The number of licensed foster homes in Washington has gradually declined in the past three years, dipping to the lowest numbers since 1998.
The decline has created a “critical shortage” of homes for the 9,600 children who are in out-of-home placement on any given day, a state ombudsman said this spring.
“Who is really available for kids with no family?” asked Mary Meinig, the state’s ombudsman for children and families. “That’s the crisis.”
The problem is mirrored in Idaho, where the rapid increase in children needing foster care has outpaced the number of licensed homes. From 2003 to 2005, the number of foster children grew more than 30 percent, reaching nearly 3,200.
Meanwhile, Idaho’s licensed foster homes increased less than 10 percent from 2003 to present. The state currently has about 1,350 homes.
“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of foster children, and methamphetamine abuse is a big part of that,” said Tom Shanahan, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
When siblings are removed from drug homes, Shanahan said, the state faces another problem: Keeping the children together.
“There are many families who are willing to take in one child, but a lot of homes may not be set up to handle a group of siblings,” Shanahan said.
While the shortage of homes sometimes creates desperate situations – Meinig said two young siblings spent the night at a motel with a caseworker because no homes were available for them – a more typical problem comes when traumatized children are matched with inexperienced foster parents.
“The question becomes, ‘Do I have the best match for them?’ as opposed to, ‘Is there a place for them to go?’ ” said Connie Morlin, area administrator for foster home licensing in Spokane. “We try to match kids with families so that the child and the family have the best possible chance of succeeding.”
The more homes, Morlin said, the more options. The number of licensed homes peaked in 2002, when 6,284 were licensed, according to Washington state data. This spring, only 5,921 homes were licensed.
In a system rigidly guided by policy, the decision to stop being a foster parent can often come down to relatively minor glitches.
Sherry and Dennis Paul were the kind of foster parents the state has long sought: educated, caring and financially stable.
The Liberty Lake couple successfully adopted two young girls through foster care and provided housing to other young children.
But when the couple sold their home and temporarily moved into an apartment last year, a social worker told them that they would have to start from scratch if they wished to continue being foster parents.
“She said, ‘The home is what’s licensed, not you,’ ” Sherry Paul said. “It just kind of took me by surprise. I never anticipated having any problems.”
Rather than re-enroll in foster parent classes, the Pauls have let their license lapse while they build a new home. They said they have not yet decided whether to pursue a new license.
Morlin said the state is working to streamline re-licensing for families like the Pauls. To improve communication, the state’s Division of Children and Family Services has recently begun setting up workshops for foster parents and social workers to help them understand each other’s challenges.
“As foster parents, we often feel very stressed,” said Dru Powers, regional coordinator for Families for Kids, a program of Lutheran Community Services Northwest that provides support to foster families. “Sometimes you feel like, ‘My goodness, they expect me to do everything.’ The social worker has 30 cases or whatever, and he or she can get stressed out. It’s hard to walk in each other’s shoes.”
As Washington struggles to retain and recruit foster parents, hundreds across the state have taken the first steps toward creating a union.
The move would allow foster parents to negotiate for better training, higher compensation and medical insurance and retirement benefits.
“Really, foster parents haven’t had a voice,” said Steve Baxter, co-president of the Foster Parents Association of Washington State. “We seem to be included in a lot of panels, and we’re called partners, but a lot of things happen and we’re the last to know.”
Foster parents have long complained about the imbalance of power between themselves and the state, which has the discretion to remove children from foster homes or reunite them with biological parents.
“They need better training for foster parents in terms of what to expect,” Meinig said. “We’re asking them to bond and attach to and love this child. We need to figure out better ways to keep them and keep them happy.”