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‘Like any other kids’: Governor, first lady address Utah’s foster care shortage

By Curtis Booker - Daily Herald | May 28, 2024

Curtis Booker, Daily Herald

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox speak about the need of more foster care families in the state at Entrata in Lehi on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.

Utah officials and church leaders are urging citizens to consider becoming foster parents as the state is currently seeing a declining number of foster families.

On Tuesday, Gov. Spencer Cox along with first lady Abby Cox joined Utah Foster Care officials and interfaith leaders at Entrata in Lehi to address the need.

For over two years, Entrata has worked closely with Utah Foster Care in sponsoring events for children in foster care and foster families. Their corporate “Community of Care” program helps provide kids with experiences such as concerts, Utah Jazz games and other activities.

Nikki MacKay, CEO of Utah Foster Care, said there are 1,756 children in the state’s foster care system but only 822 foster families. Digging further into the data, 1 in 4 foster kids are Latino, 1 in 3 are LGBTQ+ and 1 in 3 are teens, according to the organization.

While the event comes toward the end of National Foster Care Month, MacKay stressed the importance of Utahns understanding just how dire the foster care situation is. “There are kids in need today that need a family, that need a safe place to go while their families heal, and children always do better with family,” she told the Daily Herald. “So if we can avoid putting kids in shelters in dormitory-style living like we talked about today, then that’s the best thing possible for children.”

There are a number of reasons for the shortage of foster homes, from families who don’t remain in the system to those who may be hesitant to open their doors. Abby Cox, who’s been an advocate for foster care awareness through her Show Up initiative, assured attendees at Tuesday’s gathering that the foster care system isn’t broken. “There are broken families. There are broken people. And that’s what we’re here to do is to help heal the brokenness of these children and of these families,” she said.

In 2023, the first lady introduced a program that will offer support to foster care families. Utah’s Care Communities program surrounds foster families with local support through Care Teams made up of eight to 10 people or families, according to the Utah Foster Care website. A full rollout of the program is expected in the coming months.

In the meantime, she encourages Utahns to look at ways they can help, by either fostering or offering a helping hand to a current foster family. “We are the most generous and we are the most family-friendly state, and I think it would shock so many of you to know that there are children without families in Utah,” Abby Cox said.

Gov. Cox, while pleading with Utahns to consider foster care, didn’t dispel its challenges. “I haven’t talked to a foster family yet who said, ‘This is the easiest thing we’ve ever done.’ It’s the exact opposite,” he said. “What we often hear is, “This is the hardest thing we’ve ever done, and we’re so glad we’re doing it. It’s the best thing we’ve ever done.”

A lack in foster families isn’t specific to Utah. Recent data shows that more than half of all states are seeing a decline in licensed foster homes. Despite the challenges and stigma around fostering, the governor said he believes Utah can turn the tide and lead the nation in families waiting to foster as opposed to children waiting on a foster family.

Inside of a foster home

Melissa Nielsen of Payson says she’s been a foster parent for over 25 years. The inspiration comes from her dad, who she said was a foster child. “He had a sibling group of five and he was brought into foster care. And so we’ve had a love and a passion to give back to be part of the foster community,” Nielsen told the Daily Herald.

For nearly 30 years, her family has opened their doors to over 100 foster children. She says it’s been joyous to have them all be a part of her world, giving them love and a place to call home.

As to be expected, it also has come with obstacles. “Whether it be school, whether it be interacting with other peers or conflict, you know, we just learned and we just go through those challenges together,” Nielsen said.

For Nielsen and her family, the rewards seem to outweigh the challenges of being a foster family, and they find happiness in having the chance to help children heal by giving them a stable place to call home. “They are just like any other kids. They just need love and a place that they can call home and a bed to sleep in,” she said.

Utah Foster Care says the most urgent need is families to care for teens, siblings and children of diverse backgrounds. Those interested in learning more can visit utahfostercare.org.


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