When Deb Boyce would hear about people involved in foster care, she simply thought they were doing good deeds to help children and didn't think twice about the issue.
"In our world it had nothing to do with us, it was just something that other people did," Boyce said.
Until that day in 2009 when it became her world.
When the 3-month-old son of Boyce's relative was taken out of his family's care by Child Protective Services over Labor Day weekend, she and her husband immediately offered to take care of the boy, who suffered significant brain injuries from being a shaken baby.
Boyce, 47, and her husband became licensed foster parents and eventually adopted the boy.
The couple opted for additional training and obtained a license to care for medically fragile children, those with severe medical conditions, special needs and developmental delays.
In the three years they've had their license, the couple have fostered nine children.
They are currently caring for three children under 3 years old.
"It has its difficult moments, there's no doubt about it, but it's very rewarding," Boyce said. "You see the little kiddos, they're happy, they're having a normal childhood … they're having a chance to live in a place that is safe, that is loving while everything get sorted out."
In Pima County, an increased number of children being removed from their parents' care by CPS means an increased need for people like the Boyces to step up and help.
As of May 14, there were 4,019 children in foster care, an increase of nearly 1,000 from the same time last year, according to statistics from Pima County Juvenile Court.
Many of those children are living with family members or someone they know, a quarter of them are in foster homes and more than 500 are staying in group homes or a shelter, the statistics show.
The increase of children in foster care means agencies have had to look outside Pima County for homes for the children and the occasional overnight stay in a CPS office if placement is unavailable, said Chris Swenson-Smith, the director of children and family services for Juvenile Court.
The best scenario for a child is to stay with a relative, but if that's not an option the next-best is a foster home, Swenson-Smith said.
"It'll be a place where they feel safe because that's what the foster parents are trained to do. And once a child feels safe, then they can begin to function normally in those other areas that children should function normally in - their health, their mental health, school is huge. If a child doesn't feel safe at home they're not going to do well in school, there's just no way," Swenson-Smith said.
Having to place a child in a home outside the county only adds to the trauma the child experiences, she said.
"Not having your community around, the things that you know, your teacher, your neighbors, somebody at the Boys and Girls Club that you go to, everything has changed. You don't know anyone," she said.
Currently there are 777 foster homes in Pima County, said Michaela Luna, chairwoman of the Foster and Adoptive Council of Tucson, or FACT, a group of 14 agencies that offer foster care and adoption services.
There's a need for foster parents who are willing to take in teenagers and groups of siblings to avoid having them separated, she said.
For kids who are already dealing with the trauma of being removed from their homes, being separated from their siblings can be equally traumatizing, Luna said.
And there are teens who don't reflect the negative stereotypes that surround them, she said.
"There's a lot of teens who don't have behavior issues. … We have teens who enjoy going to school and want to be in sports and really just want to be part of a family," Luna said.
Swenson-Smith called upon the community to take action to help the kids in need of homes.
"These are not somebody else's kids. These are everybody's kids. As a community, I really believe that we are responsible for all children. Every adult is responsible for all children because that is what our community is built on, are these kids," she said.
"And if you think there are 4,000, that's not a drop in the bucket. These kids are going to be our community members, our adults, and they're going to be parenting kids, they're going to be working.
"We want healthy adults in our community, and you get that by having healthy children."
HOW TO HELP
The Foster and Adoptive Council of Tucson offers information sessions twice a month for people interested in becoming foster parents.
For more information visit: fosterandadoptivecounciloftucson.org or call the Department of Economic Security's Foster Care Line at 1-877-KIDS-NEED-U (1-877-543-7633)
For those who want to help but can't commit to becoming a foster parent, Pima County Juvenile Court is always looking for Court Appointed Special Advocates, who make recommendations to the judge about what is in the best interests of children in court proceedings.
More info is available at: www.pimacountycasa.org
Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4224.