Foster children often arrive at their new homes with just the clothes on their backs, or maybe a garbage bag of belongings. But they all carry a history.
An abused 4-year-old is too afraid to speak. A 9-year-old hoards food under the bed, the memory of hunger still vivid. A newborn girl spends her first weeks of life detoxing from methadone. An 8-year-old boy rocks back and forth under the blankets each night, a habit he developed when his birth father wouldn’t let him sleep.
“When you get a child, even a young child, they come with baggage,” says Tucson foster mother Lin Leclair. She and her husband, Dan, have fostered 40 children since 2005.
The Leclairs, Pima County’s Foster Parents of the Year in 2011, have felt the impact of a recent surge of children removed from their birth families — more than 15,300 Arizona kids are in foster or group homes. Phone calls to overwhelmed Child Protective Services caseworkers go unreturned and court proceedings are delayed, along with behavioral health care for troubled kids. They’ve dug into their own pockets to provide for children since reimbursement rates for foster families were cut to less than $20 a day.
The Leclairs still love being foster parents. Seeing a wounded child blossom in a stable home is the biggest reward, Lin says.
“When you actually have helped them progress,” she says, “that is just wonderful.”
FOSTER AGENCIES STRETCHING
As the number of Arizona children who need foster care soars, the number of available foster beds is shrinking.
In September 2009, Arizona had 3,954 foster homes and 10,000 kids in foster care. By last month, there were 3,805 foster homes and more than 15,300 kids needing them.
Since 2009, when reimbursements to foster families were cut, the number of foster homes closing their doors in Arizona has almost always outpaced the number of new foster homes. In the last six-month reporting period, ending in March, 740 homes shut down, while only 722 new homes were licensed.
Foster agencies remain desperate for families willing to take in sibling groups, as well as older children who are at greater risk of aging out of the system without family support. But now they’re even having trouble placing kids under age 5.
“It’s shocking,” says Marnie Greggs, foster-care recruiter at La Paloma Family Services, which trains and licenses foster families in Pima County. “Before the crisis happened, we had a waiting list of families willing to take kids 0 to 5. Now, La Paloma has no open beds. … CPS is sending us lists of children that need placement.”
Between July and October, 406 children under age 5 entered CPS custody — an average of 102 a month. That’s nearly twice the monthly average of 57 seen seven years ago.
Foster-care agencies in Tucson used to try to place children as close to their home neighborhoods as possible to avoid additional disruptions, like changing schools.
But with the shortage, “that’s laughable now,” Greggs says. “We’re just looking for beds in Pima County.”
There aren’t enough.
With 730 homes and almost 3,500 foster children in Pima County, matching personalities and individual needs becomes a secondary concern, says Christa Drake, director of In My Shoes, which supports foster children as they transition to independence.
“It causes us to see a number of beds instead of looking at, ‘Here is a child who needs a family,’” she says. “You get back into that cycle of why children feel like they’re just a number. You stop looking at names and you stop looking at personalities.”
More children are being sent to foster families outside Pima County, which complicates visits with parents trying to prove they should get their kids back. Even worse, younger kids are sleeping in CPS offices or being placed in group homes typically intended for older children, or for those whose severe behavioral problems make it difficult for them to be in families.
Children’s Village group home in Tucson is licensed to house kids ages 3 to 17. But director Debbie Mack says increasingly she is accepting younger children when CPS can’t find another option.
“I have a 12-month-old because they don’t have anywhere to put him,” Mack says. “It’s concerning.”
FOSTER FAMILIES LEAVING
Agencies are trying to better understand foster families’ reasons for leaving, and are focusing on recruitment and retention.
In the last six-month reporting period, one-third of foster families left the system in Arizona because they decided to adopt their foster child, the Arizona Department of Economic Security says. But surveys show a lack of support from CPS and foster agencies is also a concern for foster families.
Foster mom Leclair says the strain among CPS workers is evident.
“We’ve had excellent caseworkers, and we’ve had caseworkers we’ve filed grievances on,” says Leclair, who runs a tax business. “We’ve seen good caseworkers who come in enthused, and we see that job eating at them.”
Foster parents surveyed last year by Arizona State University say their lack of voice is one reason they consider leaving foster care.
That must change to retain more families, says Angela Chintis, who did foster-care training for nine years at the Arizona Children’s Association.
Foster parents “are the ones wiping the tears, dealing with the rage of hurt children and advocating for the child’s needs … and they are oftentimes treated as the most insignificant participants in the picture,” she says.
Money stresses are also straining families. Advocates say most foster families spend out of their own pockets on their foster children, beyond what the state reimburses.
Reimbursement rates are now less than $20 a day for regular foster homes. Allotments for emergency clothing were cut from $300 to $150 a year in 2009, and families get just $22.50 a year to go toward all holidays, birthdays and special occasions.
“These allowances all but ensure that foster families will have to go into their own pockets — and they do — to care for children the way they should be cared for,” says Kris Jacober, a foster mom and executive director of the Arizona Association for Adoptive and Foster Parents. “If a family cannot afford to do that, as you see in the resulting numbers of families exiting the system, they leave.”
