By Lacey McMurry
Uintah Basin Standard
It was never part of Teresa Cook’s original life plan to become a foster parent. But after giving birth to five children, the Vernal woman still had the feeling her family was incomplete.
Initially, Cook felt like international adoption was her answer, but a serendipitous series of unconnected events soon shifted her focus to foster care.
In 2009, Teresa and her husband Rhett decided to become licensed foster care providers. Just one month after completing their training, they were asked if they would be willing to care for a 15-month-old boy named Isaiah.
Half a year later, on New Year’s Eve, another phone call came. A 9-year-old girl named Jean and her 10-year-old brother Jacob desperately needed a family willing to take them both in so they wouldn’t have to be separated.
Cook, who was still learning to juggle the schedules of six children, was initially hesitant.
“I remember saying, ‘My plate is really full right now, but they can stay with us just for the weekend while you keep looking for another place,’” she said.
The weekend, though, quickly turned into a week and that week turned into a month. Before long, the Cooks couldn’t imagine their family without Jean and Jacob. By the summer of 2011, the couple had been able to finalize the adoptions of all three of the children who had been placed in their care.
“People who know a little bit about our situation always come up to me and say, ‘Those kids are so lucky to have you,’” Cook said. “But I think the opposite is true. It’s not those kids who needed us; we needed them.”
Every so often, Cook said she still gets calls from caseworkers wondering if there is any possible way the family would be willing to care for another child.
“I hate saying no, but there just isn’t any way that we could do that right now,” she said. “It breaks my heart. I can’t stop wondering where those kids went and if they’re in a safe place.”
Across the state of Utah, officials have been sending out an urgent appeal for more foster families just like the Cooks who are willing to care for children desperately in need of a stable and loving environment. Often, foster care providers serve as a support system for children whose parents are working to make the adjustments for reunification. In some cases though, like with the Cooks, a placement might eventually become an adoption.
Regardless of the end result, Mike Hamblin, director of foster family recruitment for Utah Foster Care, said the need is the same. Unfortunately, Hamblin can cite some grim statistics that paint a picture of a system desperately in need of more caregivers.
In the Uintah Basin at any given time, there are approximately 120 to 135 kids in foster care and only 40 families licensed to provide for them.
As a result, caseworkers sometimes have no choice but to place children and teens hundreds of miles away from their homes because no beds were available nearby. All too often, siblings are split up and placed across town from each other because few foster parents are willing to care for more than one child.
“We want to do everything we can to help make this experience less traumatic, and having enough foster parents to be able to keep kids in their community or with their siblings is so important,” Hamblin said. “We need people who are willing to care for children of all ages, from birth to teenagers. These are regular kids who, due to circumstances beyond their control, have found themselves in need of a home.”
To address the ever-present need for foster parents, the Utah Foster Care Foundation recently launched a billboard campaign across the state, focusing particularly on areas like the Uintah Basin where there is a greater-than-average need for more providers.
Hamblin said there are currently three billboards in the Basin and officials hope their messages have resonated with people who have ever considered becoming foster parents.
One of the main things Hamblin said the foundation is trying to help people realize is that they need volunteers from all walks of life—regardless of whether they are married or single, if they already have kids or if they are childless.
“Just like the children in foster care are diverse, so are our foster parents,” he said. “These are just people who have seen an opportunity to change lives and make a difference.”
That message is one Cook has witnessed come to fruition in her family. With eight children at home ranging in age from 3 to 15, life at the Cook house is a crazy blend of chaos and laughter. Everyone has had to make adjustments, but Cook said it’s been an inspiring process to watch the children learn to view each other as family.
For anyone wondering if foster care might be something they should consider, Cook said it’s important to remember you don’t have to wait until you feel like you’re a supermom or superdad who has everything perfectly under control before deciding to reach out to children in need.
“I’m just a normal person,” Cook said. “I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘I have this mom stuff down now, so I guess I’m ready to take on more.’ All the foster parents I know are just regular people. These kids just want to be loved, and once they start to feel loved and secure, they reciprocate that back to you. They just need a chance.”