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There aren't enough foster parents in North Carolina. Kids are sleeping in social service offices

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According to Charles Bradley, Mecklenburg County's youth and family services division director, 55 foster children have slept in county offices since July 2022.

North Carolina is in a foster care crisis. Federal data show the number of licensed foster care homes in the state dropped 23% from 2021 to 2022. That means there are only about 5,500 foster homes available for the approximately 10,200 foster children in North Carolina. Because of the shortage, dozens of children in Mecklenburg County have slept in county offices the past year according to the county Department of Social Services.

Michelle Crouch has written about all of this for the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter and North Carolina Health News. She joins us now.

Marshall Terry: OK, Michelle, before we get into this foster care shortage and what's behind it, tell us why a child might end up in the foster system to begin with.

Michelle Crouch: So, kids get removed from their homes for all sorts of reasons. But generally speaking, it's because there is a concern that they aren't safe or being appropriately cared for in their home. So there may be allegations of abuse or neglect. In a lot of cases, there's substance abuse. Anything that raises concern about their safety, and the idea of the system is that it can protect children while giving parents a chance to get their lives back on track.

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Michelle Crouch is an independent healthcare journalist for the Charlotte Ledger and North Carolina Health News.

Terry: So what's going on? What's behind this foster shortage? And why is the number of foster parents actually falling?

Crouch: Mecklenburg has never had enough foster parents, but the situation now is as bad as it's ever been. The decline really started during the pandemic. At that point, you had foster parents opting out because they were scared of the disease and they didn't want to bring a child into their home if they didn't know where that child had been. And then you had parents who opted out because schools were closed. And as we all know, it was overwhelming to take care of extra kids at home while schools were closed.

But even now, the state is still losing more families than it's bringing in. There's a lot of different reasons for that. There's a shortage of child care spots for foster children. There's a shortage of mental health services. But a big one is that foster families are saying they just don't feel as supported. Foster families get a lot of support from county social workers. And social workers right now, across the state, are overworked and they have incredibly high caseloads.

Terry: And that leads me to my next question. You write that social services departments are understaffed. Why is that, and what impact is it having? I mean, it sounds like they're overextended.

Crouch: That's right, Marshall. Social workers have really tough jobs. A lot of these cases are heartbreaking. So there is an emotional component that makes it very difficult. And then, they're the ones who are checking on these kids in their foster homes to make sure they're doing OK. They have to stay on top of the kids' medical and dental appointments. They supervise visitation with their biological parents. They drive them all around; sometimes they're driving them to school and they spend hours testifying in court, in some of these cases.

And now on top of that, they're also spending a lot of time on the phone trying to find placements when kids come into care, because there aren't enough foster homes and they're also having to work overnight shifts, staying with the kids either in DSS offices or sometimes in hotels.

Terry: So you mentioned a moment ago, them having to make calls to find a foster home. How many calls do they usually have to make before they find one?

Crouch: In some cases, they are making as many as 60 phone calls to find a placement for one child — and that is truly unheard of.

Terry: Is pay also an issue for social service workers?

Crouch: Absolutely. So, as you know, there is a worker shortage and social workers don't make a huge amount of money in Mecklenburg. They're making around $49,000, sometimes up to $74,000. But in this worker shortage, they're being lured away to health care. They're being lured away to different nonprofits. A lot of them are finding that there is less demanding work that pays better, and what happens is that ends up putting more pressure on the caseworkers who remain.

Terry: So what's the solution to this problem, then? I mean, obviously, having more families become fosters is a big part of it. Is anything being done to try and persuade more households to take in children?

Crouch: So there are lots of efforts across the state to increase the number of foster homes. The legislature, for example, recently increased the monthly stipend for foster parents, so that might make a difference. Mecklenburg County recently hired a marketing firm, and that firm is working on a campaign of digital and print ads to try to recruit more foster families. It's expected to launch by the end of the year. And then there are different foster care support groups that are all working hard to talk about how rewarding it can be to have a foster child in your home.

Terry: Well, aside from all that, trying to recruit more families, what else can be done?

Crouch: You know, I hope that people who are listening to this program, and who saw my work in the Charlotte Ledger and North Carolina Health News, will consider opening up their homes and their hearts to a foster child. But if you're not up for doing that, there are lots of different groups locally that are supporting foster families and foster kids.

There's Foster Village, they give welcome packs to children who come in to care. They provide one-on-one support for foster parents, therapy, there's Congregations for Kids. They have a really cool program, they'll pair you up with a social worker and you can provide encouragement and support to a social worker as they do this difficult job. They also provide mentors for foster kids. So you could be a mentor to a foster kid.

In Gaston County, there's Least of These, which has opened some homes, called hummingbird houses, where social workers can go and stay with kids overnight instead of being stuck in a county office building or in a hotel. And they're actually looking for homes in Charlotte in order to open more of these.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.