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In search of a forever home: Number of children in foster care on the rise

coverIn a perfect world, every child would have a loving family and a safe home to return to at the end of the day, but it’s not a perfect world. The reality is that thousands of children are removed from their homes each year in North Carolina.

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Foster care agencies continue to see the number of foster care cases increase and the opportunities to reunify those children with their biological parents decrease. It’s a trend many Western North Carolina counties are experiencing. 

Swain County Department of Social Services has 16 more children in the system than last year, which is a large jump for a county with a small population of 14,000. 

“We don’t really see a cause for the trend because the economy has slowly gotten better in the last couple of years,” said Swain DSS Director Sheila Sutton. “But we have seen a lot of substance abuse and it takes parents a long time to get treatment and to get better before they can get their kids back. It can take more than a year, so you’re looking at a very rare chance at reunifying them within a year.”

Sutton said there also are many cases of children being taken away from single mothers who can’t make a living wage, can’t afford child care for several kids and don’t have a family support system nearby to help them. 

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Donna Lupton, director of social work for Haywood County, said social workers want to do everything possible to keep children with their family through the in-home prevention program. However, when a child continues to be in danger, there is no choice but to petition the court and remove the child from the home. 

When that happens, the options are to place the children with other family members or in a licensed foster home. The problem is there are an average of 100 children in the foster care system and only about 40 foster homes in Haywood County. 

The caseload to foster home ratio presents a number of problems for social workers — child safety workers are stretched thin, budgets continue to increase, and children have to be placed in homes far away from their family.  


Fostering farther away

Because of the shortage of foster homes in the region, foster children have to be placed in licensed homes all across the state. Depending on the child’s needs, they might have to be placed in a foster home qualified to provide more specialized care. 

“Kids can be anywhere from 2 miles to 100 miles from Haywood County — it all depends on the availability of homes,” said Foster Care Supervisor Paula Watson. “Even if we place a kid out of state with a family member, we have to visit them there once every three months, so we might have to go to New Jersey, but we also partner with other local DSS agencies to visit those homes once a month.”

Sutton said many children taken into foster care in Swain County are dealing with trauma and mental health issues and need to be placed in a mental health facility or a licensed therapeutic foster home, which are far and few between. 

No matter how far the child is located from their home, their social worker is required to visit them in their foster home at least once a month and make an effort to ensure children can visit with their biological parents on a regular basis. Some social workers drive hundreds of miles a day to meet these requirements. 

“We’re totally responsible for these kids,” Lupton said. “And we’re not sure their needs are being met unless we are seeing them monthly face-to-face.”

Lupton said placing children in foster homes far away from their support system is not an ideal situation when DSS’s goal is to reunite children with their biological parents. When children are hours away from their parents, weekly visitations often turn into monthly visitations or no visitations at all. 

Social workers are so overloaded with cases that the agencies find it hard to designate a person just to recruit more foster parents and get them trained so they can get licensed through the state. 


Reunification efforts

Placing a child in a foster home is only supposed to be a temporary fix until the child can return home to his or her biological parents or guardian. Lupton said the goal is to reunify parent and child within a year, but in reality the average time for a child in foster care is about two years.

When a child is removed from the home, the social workers work closely with the parent to come up with a plan of action. The social worker clearly lays out what the parent needs to do before the child can return home, which could include counseling, parenting classes, getting a job or finding safe housing. If a parent has to seek drug or alcohol abuse treatment, the process can take much longer. 

“Substance abuse is a big mitigating factor — more so than serious physical abuse,” Watson said. “We have parents who can’t take care of their children properly because they choose substances, but we can’t let children live in homes with active substances to the point they test positive for drugs.”

Sutton said it was becoming more and more difficult to get parents to engage in the reunification plan, which could be why Swain County’s reunification rate has decreased. In 2014-15, Swain County had 50 kids in the foster care system, and only 10 were able to return home. 

