MURRAY — If you want to know what foster care is really about, ask a foster parent. And ask a child who has been in foster care.
The Utah Foster Care Foundation's new integrated media campaign does precisely that, highlighting the experiences of teens adopted through foster care and their adoptive parents.
The campaign, "Utah Foster Care Changed My Life," includes 30-second spots that will appear on social media and on movie theater screens from Logan to St. George. The campaign, which also includes billboards and advertising in print media, was unveiled Tuesday during at a news conference at the foundation's office.
"Foster families are the best people to recruit other foster parents," said Mike Hamblin, the foundation's director of foster family recruitment. "They offer perspective that no one else can give, through their own experiences, in their own words."
Ecum Gerlach, 18, had other foster care placements before he was placed with Rob and Kim Gerlach. The Draper couple ended up adopting him when he was 15, he said. Having a sense of permanency and parents fully committed to his well-being have enabled him to focus on his immediate plans of high school graduation, college and studying abroad, he said.
Adoption from foster care, he said, "settles your mind. It makes your heart have relief knowing you have found a permanent home."
Gerlach, a senior at Alta High School, said his adoptive parents are "great."
"They're definitely learning how to deal with teenagers," he said.
The Gerlachs have two sons and two daughters, all adopted through foster care. After adopting a baby girl, the couple began fostering teenagers once they learned about the significant number of teenagers in foster care who lack adoptive homes.
Rob Gerlach jokes that their multiracial family would give Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie "a run for their money."
Their son Ibrahim was a refugee from Sierra Leone. His parents are presumed dead, and he entered the United States with a group of refugees, although none were blood relatives.
The group resettled in Utah, but Ibrahim, then 6 or 7, was placed in state foster care after his caregivers were investigated for child abuse, he said.
Being placed with the Gerlachs "was a pretty good fit for me. Everything worked out perfectly fine," he said.
According to the Utah Foster Care Foundation, there are about 1,300 licensed foster parents in Utah. But there are some 2,700 children in state custody. If caseworkers have a larger pool of available foster parents, they can place children with adults who better suit their needs, Hamblin said.
Last year, some 525 children were adopted from foster care, but less than 8 percent were 12 and older, he said. Meanwhile, 185 aged out of foster care.
The Gerlachs said they hope the campaign will help open the eyes of Utah families to the possibility of foster care and adoption of teenagers.
Kim Gerlach said some prospective foster parents are reluctant to have teenagers placed in their homes because of misplaced fear about their personal histories.
Her sons have had difficult lives, but each has risen above the adversity, she said.
"It's made them stronger. Both of these boys are leaders," she said.
Ibrahim plays on the junior varsity basketball team as a power forward and center at Alta High. He's learning how to drive, and "hopefully, I'll play college basketball," he said.
Rob Gerlach said he believes his teenage sons "were always a part of our family."
"It just took us a long time to find one another."
He said foster parents receive a wealth of training and assistance from the state Division of Child and Family Services and the Utah Foster Care Foundation.
"I was astounded how deep the support is and how many people are devoted to it," he said.
That training and support has given the Gerlachs confidence to handle just about any situation, he said.
Their teenage sons have different issues from their younger daughters, he said. But after consulting with neighbors who are also parents of teenage children, Rob Gerlach said he's become convinced that the teen years are challenging for all.
"No one seems to know what to do with teenage boys," he said, softly laughing. "But you learn that kids are resilient and they forgive a lot."
The Utah Foster Care Foundation will host four forums on fostering teens during January and February in Murray, Ogden, St. George and Orem.
The first forum will be at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 24, at the foundation's office, 5296 S. Commerce Drive, Murray.
For a full schedule and other information about the campaign, visit utahfostercare.org or call 801-994-5205.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company