foster care system, having spent three years in the system while his mother sought treatment for substance abuse and other personal issues.

“The system ages you for a few different reasons,” Harrington said. “It's scary to think about what would have happened if it weren’t for the commitment of a great foster dad and intervention of a caring caseworker.”

Now, as an advocate for foster care, Harrington spends his time fundraising, boosting awareness, volunteering, dispelling misconceptions, and encouraging others to help. For example, at Christmas, he and his wife match employee donations to Utah Foster Care up to $10,000.

“I’ll never forget one Christmas we all went to bed knowing that there wasn’t going to be a Christmas that year. But someone literally snuck in and provided a Christmas for us,” he recounted.

According to Mike Hamblin, CEO of Utah Foster Care, one of the most significant issues faced by the foster care system is the general lack of awareness and visibility into what is happening in our communities.

“We need to raise awareness for the need to support the children as well the need to help and support foster families,” Hamblin explained. “They need empathy, understanding, and support as most traditional support groups just don’t understand what they are going through. That being said, the most powerful thing that is needed is for these kids to build a relationship of trust with a committed and caring adult they can be safe with and get support from.”

Harrington shared with me the impact of one particular foster family placement with a foster father, someone Harrington felt was the first man to actually treat him with respect.

“This relationship had a lasting impact on me for the rest of my life,” he said. “I truly felt like he was committed to me and my success. He spoke with me honestly about the realities of my situation and reassured me that I could grow up to be what I wanted without being defined by my circumstances.”

Both Harrington and Hamblin agree that there is something that everyone can do when it comes to serving in foster care.

“While not everyone may be able to become a foster parent, there are many other opportunities to serve,” Hamblin said.

“There are kids in your community that are alone and scared and in need of immediate help,” Harrington added. “Do something. Anything. Allow Utah Foster Care to come and present to your employees. I guarantee someone in the crowd will choose to become a foster parent, and someone else will choose to be a mentor or to donate”

The Journey Continues

Through my journey  I have learned that there are also immediate needs for adults to serve as Big Brothers and Big Sisters, people willing to work with older youth, especially those who are getting close to aging out of the foster care system.

“These youth need to see that there is a path out,” Harrington emphasized. "(Many) have spent their whole lives with a system telling them that they are a product of their environment. These youth need mentors. People who they can look up to that are successful and living a life that has purpose and rewards to it.”

Since becoming a foster parent myself, I have seen firsthand the immediate need kids have in our community for help. Such experiences have been one of the most heartbreaking and rewarding times of my life, which has meant a lot of sleepless nights and early mornings filled with grief and stress.

On the other hand, I have seen growth in myself, my wife, and my son, growth that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I’ve also learned that every time your heart breaks, it only increases your strength and ability to love.

We are still relatively new foster parents with only a couple of cases under out belts, but we will never regret the decision we made to get involved.

Before this, our life was comfortable, maybe a little too comfortable. When we decided to go through the training and get certified, I kept telling myself, “I can quit at any time.”

Yet now I am so glad that I didn’t walk away.

From Foster to Adopted

A year after this little girl was dropped into the middle of our lives, her birth parents decided to voluntarily relinquish their parental rights in one of the single most extraordinary acts of love I have ever witnessed.

With tears in her eyes, her mother read the following statement to the court:

"My relinquishment represents the love that I have for my child and my desire to give her every opportunity to thrive in her life ahead. The love that I have for my child is without measure, and I sincerely wish the best that life can offer to her. It is for these reasons that I believe it to be in her best interest to be placed for adoption."

My tribe is now one person stronger, and my once quiet and organized house is always messy and loud. And I would not change any of it for a second. I can think of nothing else I would rather do with the rest of my life than to help this little person become whatever she wants and not be a victim of her circumstances.

I have heard the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats” when referring to the success of our community. However, I feel like the problem with this metaphor is that it allows us as individuals to abdicate our responsibility to “pitch-in” to a metaphorical tide created by the successful as they rise up.

I submit that there are no metaphorical boats that need help in our community. Instead, there are real people and real children who need us to lean in, to lend a hand, and to help them rise up.

So what can you do to help?

Honestly, you can do multiple things, from buying products for families and children through the Utah Foster Care Amazon store to hosting a Lunch and Learn, or from making a personal donation to becoming a mentor for an older foster child.

To get started, I invite readers to visit https://utahfostercare.org/get-involved/.

And my hope is that for some of you, you may find a journey that will bring you a new sense of fulfillment never before found.

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