Pam Montoya has a picture of a toddler in her wallet. She is the mother of four girls, but the photo is of a little boy to whom she is not related except in spirit.
The child was one of her foster children and he came into her family's life at a time when she was sick.
"He helped me heal," she said. "I had to be strong not only for my own kids, but for him."
Pam and Ernest Montoya, who live in Yampa, have had so many foster children they can't keep an accurate count. But if you pressed them, they could give a good rundown of each child they have cared for over the past 12 years.
"We thought it would be a good way to share as little or as much as we had," Pam Montoya said. "At the time, I didn't realize the scope."
Being a foster parent is a commitment. It is not only a challenge to become one, but to live it when a call comes in the middle of the night that an infant needs a home or that a teenager needs to spend the weekend somewhere.
"They are caring people," Routt County Human Services foster care coordinator Pat Chase said. "They have a sense of what it takes to be a good parent. They mix discipline, love and structure."
There are 14 licensed foster families in Routt County and many of them are in south Routt County, Chase said. There are four children in placement right now.
"Fourteen is a good number because the county is so spread out and we like to have families that like to work with older children," Chase said.
Children end up in foster care for a variety of reasons, from having parents who are in jail, being involved in a domestic or child abuse situation or having parents who cannot manage them at a certain time.
Foster care is the end of the line for social services, Chase said. She said that while people may criticize the system, if caseworkers had a choice, families would stay together, she said. Caseworkers do what they can to keep a child with his or her family, including offering family therapy or looking for relatives to take care of a child.
"We try to support parents in being parents. Being in foster care is the last resort," she said.
Foster parents, who must be at least 21 years old, go through intense screening that takes eight to 10 weeks. That's followed up by about 40 hours of training.
"It's intense," Ernest Montoya said. "They let you know throughout (the training) that this isn't for everybody. You might not take home that cuddly baby."
Foster families get about $500 per month, Chase said, to reimburse them for out-of-pocket expenses. Sometimes a family will get money for clothes, but all the children receive Medicaid for health insurance when they go into the system.
When the Montoyas started as foster parents, they had three little girls of their own younger than 10. Now they have four girls and two are in college. One of the college students is going into social work because of her experience as a member of a foster family. The Montoyas said that their children are more respectful in general of other kids and are more sympathetic people as well.
Andy and Rhonda Wirth of north Routt have been foster parents for four years and have four children, one of whom is a teenager.
"It taxes the family, but the rewards way outweigh the problems," Andy said. "We're setting an example for our kids that you have to give back."
The Wirths handle short-term placements, while the Montoyas have taken children for up to a year.
The challenge for foster parents is to stay focused, to not think that just because a child isn't automatically part of the family or cheery and talkative, they have failed.
"Sometimes you don't see those results, but some kids, you see them blossom after a week," Pam Montoya said. "They're sitting at the table and suddenly you see them start talking."
The Montoyas did have one child they couldn't handle and had one teenage girl runaway, something she had apparently planned even before she was placed, Pam said. It was hard, but they got through it.
"We're not giving up, but (we recognized) we're not the right family for this child," she said.
The Montoyas said that sometimes they have to remember where a child is coming from, which is usually a less-than-ideal situation. It can be a one-day-at-a-time or one-hour-at-a-time situation, Pam said.
"Sometimes you help them in ways you didn't think possible," Ernest said. "They have food and clean clothes. Maybe they're happier just watching a family function normally. Just the thought that someone wants to give them something is a big deal."
Eileen Rossi of south Routt said that she and her husband, Steve, lay down rules with their foster children, but they're not overbearing.
"We have fun," she said. "It's like a cousin or a niece or a nephew visiting."
Often that is what foster families tell other people about a foster child, because strict confidentiality must be maintained, Chase said.
Foster parents often meet with a child's natural parents, which is crucial. While foster parents offer a foster child unconditional love, they must understand that no matter what the situation, a child feels that same unconditional love for his or her parents.
The impetus for being foster parents is often a need to give back to the community. Many, like the Montoyas, Wirths and Rossis, have a strong faith in God that helps them through.
"You have someone else that you love, even if it's just for a short time," Rossi said. "You hope you make an impact, but it's something you won't know."
Once a person or family gets into fostering, it is apparently not something that is given up easily.
"In my 20 years experience, I've never had a family say I didn't want to be a foster family anymore," Chase said.
The Wirths always take a family picture with their foster children and the Montoyas have photo albums full of the young people they've care for.
The children are never forgotten.
"I always wonder," Rossi said. "I always pray."
- To reach Jennifer Bartlett call 871-4204 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org