New Vice Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said this week that the county is starting to move the needle in the right direction when it comes to the number of foster children in the county’s care, but he added that the problem is still enormous and it is something Guilford County has to make one of its top priorities in 2019.

“I heard the foster care number is down below 500 for the first time in a while,” Phillips said.

That number has been climbing for years.

Guilford County’s social services workers investigate claims of children in peril and sometimes remove those children from their families. Some of the most common reasons Guilford County social services workers take children out of their homes are substance abuse, mental health issues and domestic violence.

The county may be alerted to these situations by law enforcement officers, the Guilford County Family Justice Center, social services workers or by concerned neighbors. If reunification with the family isn’t possible, Guilford County ends up with those children, and, until a new permanent home can be found, the county must pay for the housing and care of the children. That’s far from ideal for the kids and expensive for taxpayers.

For some reason, the foster care problem is hitting Guilford County particularly hard. Phillips said he’s not exactly sure why that is and he added that an ongoing conversation with social services staff and others hasn’t provided a clear answer.

“Nobody could really answer that question,” Phillips said, adding that some suspect it might be related to the intensity of the opioid addiction crisis in this area.

He said that, despite the slight progress recently, the problem is still extremely pressing and it has to be one of the county’s top priorities.

“This is an area of real interest to me,” Phillips said.

In recent years, the commissioners have approved money for housing foster kids, public relations campaigns to recruit foster families and the board has taken several other steps meant to address the situation.

Phillips said the county’s social services department has been making “good efforts on unification” in recent years, but the problem is a recalcitrant one that will require a great deal of attention going forward.

Phillips praised the work of Guilford County Social Services Director Heather Skeens, whose department is leading the effort.