Loving Southern Utah’s vulnerable children: 2 foster moms’ stories

Stock image | Photo by Hakase/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

SOUTHERN UTAH — Two Southern Utah women were honored for their efforts in providing loving homes to children, likely changing the course of their young lives.

Entering the foster care system as a child isn’t easy — being removed from a familiar environment and then surrounded by strangers can be a terrifying experience for some children. A loving foster parent can mitigate the stress associated with theses changes by providing empathy and stability to let the struggling child know they are not alone.

Foster parents can make a remarkable difference in the lives of the vulnerable children placed in their care by providing a loving, nurturing environment. Two such parents, Shirley Leavitt in St. George and Valerie Davis in Cedar City, were selected to receive the “Foster Care Mom of the Year” award for going above and beyond in their efforts. The awards are presented by Utah Foster Care in May in celebration of National Foster Care Month and Mother’s Day.

“Mothers in our community do so much and make such a difference in the community, and I’m just so glad we have mothers willing to open up their home to provide a safe and nurturing environment for these children,” said Ben Ashcraft, southwest region representative for Utah Foster Care.

“It’s so nice to be able to acknowledge these foster moms on Mother’s Day,” Ashcraft said.

St. George ‘Foster Care Mom of the Year’ Shirley Leavitt

In St. George, Leavitt has been involved in the foster care program for more than 16 months and is currently caring for one foster child, along with three of her four biological children who still live at home.

She and her husband have also taken advantage of the “foster to adopt” program, which enabled them to recently adopt an infant they had fostered over the last year.

Shirley Leavitt, second to the right, in a family photo taken in 2019, Washington County, Utah | Photo courtesy of Shirley Leavitt, St. George News

Leavitt said her main motivation behind becoming a foster parent is to make a difference.

“Even if we could help one child, it could change the life of that child,” Leavitt said.

During the first year as foster parents, she said they had two teenage siblings placed in the home, which at first presented some challenges.

“It was definitely more difficult, but then again those years can be hard for any teenager, and then throw in that these kids have been taken from their home and everything they know — that’s a whole different situation.”

Putting it in that light brings perspective, she said, explaining that what these kids want most is love.

“They just want to be loved,” she said. “That’s it.”

A stable, consistent home environment is something many foster children experience for the first time in their lives.

“It’s the little things that we all take for granted that can make all of the difference for these kids,” Leavitt said. “It’s amazing to see how they can flourish when they have what they need.”

Leavitt said that she and her husband both strive to improve the lives of the children placed in their care with the hope “they will take something good away from the experience that will help them in their lives.”

Cedar City ‘Foster Care Mom of the Year’ Valerie Davis

In Cedar City, Davis has been a foster parent for more than 12 years. When asked how many children have been placed in her home throughout the years, she said, “Oh heavens, I never kept track, but there have been a lot.”

Valerie Davis at her home in Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Valerie Davis, St. George News

Davis said she wanted to become a foster parent “all of my life.” Once her own children were grown, she started pursuing the idea.

She and her husband have eight grown children, five biological and three adopted.

A majority of the children placed in Davis’ home are teenagers, which is just the way she likes it.

“Teens are fun,” she said.

Getting to know each child individually is one of the benefits of being a foster parent she enjoys the most. Some of the children she’s fostered remained in her home as long as three years, which is just fine with Davis, as it allows her to really get to know them.

Improving the life of each child is what motivates Davis, she said, and is what has fueled her efforts as a foster mom for more than a decade. Having raised a family of her own has given her a great deal of experience that she can fall back on with the children placed in her care.

Her mission is still the same, even after all these years, she explained:

Changing their lives. We don’t always get to do that, but it’s what we are always striving for.

The foster care shortage

In the U.S., more than 442,000 children – nearly three times the population of Washington County and nine times the population of Iron County – are living in foster care homes on any given day, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Of the more than 250,000 children who exit the foster care system each year, roughly half return to their biological families and another 23% are adopted.

In Utah, there are around 2,700 children in foster care at any given time and some 1,300 licensed foster/adoptive families. Most children are in foster care for about one year, but some may remain for much longer.

The length of time a child is in foster care varies depending on their family’s individual circumstances. Roughly two-thirds of the children entering foster care return to live with their birth parents or another relative. More than 600 children are adopted through foster care each year in Utah, most of whom are adopted by their foster parents.

Children in foster care often have special needs due to neglect, abuse or separation. Substance abuse is a contributing factor in many foster care cases.

Utah Foster Care

Ashcraft said Utah Foster Care needs more foster parents like Leavitt and Davis:

I just want to send out a big ‘thank you’ to all of our foster mothers for all their selfless sacrifice in taking on additional responsibilities and being patient, kind and loving in so ways.

“If you’re interested in sharing your heart and home with a child, please reach out to us for more information,” Ashcraft said. “We will sit down with you, explain the program and determine together if it would be the right fit for you.”

Utah Foster Care is a private, nonprofit organization that teams with state and private agencies to serve the needs of children and families in crisis. The coalition forms a powerful front in the effort to find permanent homes for foster children who cannot be reunited with their original families.

For more information, call 877 505-5437 or visit the Utah Foster Care website. 

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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