Utah governor calls on community for help amid historic shortage of foster families

Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox pose with Natalie Clark, a former foster care young adult, and Utah Foster Care board members after a press conference in Lehi on Tuesday.

Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox pose with Natalie Clark, a former foster care young adult, and Utah Foster Care board members after a press conference in Lehi on Tuesday. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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LEHI —Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has an ambitious goal for the state's foster care system, even as it experiences a historic shortage of licensed foster families.

"There are problems that we may never be able to solve, but we will always keep trying. This is one of those problems that we actually can solve. Currently, there are no states in the nation that don't have a waiting list for kids," Cox said at a press conference Tuesday. "We truly believe that Utah can become the first state where there are families waiting for kids, instead of kids waiting for families."

Utah has 1,756 children in the foster care system but only 822 licensed foster families. The number of licensed families is the lowest it has been in 25 years, according to Utah Foster Care CEO Nikki MacKay.

"When a child enters foster care, it's because their parent has no one else in their life to support them during a very vulnerable and challenging time in their life. They have no family, and they have no friends that can step into this space and help care for their child temporarily while they need that support. And this is the devastating reality of foster care," said MacKay.

The mismatch between licensed foster homes and the number of children can lead to children living in "dormitory-style living" or group homes, MacKay added.

"Nationally, we have seen children have to stay in our caseworkers' offices and hotels, and we do not want to see that here in Utah. Outcomes are better for children when they have options to best fit individual needs, and we know that children do better when they're with families," said MacKay. "The kids in Utah need you, and we need you."

That need is what prompted Tuesday's press conference, with Cox inviting Utahns to open their homes and issuing a formal invitation to faith leaders across the state to discuss the need with their congregations. Cox drew inspiration from former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who issued a similar invitation 24 years ago when the state was faced with a similar crisis in the foster system.

The response then was overwhelming and prompted a record number of foster families, and Cox said he is calling on Utahns to do the same thing again.

Natalie Clark, a former foster care young adult, gets a hug after speaking during a Utah Foster Care press conference in Lehi on Tuesday.
Natalie Clark, a former foster care young adult, gets a hug after speaking during a Utah Foster Care press conference in Lehi on Tuesday. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"We are the state, they are our children and it is our duty to care for them until their parents can do so, and we need you now more than ever," Cox said tearfully.

For those who cannot foster, Cox said there are "things that all of us can do," from dropping off meals every week to offering to watch the children.

"This is it. This is the stuff when we say we're the best state in the nation and the most generous state in the nation. Now it's time to put our actions where our mouth is. This is how we prove that we really are the most generous state of the nation," said Cox.

Among Utah Foster Care and the Cox administration were several faith leaders, Entrata CEO Adam Edmunds, a former foster care young adult and a current foster family.

"No one is alone in this journey — that support is so important because not everything is sunshine and rainbows. Like anything worth doing there are hard times, but there's always been someone to turn to for help when needed," said Chad Griffiths, whose family is currently fostering a 4-year-old boy. "It doesn't matter who you are, I guarantee you that you have something to give to these children and they have something to give to you. Please come join us on our journey."

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Ashley Fredde covers human services and and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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