Imagine someone coming to your home in the middle of the night, handing you a box the size of a milk crate and telling you to pack whatever you can fit into it — you’re going with them. They take you to a stranger’s house to live, and there’s no telling when you’ll see your family again.
Or a juvenile court judge asks why you’re skipping school, and you tell him bluntly that your family lives in a van; you have no place to eat, sleep or shower; and school is just not a priority.
For thousands of children in Western North Carolina, this is reality. As of March 31, there were 2,386 kids in foster care in the 28 western counties, according to Fostering Court Improvement, a nonprofit that makes official state data more readily available.
And while innovative agencies and evolving state standards are making strides in streamlining the system and reuniting families, the available resources can’t keep up with the growing numbers of children needing foster care.
Buncombe County currently has 288 children in foster care — about 2 percent of the total child population, reports Angie Pittman, Buncombe county’s social work services director. In the state’s 100 counties, there were 14,831 children in the system last year, according to the N.C. Division of Social Services.
Several WNC counties are in the top 10 for their rates of foster care placements. Mitchell County leads the state with 151 per 10,000, though this is a projection, since there are only 2,979 children in the county. And Buncombe’s placement rate (44 children per 10,000) lands it in the top third statewide, according to Fostering Court Improvement. The state average is 32 per 10,000.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, notes Renaye Owen, foster care programs coordinator at CARING for Children. “That’s only measuring Department of Social Services cases,” says Owen, who’s worked in the field for 20 years. “You can maybe not double that, but it’s pretty close.” Those statistics, she explains, don’t include things like guardian-requested foster services, juvenile detention rates and preventive services administered before the DSS steps in.
Meanwhile, the need continues to grow, while the number of local foster homes has remained stagnant, notes Pittman. Buncombe County Health & Human Services, she says, “has 85 family foster homes, and we work with child-placing agencies who also have homes available, but that’s still not enough.”
At the Black Mountain Home for Children, Youth & Families, “There’s been a year-on-year increase of children entering care since 2008,” says Foster Care Coordinator Alex Williams. “Since January 2013, we’ve had to turn away over 270 children due to lack of beds and homes.”
“I don’t think there’s one particular reason” for the increase, says Williams. “Wider social issues ultimately result in children being in unsafe home situations,” she continues. And unless systematic family cycles are broken, “Children will find themselves becoming a part of them.”
Owen says aftershocks from the Great Recession are contributing to the growing gap. “I hear all the time that things are getting better, but the jobs are very low-paying, and the cost of living here is very high.” Many working-class families, she notes, have already tapped out their resources, and cuts to things like day care vouchers have left some parents feeling desperate. “They may become drinkers or start doing drugs to make themselves feel better, or they’re fighting over money, and domestic violence gets involved.”
A child’s journey through the system begins when a social worker, responding to a report of abuse or neglect, tells a judge the child’s in imminent danger, Pittman explains. The judge decides whether the child will be temporarily placed with a relative or family friend or in foster care until the parent or guardian resolves the issues triggering the removal.
Facilities like the Black Mountain Home typically offer both residential care and temporary foster placement. The home, which has served orphaned and abused children and young adults in Western North Carolina since 1904, admits more than 100 children annually, partnering with local churches and organizations such as CARING for Children.
“Our program has four main elements: foster care, residential care, transitional living and independent living,” says Williams. There are four family-style cottages, plus separate facilities for siblings, teenage boys and girls, and a transitional living house for those about to re-enter the broader world.
For those who’ve aged out of the system, “Our independent living program enables them to stay connected to a support structure,” giving them “a greater opportunity to be successful in their young adulthood.”
Besides handling DSS-managed cases, CARING for Children, a nonprofit with a 40-year track record, offers residential group home care in Buncombe and Burke counties, a transitional group home for girls aging out of the system, Trinity Place (WNC’s only shelter for runaways), and outpatient counseling for both children and parents, says Director of Development Terri Bowman. The current focus, she notes, is expanding services in McDowell and Burke counties while continuing to serve Buncombe, Haywood, Madison and Henderson.
Still, Owen says her organization “turns down about 20 kids a week — and I have the referral stack to prove it.”
A normal life
South Asheville native Stacey Polk experienced this logjam firsthand when she turned up on the doorstep of Trinity Place in 1995. Her family, she explains, “was living in a van at the time; we were literally homeless.”
She lived with her grandmother off and on, but a volatile relationship drove her to seek a more stable environment. “My grandmother would kick me and my siblings out regularly,” remembers Polk. “She identified us with our [absentee] mother and held that against the children.”
Eventually, Polk took it upon herself to go to Trinity: “I wanted a family. I wanted to be a normal kid with a normal life, and to live somewhere where I’m not kicked out every other day.”
