Families signing up to provide foster care are finding "the ink is barely dry" on their license before they have a new child in their home, Valley foster care agencies report.
"If you're a licensed foster parent, you're not going to have an empty bed for very long. There is a need," said Russ Funk, director of recruitment for Aid to Adoption of Special Kids.
In the past few years, the state had seen just less than 10,000 children placed in foster homes or with relatives due to abuse, neglect or abandonment. That number has crept up. As of March 31, the latest report available, 10,707 children were in out-of-home care. A vast majority, 82.6 percent, were placed in a family setting with relatives or in foster homes.
Though there's been only a slight decrease in the number of licensed foster homes in the state this year - less than 3 percent since January have dropped off the rolls - some of those families took in multiple children, making the loss felt throughout the foster care community, agencies say. The biggest drop came this summer when 82 homes dropped off the list between July and August, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security.
The biggest reasons families close their licenses are: adoption (about 24 percent), failure to renew (22 percent), or a decision not to take in any more kids (21 percent).
As of Aug. 23, there were 3,109 licensed foster care homes in the state, with another 614 licenses out for professionally licensed homes or child development homes, where individuals are trained to handle children with special developmental or behavioral needs,
"The ink is barely dry on the license before the family is getting a call, wondering if they can take a placement," Funk said. "It's kind of been building over the last three to four months."
Andrea Fries, program director for Arizona Children's Association, said a lot of agencies are seeing more families close their foster care licenses than open new ones, which is creating part of the issue.
"You have a lot of families who have been doing it for years, and have now adopted so they're closing," she said. "A lot of families faced layoffs so they're closing or not coming forward (to foster). There's definitely a shortage of even having a bed."
In the past, when a foster family had an opening, they might wait "a month or two" for a child. Not anymore, Fries said.
"Now it can be 24 hours. We only have a few families available. We used to have 20 to pick from," she said.
Like other organizations, Aid to Adoption of Special Kids holds orientation sessions multiple times a month for prospective families throughout the Valley. As of the end of August, 546 people had attended orientation to learn more about foster care, adoption or mentoring, down from last year, Funk said. About 40 percent of families that attend a seminar follow through and complete their licensing, which can take between six and eight months, he said.
Those steps include 30 hours of training, multiple in-house meetings, a home study, fingerprint clearance and background checks.
"There are families going through the process at different times," he said.
Prospective foster care parents can specify their desire to have a child of a certain age, particularly if they have other children in the home, Funk said. Many do.
"Part of the licensing process is to design a profile that works best for the child and the family," Funk said. "You don't want to burn out families by (them) taking too many children or taking a child they weren't expecting to parent."
Ryan and Suzan Brown of Gilbert are fairly new foster care parents, but have already cared for seven children, one for only one night. They received their license in September 2010.
Ryan Brown said it was only a week or two after their license was finalized before the couple received a child. They first got introduced to the idea through other family members who are foster parents.
"We didn't just want to assume we'd be having our own biological kids initially," Ryan Brown said. "As we started looking at foster care, we approached it very, very slowly, more so to learn about it. The more we learned, the more we learned there was an opportunity to have a real meaningful impact and a potential to change the trajectory of the lives of the children, and in certain cases, get to know the birth parents and encourage them in the process of working to get their lives back on track."
It's been "incredibly rewarding," he said, but also, "incredibly hard."
"The natural thing is to have at least nine months' warning a child is coming into a home," he said. "It's not a natural thing to just have a child show up, and a child - in many cases - who has experienced several degrees of trauma, and to try to walk a child through that, it's difficult. You fall in love with a child and certainly want the best for them; and you see the way God has wired them and want to nurture that. It's difficult to say goodbye when it's time to do so. It's part of the gig and something we wrestle through."
For information on foster care or adoption, check agency websites or attend an informational session near you.
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Michelle Reese, East Valley Tribune