Vail Valley: From foster care to ‘forever’ family |

Vail Valley: From foster care to ‘forever’ family

Kathy Heicher
Special to the Vail Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
Photo by Eye Capture PhotosEagle residents Luanne and Jason Conrad will soon adopt a little girl. Their stint as the child's foster parents led to the adoption.

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – When they took her into their Vail Valley home last fall, the dark-haired little girl with the Dora the Explorer haircut had been in and out of the foster care system for most of her life.

She was unusually quiet for an almost six-year-old child and lacking in motor and cognitive skills. She feared new sounds and sudden movement, avoided physical contact, and was sometimes angry.

Now, after living full-time since mid-December with the foster parents who are in the process of adopting her, she is a changed child.

“We can’t get her to stop talking,” reports her soon-to-be adopted father, Jason Conrad of Eagle, with an indulgent smile. In fact, Conrad and his wife, Luanne, must caution the little girl about talking too freely with strangers. The now-chatty child is comfortable in her new home and likes to possessively point out and claim “my bed” or “my toys.” A variety of therapists continue to help her build motor and social skills.

The progress is notable. She willingly runs to the Conrads for hugs and already calls them “mom” and “dad.” When talking with their daughter-to-be, the Conrads describe their modest house as her “forever home.”

“She understands she won’t be moving anymore. This is a permanent thing,” says Luanne.

There are situations where the safety and well being of children can be assured only by removing kids from the family home and placing them in a certified facility. Sometimes the placement is short-term, such as for a single night. Other situations require longer-term placement.

Unfortunately, in Eagle County the demand for placement of children, especially those with medical needs, exceeds the number of foster homes available. During the first quarter of 2010, social workers removed 19 children from their homes. However, there is currently only one licensed foster home in the county. Most of those children needed a high level of care that is not available in Eagle County.

Sherri Almond, children and family services director for Eagle County Health and Human Services, says the county needs three to five certified foster homes. Short term and emergency care foster homes are the greatest need.

Quite often, the emergency situations happen at night, and it is difficult for social workers to place the children. When possible, children are placed with relatives or family friends, preferably within the county, which lessens the trauma. The lack of facilities locally means children sometimes must taken out of the county, sometimes as far away as Grand Junction or Denver.

“That’s just really scary for kids,” says Eagle County caseworker Sarah LeBlanc. “If we can keep them in their own community, and at their own schools, it is just better for them. We would love to have that option.”

Local foster homes make it easier for the children to stay in contact with their parents and families, and for caseworkers to oversee those visits.

The Conrads, who are in their mid-30s and have been married for 10 years, knew they wanted to adopt a child. They had already met the little dark-haired girl through a friend who had fostered her at various times.

The child’s story is sad. The mother, who already had other young children, worked three jobs in order to support her family. Although the mother functioned well with the older children she did not have the time, knowledge or skills to bond with a special-needs baby.

When the baby girl was diagnosed as “failure to thrive,” social workers, doctors, and other experts stepped in to help. However, struggling with a language barrier and lack of understanding, the mother could not cope with the child’s needs.

The mom eventually decided to give up custody of the child. The Conrads stepped up to give the little girl a chance. Working with the county, the Conrads obtained their foster care certification. Soon, the child was spending weekends with them, and adjusting to the new house and new rules.

It took her some time to open up to her new caretakers. Full-time custody began in December. The adoption should be final in June, if the court approves the petition.

The Conrads acknowledge that foster care is a big commitment. There is plenty of paperwork involved. Childcare and school arrangements must be made, and there are numerous meetings with a caseworker.

The couple attended classes to learn parenting skills, first aid, and CPR. Their home was inspected and they were interviewed by an agency that screens foster and adoptive parents.

The little girl requires a half-dozen appointments each week with therapists and health care professionals. The Conrads say they are committed to making sure she gets the necessary help.

“She has had so many negative memories. We can give her positive memories,” says Luanne.

“The reward is just knowing that we can change her life, and make it better. We can let her know it is okay to be a kid,” says Jason.

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