But while Owen sought a suitable placement for Polk, the troubled teen had to keep cycling in and out of Trinity Place. “You can stay for 28 days, then you have to leave for 24 to 48 hours before you can come back,” Polk explains. “All the while, Renaye was looking for a place for me.” When she couldn’t be at Trinity, Polk stayed with friends or her grandmother.
Potential foster parents face their own daunting challenges.
“When these kids come in, they’re angry: They’ve been hurt by the people they trust,” notes Owen. “Whether they’ve been physically or sexually abused or totally neglected, you have to have the nuturance, the tolerance, the structure and security to deal with that.”
Williams, too, stresses the importance of empathy. “Any child who’s in care has gone through some trauma,” she says. “A big role for foster parents is helping children learn to trust that adults around them do care for them and have their best interests at heart.”
But foster parents, says Owen, also have to have a thick skin. “They could come in and tear your house apart, and nobody’s going to fix that for you. You have to be OK with that.”
To get licensed, foster parents must undergo about six months of training, including introductory sessions, home inspections, and basic first aid and CPR certifications. Classes in the Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting emphasize “the trauma that children in foster care have experienced and how to respond to it in ways that support the child and family,” says Pittman.
CARING for Children’s program also incorporates the “Together Facing the Challenge” model, based on a study out of Duke University. And families can indicate what types of children they’ll accept, Owen explains.
Potential foster homes are vetted to ensure compliance with the state’s tightened housing standards. Homes must now pass a fire and safety inspection involving everything from electrical configurations to proximity to water sources, says Executive Director John Lauterbach.
“If there’s a stream or pond a half-mile from your house, you have to make sure there’s a fence between your house and that pond,” says Owen; such requirements, she notes, can impose financial burdens that deter some prospective foster parents.
Meanwhile, the parents themselves must undergo background checks, a review of medical records and up to 10 hours of deeply personal interviews.
“That stops a lot of people right there,” says Owen, adding that only about three out of 10 applicants complete the evaluation process. “I have specific questions: Have you ever been sexually molested? Have you ever been raped? I’m going all the way into your world: all the dirty little secrets you didn’t want to tell anybody.”
Misconceptions about foster care requirements are yet another barrier. “People believe you have to be married,” says Owen. “You don’t. You can be single, you can have roommates, you can have pretty much any lifestyle, as long as it’s safe for children.” The nonprofit’s roster, she adds, includes many gay and lesbian couples as well as older couples on Social Security and families living in apartments.
“We have no single male foster parents in our system,” Owen says wistfully, “which is sad, because I think a lot of men out there could be great foster parents, and there’s a lot of boys who need a male role model.”
Xpress has profiled some of the foster parents working in CARING For Children’s network in an online feature, “Faces of foster care.”
Perhaps the biggest requirement, says Bowman, is simply having “room in your heart … and tolerance for people who are going to come in frustrated. You have to make them understand that it’s safe.”
Testing the limits
Polk remained based at Trinity Place for several months. Eventually, Owen “found a single attorney who’d never had kids of her own,” Polk recalls. “She wasn’t sure, because it was short-term, but something kept making her come back.”
Polk, though, wasn’t being picky. “I thought, OK, for six months I have somewhere to sleep, somewhere to eat: I’m happy.” Her new guardian “said the door would never be locked, but there would be consequences for breaking the rules. So of course I put her to the test.”
Polk says she would leave for several days at a time, or throw parties when her foster mother was out of town. “I was testing the waters to see how true she would be, because the people in my life who I expected to take care of me didn’t. There were some trying times for both of us.”
Such circumstances increase the risk of foster parents simply burning out. “When you’re bringing kids into your home and working to teach them the skills they need to succeed, it takes a toll,” says Lauterbach. “If foster parents don’t think they’re able to give it 1,000 percent, they just won’t do it, and that’s one less slot available for a kid.”
In addition, notes Owen, foster parents often become the target of upset neighbors or vengeful relatives of the child. “Somebody gets mad at them and calls DSS, who does an investigation,” Owen explains, adding that few of those anonymous tips are ever substantiated. “These folks are trying to help a child find a place to live and be stable, and people are bashing them. Families just get tired of that.”
Support for foster parents
To combat feelings of isolation and fatigue, CARING for Children provides weekly home visits, a 24-hour support hotline, and monthly training and networking events.
“We hold picnics and holiday parties to get the parents together,” says Owen, a foster parent for 20 years before going to work for the nonprofit. “This allows them to talk about some of the issues they’re having.”
In addition, “When somebody new comes in, I hook them up with somebody who can answer questions they might think are too stupid to ask me” and offer positive feedback and advice.
Over the past two decades, the state has both tightened financial requirements for foster parents and increased the monthly stipends they receive. In the mid-1990s, remembers Owen, she was getting about $140 a month to provide for two children.
