CHARLOTTE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Many of the 11,000 children in foster care in North Carolina are having to endure more challenging situations, including “living” out of cots in jails, DSS offices and emergency rooms, because there are not enough families in the state to accommodate them.
Data collected by Foster Care Capacity has shown a 20% decrease in licensed families during the past four years. At the start of the pandemic, there were 7,185 licensed foster families in the state, but by 2022, there were fewer than 5,500.
“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 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
Novant Health confirmed that more than a dozen children with complex behavioral health needs live out of Piedmont-Triad emergency rooms. Seven others in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area are the same situation.
“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. “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 in a statement to Queen City News said “child and family well-being is a top NCDHHS priority.”
“We take our role in helping families and communities seriously create a safe, nurturing environment where children can achieve their full potential,” the agency said. “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 majority of these children and youth are waiting to be admitted to a treatment setting that can address their complex behavioral health needs. Two settings can meet these needs 1) an inpatient or residential treatment facility or 2) a willing foster home supported by behavioral health and other services in the community.
“There are not enough of either solution. Facilities have been challenged by COVID-19 and staffing, giving them the reduced capacity. 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.
“NCDHHS continues to promote solutions with partners across the state, including professional foster care,” the agency said.
Reinhardt explained that caseworkers play a major role in housing situations.
“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, demand for advocacy waning
There has been a dip in families filing applications to become licensed foster families in the state.
Through Reinhardt’s eyes, there are also fewer groups that have shown an interest in helping.
Before the pandemic, organizations, churches, and businesses would invite Children’s Home Society representatives to speak about foster care engagement, but those have decreased.
“It’s hard to get into places to talk about this,” Reinhardt said. “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. And so I think the problem is, is people are not listening.”
Click here to find out how to schedule a speaking engagement or become a foster family.
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.
North Carolina currently ranks 39th out of 49 states for child welfare funding.
North Carolina House Majority Whip Jon Hardister acknowledged the great 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 that would provide more money to the system.