Guilford County is pulling out all the stops to address what has been an increasing problem in recent years – finding families willing to foster children.
The county’s Division of Social Services is running radio advertisements, working with the faith-based community, speaking at community forums, holding foster family recruitment fairs, asking the county commissioners for help and getting the word out every other way they can in an attempt to get county families to volunteer to care for the children taken in by the county under adverse circumstances.
The foster homes are needed largely for children who are victims of neglect or abuse or are deemed to have unfit parents for other reasons such as serious criminal behavior.
In recent years, there’s been a steady increase in the number of kids who end up in Guilford County’s foster program, and social services workers have had greater difficulty finding homes for them.
That rise is evident in the year-end numbers of recent years: In December 2012, there were 335 children; in 2013, there were 381; followed by 392 in December 2015. At the end of last year, the number of kids in the county’s care was 430 and this April it hit 451. The latest statistics currently available are for June, when that number was 456. In that group, 51 percent, or 234, were female and 49 percent, 222, were male. As for race, 62 percent, 282 children, were listed as African American, 29 percent, or 130, as Caucasian and 10 percent, 44, as “other.”
County officials prefer finding homes for the kids rather than sending them to group homes. According to Guilford County Children’s Services Division Director Sharon Barlow, the county has added about 20 foster families this year as a result of the focus on recruitment. There are now a total of 83 foster homes registered by Guilford County and there are some other homes registered by other agencies.
Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp said the increasing number of foster children needs to be addressed in a big way.
“It’s a huge problem,” Trapp said.
He said the causes contributing to the situation are multiple, but he added that drug addiction was often a factor.
“I don’t think it’s any one thing – the bad economy is part of it but that leads to other things,” he said.
He also said that a state social services presentation he attended recently drove home the message that this was by no means just a Guilford County issue.
“It is absolutely statewide,” Trapp said. “They stated that every county is spending more money for child protective services.”
Trapp said the problems of opioid abuse and crack addiction in North Carolina have contributed to the rising number of children in foster care.
“All these things are related,” he said.
According to Trapp, one thing the county can do to help is simply “raise awareness” and get more families interested in becoming foster families.
Barlow said the most common reasons Guilford County social services takes children out of their homes are substance abuse, mental health issues and domestic violence. She said her office may be alerted to these situations by law enforcement officers, the Guilford County Family Justice Center, social services workers or concerned neighbors.
“The school system is a large reporter,” Barlow added.
The kids the county takes into the foster program range in age from newborns to 18.
According to Barlow, there are about 6,000 reports a year of abuse, neglect or substance abuse with children involved, and those reports are investigated by child protection workers who examine the physical evidence and make an assessment of the family involved.
Barlow said the process is like “a giant funnel,” wide at one end and narrow at the other.
“There are a whole series of things we have to do mandated by the state,” she said.
“The vast majority of reports are unfounded,” she added.
She said in many cases the children don’t need to be removed from the home for their safety – but instead the family simply requires financial help or other assistance in order for the children to be cared for properly.
In the cases where children need to be removed, the first choice is to put them with a blood relative such as an aunt or uncle, grandparents or other family members, Barlow said.
She said that, if that’s not possible, the county wants the child to at least be with familiar faces. That can mean the foster child is placed with godparents, neighbors, church members or others they have close ties with but aren’t related to.
According to Barlow, some children get placed in foster homes right away while others are much more difficult to find a home for. “If you have a 15-year-old that has past criminal issues, it’s harder to find a home,” she said,
In other cases, families may be willing to take a child but that family may not be appropriate.
“If you have a child that is acting out sexually, you don’t place them in a home with other children,” Barlow said, citing one instance of incompatibility.
Before registering a family as a foster home, the county has a good deal of checking to do to make sure that the family offers a suitable environment.
The goal, she said, is to place the child in the foster home, help make their actual home a safe environment for children and then get the families back together.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said that he is encouraging all of the commissioners to help get the word out about the county’s need to find and register more foster homes.
“Certainly not to sound high-minded, but most of us have connections to the faith-based community and I think we can deliver that message,” he said.
Social services plans to update the progress on recruitment at the commissioners Thursday, July 14 meeting. Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing said of that coming presentation, “It’s not as positive as we’d like it to be but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Though Guilford County is seeing very high levels of foster children in its care right now, these aren’t the highest numbers the county has ever seen. At the end of 2006, there were over 500 children in the county’s foster care program and in 2007 those numbers at one point approached nearly double the current levels.
The county held a recruitment fair for foster families July 9 at New Jerusalem Church in Greensboro, and will hold another one in High Point on Saturday, July 23 at the Carl Chavis Memorial Branch YMCA on Granville Street.