CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WJZY) — Foster systems across the country have reported struggles amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including North Carolina, where some foster children have begun sleeping on cots in jails, emergency rooms and Department of Social Services offices because there are not enough foster families in the state to accommodate them.
Data collected by Foster Care Capacity has shown that there has been a 20% decrease in licensed families across North Carolina in the past four years.
At the start of the pandemic, there were 7,185 licensed foster families in the state, but by 2022, the number had dropped to below 5,500.
Foster systems in other states are also coping with similar shortages.
According to the American Society for the Positive Car of Children, states including Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Indiana, and California, among others, have found themselves with foster care challenges that include an increased number of children placed in the system and a shortage of foster parents, with the latter often due to recruitment and retention issues.
In North Carolina, there are 11,000 youths in the foster care system.
“We probably get a minimum of five to 10 referrals a day for children, and sometimes those are sibling groups,” said Mikaila Reinhardt, a family recruitment specialist with The Children’s Home Society of North Carolina.
Reinhardt spent part of her childhood in the Foster care system but said that she never had to sleep in some of the places children are now.
“It’s already just a hard situation being the child in foster care,” she said. “But then to have a crisis where things have come down to the pipeline, and the amount of licensed foster parents has decreased, it’s just made it even harder for these kids.”
Area medical centers, DHHS doing what they can
North Carolina’s Novant Health has confirmed that more than a dozen children with complex behavioral health needs live at Piedmont-Triad emergency rooms. Seven are in the same boat in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area.
“Pediatric boarding is a multifaceted, nationwide issue stemming from the scarcity of specialized health and social services available to patients with complex behavioral health needs,” a Novant Health representative said in a statement. “Currently, seven such patients are being cared for in our facilities across the greater Charlotte market. We are working in close partnership with each family, the Department of Social Services, and other care providers to develop discharge plans that safely meet the needs of our patients.”
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services also released a statement to Queen City News, saying, “Each week, NCDHHS is aware of at least 50 children statewide who are waiting in an emergency department or with a county department of social services.”
The agency said most of those children have “complex behavioral health needs” and are awaiting either an inpatient or residential treatment facility or a willing foster home that can meet them.
“There are not enough of either solution,” the agency said, adding that facilities have seen reduced capacity due to COVID-19 and staffing challenges. “There are not enough foster homes willing and able to care for children with complex behavioral health needs. When a willing foster home is available, the right community supports for these children may not be available nearby.”
Reinhardt explained that decisions on where to place foster children when homes are not available are determined by their individual case workers.
“It’s going to be a case-by-case basis based on the child’s needs,” Reinhardt added. “It’s going to be whatever the social worker determines is the safest arrangement.”
State funding low, and demand for advocacy waning
There has been a dip in applications filed to become licensed foster families in the state, and according to Reinhardt, there has also been a decrease in interest in groups looking to help.
Before the pandemic, organizations, churches, and businesses would invite Children’s Home Society representatives to speak about foster care engagement. Now, those engagements have decreased.
“It’s hard to get into places to talk about this. It’s hard to get into the churches. It’s hard to get in front of the community and speak about what’s going on because I feel like people don’t want to hear it, but it’s their reality,” Reinhardt said. “And so I think the problem is, is people are not listening.”
Becoming a licensed family takes four to six months, but families could see placement in the first few weeks.
North Carolina lawmakers have begun to discuss ways to improve funding for foster care systems in a time when employment and support from non-profits have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels.
Currently, North Carolina ranks 39th out of 49 states for child welfare funding.
North Carolina House Majority Whip Jon Hardister acknowledged the need for more money.
“North Carolina provides millions of dollars for foster services,” Hardister said. “But there’s something called a permissive initiative where we’re looking at providing more money, make it recurring because these programs are proven for those that are fiscally conservative like I am this. This is a good investment. It’s proven that this actually works to keep these kids in foster care.”
Hardister said state Rep. Donny Lambeth has begun to draft a bill to give more money to the system.