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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

State launches new program to help fund county foster care, children still sleeping in DSS offices

Jackson County Department of Social Services is hiring new positions to help with the thousands of people who will quality for Medicaid on December 1.
Lilly Knoepp
Jackson County Department of Social Services is hiring new positions to help with the thousands of people who will quality for Medicaid on December 1.

New state funding may help some of the region’s most vulnerable: children in foster care who live in social services offices because of a lack of foster family placements.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced DSS Emergency Placement Fund to provide county departments of social services with resources to help children in their custody. The program provides nearly $2.3 million this year and $5.5 million next year.

The overall number of foster parents declined in Western NC, as previously reported by BPR.

Jackson County DSS Director Cris Weatherford said that since the start of 2024, staff have spent 25 nights at the office with three children. Right now, there is one child living at the office.

Weatherford said the new funding will allow the county to help children and foster families with more flexibility.

“What’s the old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Weatherford said. “There may be situation in which we are working with families, in which we could spend $300, $500 bucks on something and help them with a situation to prevent a child from coming into care.”

Here's the breakdown for the funding in far Western North Carolina.
NC DHHS information/BPR News
Here's the breakdown for the funding in far Western North Carolina.

Last year staff spent 189 nights at the office with 14 children. Jackson County spent more than $100,000 on additional time and supplies last year. Weatherford explained that the county funds 56 percent of DSS costs and the other 44 percent of costs mostly come from the federal government.

The new program, will allow the state to help fill in current funding gaps.

“It's definitely going to open up a new funding source for us that will again take some of the pressure off the counties expenses towards caring for these children. It's not going to solve any of the grand problems. That's not the intent of it,” Weatherford said.

The fund is a pilot program funded by the NC General Assembly in the 2023 North Carolina state budget.

"Some children in the care of social services have particularly complex needs and can get stuck waiting in emergency departments or sleeping in government offices," NC Health and Human Services Secretary Kody H. Kinsley said in a press release. "We are providing our county partners flexible funding to replicate and expand programs already working in pockets of the state to help ensure these children get the right care at the right time."

Kinsley explained that these funds come at a critical time when an average of 32 children are living in DSS offices each week across the state because there is no place for them to go that is appropriate for their care.

Across the region, counties will receive a range of funding Jackson County will receive $19,608 in 2024 and $47,060 in 2025. Meanwhile, much larger Buncombe County will receive $55,771 in 2024 and $133,851 in 2025.

This program is funded by the Medicaid expansion signing bonus, which provided a $835 million investment to transform behavioral health in North Carolina. The Republican-controlled legislature passed Medicaid expansion after 13 years of resisting the federal assistance.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.