Watson said the same thing is happening in Haywood County. Even though social workers have planning sessions with parents, school officials or health care providers to develop a plan for reunification, they can’t force parents to participate. 

“We make every reasonable effort with parents to make sure they are given every opportunity possible to get their children back,” she said. 

The process is still far from over when a child is able to return home. The process begins gradually with supervised visits and then unsupervised visits, overnight visits and eventually permanently back in the home. Social workers continue to make regular visits until they are assured the child is safe and secure back home. Sutton said the courts wouldn’t consider closing a case until the child has had a smooth three months back in the home. 

If reunification isn’t an option, social workers begin putting together a plan for long-term foster care or adoption.  

“Seventy-five percent of kids not able to return home are adopted by foster families,” Lupton said. “So if we want to keep our foster home base, we have to keep recruiting because foster homes are only allowed to have five kids in the home, whether they are foster kids or biological.”


Other challenges

Besides the increasing demand for services, social workers face other challenges in making sure their children are being provided for. They don’t just want their foster children to have a roof over their heads — they want them to lead normal lives just like any other kid in the community. 

A new state law requires that foster children are given the same opportunities as other children, including the ability to participate in after-school programs, sports, have birthday parties, go to sleepovers, attend their prom and get their driver’s license. These might seem like simple things, but even simple activities become complicated in the foster system.

“A lot of people are under the impression that the state pays for all aspects of foster children, but we spend lot of time during the year fundraising to buy Christmas for 53 children,” Sutton said. 

Lupton said many children in foster care, especially teenagers, wouldn’t have any Christmas gifts but for the generous donations from people and groups in the community. 

Watson said the biggest challenge of her job is seeing children go through so much trauma that they struggle in even the best of foster homes. They can become their own worst enemies by being defiant and disruptive in a foster home or running away. Even though foster children who turn 18 can sign an agreement and stay in the system while they attend college, some are so eager for freedom that they leave the system and attempt to face life on their own.

“They’ve been through such emotional harm that we see them struggle and we feel helpless to help them,” Watson said. “The exact resources they need may not be at our fingertips and we have to put Band-Aids on it until we can find it.”



North Carolina Foster Care Facts

The number of children in the North Carolina foster care system has fluctuated in the last five years. 

• 2009: 9,500

• 2010: 8,759

• 2011: 8,275

• 2012: 8,140

• 2013: 8,722


Haywood County

                    Expenses         No. of children      Reunification rates

2010-11:      $886,039                100                          56%

2011-12:      $992,994                101                          83%

2012-13:      $1,200,006             110                          56%

2013-14:      $1,069,320             101                          50%

2014-15:      $1,249,674             106                          48%

2015-16:      $390,875                                                N/A
(July 1 to present)


Macon County

                    Expenses       No. of children      Reunification rates

2011-12:      $109,515                  43                             75%

2012-13:      $165,545                  49                             91%

2013-14:      $264,855                  60                             50%

2014-15:      $232,470                  57                             66%

2015-16       $104,805                  47                             N/A
(Four months)


Swain County

                    Expenses       No. of children      Reunification rates

2011-12:      $422,000                 43                              55%

2012-13:      $339,000                 37                              85%

2013-14:      $388,000                 44                              48%

2014-15:      $425,000                 50                              20%

2015-16:      $550,000                 53                              N/A


Jackson County

                    Expenses       No. of children      Reunification rates

2011-12:      $257,243                 35                              20%

2012-13:      $350,183                 44                              72%

2013-14:      $216,007                 39                              33%

2014-15:      $259,929                 41                              72%

2015-16:      $89,330                   53                               N/A
(July 1-present)


Adopt a foster child for Christmas

Many children in foster care aren’t able to spend the holidays with their families. Without the help of social workers and donations, some children wouldn’t have any gifts to open on Christmas morning. 

If you would like to shop for a specific foster child’s Christmas gifts or sponsor a child by making a monetary donation, call your local Department of Social Services.

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