A Child Protective Services office morphed into a children's shelter this weekend. Because there weren't enough beds in Pima County foster and group homes, eight or nine children ended up staying in a CPS office.
Child Protective Services has also had to place kids outside of Pima County because of the bed shortage.
This combination has led many to say Pima County and Arizona are facing a foster-care crisis. Outside agencies have organized supply drives, seeking bottles, snacks, toothbrushes, diapers and other items for kids stuck in offices until homes open up for them.
Casa de Los Niños has even prominently played the issue on its website, saying "Pima County has a foster-care crisis."
"In the most simple form, there's way more kids coming into the system than there are placements," Sam Dyer, Casa de Los Niños' foster-care program supervisor, told me.
Dyer said he's been hearing about the shortage of homes for several months.
The struggle to find placements for kids isn't news. It's a challenge CPS has faced before.
But Dyer said the numbers and the ages of the kids are news.
"We have always sent kids out of county for placements, but the homes we never had enough of were for teenagers," Dyer said. "In the time I've been doing this, I've never seen them sending really young kids out of county. Now, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 1-year-olds, are being sent to Havasu City, Tonto Basin and all over the place."
He also said he's never seen emails for help - until now.
Karen Russo,foster-care supervisor at CPES Loving Hearts Foster Care, is one of several people to recently send out an email blast seeking help. (It was forwarded to me.)
"CPS Nights & Weekends also needs assistance in caring for the children who are sleeping at the CPS office," the email says. "They also stated it would be helpful if people could bring hot meals to the office to feed the children as well."
Russo told me she never intended the email to spread so far and wide.
"It's sad that we don't have enough homes to place these children in," she said. "It feels like more kids are coming into foster care, and it's progressively getting a little worse."
But Child Protective Services has a different take, saying things aren't any more dire than in the past.
"It's not unusual. It's not a situation we like," Flora Sotomayor, acting program manager for CPS in Pima County, told me. "It's been happening a bit more lately only because we are experiencing an increase in cases."
Sotomayor said "eight to nine" kids spent the weekend at a CPS office. But she said it's nothing new, and that it happens in Maricopa County, too.
She also said the donations are appreciated - items like diapers are always helpful - but CPS has received plenty.
"Yes, we've had kids sleeping in our offices for a long time, not just in Pima County," she said. "We need more placements. We always need more placements."
She characterized the numbers as fluid, saying they rise and fall over different periods of time.
But removals and dependency petitions - a formal step to place children in state custody - are up.
Through this June, CPS workers had filed 698 dependency petitions, numbers from Pima County Juvenile Court show. That's significantly higher than 2006 through 2011. In each of those years, about 500 dependency petitions were filed through June in Pima County.
Note: A dependency petition could be for more than one child.
And between October and March, 1,190 kids in Pima County and 4,968 kids across the state were removed from their homes, Sotomayor said. Those numbers are also up. For example, between October 2010 and March 2011, 923 kids in Pima County and 3,978 kids across the state were removed.
"CPS is removing far more children than they have been before, and to add to that is the fact that there are fewer foster homes," said Bonnie Demorotski, of Aviva Children's Services, which provides basic necessities to children who have been removed from their homes.
The conventional wisdom is the economy has kept people from becoming foster parents.
There's less agreement about why CPS is removing more kids. Thoughts range from the economy, to a lack of staffers, to a response to recent children deaths. Whatever the reason, the foster-care crisis has made bad situations worse.
Siblings might get split up from one another. Children might get stuck hanging out in offices for days. A long-distance placement might mean fewer family visits.
"The main thing that we need is foster homes," Russo said. "This problem is not going to go away any time soon, and we need more foster homes."
Interested in Foster Care?
The Department of Economic Security has a toll-free number for people interested in becoming foster parents: 1-877-KIDS-NEEDU
Contact Brodesky at 573-4242 or email@example.com