Monthly stipends vary from agency to agency, but the current state recommendations range from $475 to $634 per child, depending on their age, with supplemental payments in some cases. Organizations like CARING for Children sometimes provide additional funds.
“We make sure the kid can play football, go to the prom or have swim lessons,” Owen explains. “They used to be treated like a poor orphan; today it’s more like they’re just a kid trying to make it in the world.”
Nonetheless, says Pittman, “Our primary goal in almost all cases is reunification.” Last year, for example, 141 Buncombe County children in foster care — 65.4 percent — were either reunited with their birth parents or permanently adopted, she notes.
Williams, too, says, “Reunification is always the first goal,” though the Black Mountain Home also supports foster parents’ attempts to adopt children who’ve been with them a long time.
For reunification to succeed, however, biological parents’ issues must be addressed. “We have to acknowledge that the vast majority of the parents of children in care were once children living in the same kind of dysfunctional homes that our children are now being removed from,” stresses Williams.
Owen agrees. CARING for Children, she says, “works with therapists, the foster parents, Helpmate” and other organizations. The team makes recommendations and counsels the parents, after which the child temporarily returns home. The home is monitored during the stay, and the family’s progress is evaluated, says Owen. “We find out how things went and work on whatever skills we need to.”
Meanwhile, CARING for Children’s Angels Watch program aims to pre-empt DSS removals. Open to kids up to 6 years old (10 if multiple children are involved), the program gives parents a temporary respite without worrying about permanently losing custody.
“Sometimes a family just runs up against hard times,” says Bowman. “Angels Watch helps them get back on their feet.” The child is placed with a trained foster family for up to 90 days while the program helps parents access needed services and execute a game plan for recovery.
“There’s always open lines of communication between the parent and the foster parent,” Bowman explains, adding that the two parties often form a mutually supportive relationship. Black Mountain Home uses a similar strategy to help families get back on track.
“By preventing those kids from going into foster care or the DSS system and that family from self-destructing,” says Owen, “you’re preventing years and years of a kid’s life being altered.”
‘What can I do?’
To create more foster homes, both the DSS and private groups are ramping up recruitment efforts. Pittman cites Buncombe County’s “I Can Do That for a Child” campaign, launched last year, as well as a bevy of print and radio announcements.
“We have a ‘Foster Our Future’ Facebook group,” she adds. “Anything we can do to encourage people to think about their capacity to foster.”
Boosting awareness, continues Pittman, is key. “We think there are more people in our county who could step up and provide safety and stability to a child that needs it.”
Bowman urges residents to attend informational meetings “just to see if it’s a near fit,” since people typically consider becoming a foster parent for several years before committing. “You have to break down some of those preconceptions, think about it and decide that you do want to go ahead.”
“If each church in the general Buncombe/Henderson/Transylvania/Haywood County area could challenge, motivate and help support five to 10 families to become foster parents, every single child in WNC would have a home,” notes Williams. “Instead of saying, ‘How awful!’ say, ‘What can I do?’ Not everyone can be a foster parent, but everyone can help in some way.”
Pittman suggests making a donation to the county’s foster child wish list (see box, “How You Can Help”). CARING for Children, too, needs financial support. “Things like Angels Watch are privately funded,” notes Bowman. “If the money runs out, we have to start turning kids away.”
Owen, meanwhile, cites other ways to enhance a child’s quality of life. “We have kids that sit in our office all day during the summertime. It’d be nice if we had somebody who’d come down and play checkers or read a book with them.” Short of that, she continues, “Send birthday cards to the office, so we can pass them on to the kids. Let them know that at least somebody out there in the world is thinking about them.”
Giving kids a chance
Despite the many challenges, Owen feels progress has been made. “I know people hear horror stories, but to be honest, kids are really coming out OK from this.”
Fostering, she concedes, can be difficult. “You don’t get instant gratification: It comes way later. But when you get a phone call saying this kid is graduating in June, it’s like, ‘Whoa!’”
And Williams, citing the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” says, “I would like to see WNC step up to this huge need and be a national leader in communities coming together, working in partnership and caring for children, youth and families who need love and support.”
Stacey Polk is living proof that all the hard work can pay off. Twenty years later, her foster mother “is my mom in every sense of the word,” says Polk. “She’s the only grandmother my daughter’s ever known.”
Those experiences have also left her better equipped to handle whatever the future may bring. “If I go through anything, my mom tells me, ‘You’ve been through worse,’” notes Polk, who now works as a regional property manager. “If I had to go back to being homeless, I could, because I’ve done it. Most people can’t say that.”
These days, she continues, “Life is pretty good. If it hadn’t been for CARING for Children, I don’t know where I’d be: They literally saved my life.”