Managing foster families’ expectations is also key to retaining them, says State Rep. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, who was a foster mom for 10 years.
“A lot of times people think all they have to do is provide love,” she said. “Yes, children need love, but sometimes that’s not enough.”
At times, she says, “they’re going to look at you as the enemy. Most kids love their parents no matter what their parents have done to them.”
Foster families, as well as group homes, are increasingly being asked to take in children with more severe behavior problems.
Usually, foster children requiring a higher level of care are assigned to therapeutic foster families, who get three times the training as regular foster families, says Greggs, of La Paloma.
Now, the need is so great that children with serious emotional and behavioral problems are being placed with families without the knowledge needed to handle them, she says.
RECOVERING FROM ABUSE
It’s a recent afternoon in the Leclairs’ north Tucson home, and three children from three different biological families are playing on the floor: two foster children and one foster-to-adoptive daughter, Jenna, 3.
Jenna arrived at 10 months old with reactive attachment disorder, an inability to bond with caregivers, usually the result of abuse or neglect. Her birthparents — teenagers who met at a Texas group home — were aging out of foster care and had no family support. The Leclairs never intended to adopt, but after 20 months with Jenna, they realized they were her best chance.
“She had no kind of future,” says Dan Leclair, 60, the self-described house cook and diaper-changer.
The hospital equipment tech recently took a class on styling African-American hair, so he can help his two girls get ready in the morning.
Attachment and trust issues are common with foster kids. One in four people who has been in foster care has post-traumatic stress disorder — higher than the PTSD rates of U.S. war veterans, according to a 2005 study on alumni of foster care in the Northwest.
Of the alumni surveyed:
- One in five had major depression;
- Nearly two-thirds changed schools at least seven times;
- Less than 3 percent earned college degrees.
And too often, life in foster care can retraumatize children from abusive or neglectful homes.
The shadow of post-traumatic stress follows Aracely Valencia every day — in class at Pima Community College, at work at Fry’s grocery store, and in nightmares. It’s one of many relics of her 14 years in the system.
She was taken into CPS custody at age 7 and placed separately from her six siblings. She’s since lost contact with all except one sister, Liana, 20, whom she calls her best friend.
Aracely spent months in an emergency children’s shelter before she was placed in a foster home. At the shelter, she says, she couldn’t contain her emotions.
“I cried every night. I stopped eating. I didn’t know who was safe, who wasn’t safe.”
She says she endured abuse in her first foster home in Tucson, from ages 7 to 12. She was adopted by a woman who beat her, she says, leaving scars along her legs and hips. At 14 she ran away, sleeping alone in parks and ditches, where she felt “the safest I’d felt in forever.”
After multiple stays in juvenile detention, she was put in another foster home for a year until the foster mother decided to leave the system.
Now 21, she struggles to deal with all she’s been through.
“I didn’t understand when I was little,” she says. “Why did these people take me away and put me somewhere else, where someone else is hurting me?”
In Arizona, complaints against foster families resulting in suspension or revocation of foster licenses are up from three in 2008 to 47 in 2012, including 11 in Pima County.
DES attributes the increase to an investigation and enforcement unit created in 2010 within the Office of Licensing, Certification and Regulation, better communication with the Department of Public Safety, and the 2008 creation of a statewide computer system to improve reporting and tracking of complaints.
Foster agencies say they screen out families looking to earn a profit through foster care.
Families must prove they are financially stable — most in Arizona earn more than $50,000 a year, not including their reimbursements — before they are licensed.
Drake, of In My Shoes — herself an alumna of foster care — says local foster agencies are doing a better job screening potential foster families. CPS caseworkers today are more likely to take a foster child aside and speak to him or her privately during visits, she says.
“They’re finally getting it that they need to do the visits one-on-one, maybe outside of the home or privately, without the parents being there,” she says. “The youth aren’t going to say anything in the presence of their (foster) parents.”
Now living independently, Aracely still worries she will fail to escape her past. Many of her friends from foster care are addicted to drugs and living on the streets, she says.
She struggles to make real connections with new people in her life, and says her ADHD makes it a challenge to finish her last semester at PCC.
But as she embarks on life after foster care, she’s filled with hope.
“I’m trying to figure out who I am,” she says. “I’m the one who’s gonna break the cycle in my family.”
The shortage of foster beds in Pima County means more children are being sent to foster homes in Maricopa County.
Not only do they lose daily contact with their family, but pets, friends and the familiarity of their neighborhood and school are lost.
The foster-home shortage also means more sibling groups are broken up.
Separation from siblings — who often take on a parental role in abusive or neglectful families — is sometimes equally as or more devastating than the loss of a parent, says Michaela Luna, chairwoman of the Foster and Adoptive Council of Tucson.
Fixing those problems and finding good foster homes for all the Arizona kids who need them can make all the difference in a child’s life, says Greggs of La Paloma, a former foster mom.
“It’s giving back to the community in a way you can’t do in any other way,” she says. “Being able to help a child for two days or two years ... what you taught them in that period of time, they will always carry with them. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience.”