Peggy Olson and her husband were licensed foster parents for less than 24 hours when they got the call last April. A 1-year-old boy had been neglected by his mother and needed a family.
So the Olsons now have three boys, including their 2-and 5-year-old sons, bounding around their Queen Creek home, and are part of the state foster care system’s most effective recruiting team.
"He fits right in here," she said of her foster child. "We’ve been very lucky. He’s a sweetheart."
Several families who know the young couple through their Mormon church and workplace are now looking to take the foster care plunge themselves.
This word-of-mouth recruitment has become increasingly critical as more and more children stream into foster care without homes for many of them.
From March 2002 to this past March, the number of foster children increased 40 percent to 8,246, while the number of foster homes grew by 14 percent. By June 30, there were 8,609 children in care.
On Friday, 252 children in Maricopa County who needed foster homes, about half of them age 5 and younger, were waiting in crisis shelters or group homes. Foster care agencies say babies are waiting for months in shelters.
"If we don’t step up to the plate, there is no place for that child to go," said Carol McCormack, executive director of Mesa United Way. Mesa United Way has made foster care recruitment the centerpiece of its fall fund-raising campaign, urging the East Valley community to either become foster and adoptive parents, support the foster parents they know or volunteer with the child welfare system in other ways.
The United Way campaign will spotlight several areas of need, including:
• Foster care review boards. Volunteers meet monthly to review the cases of children in care and make recommendations to juvenile court judges about their placement.
• Court-appointed special advocates. Roughly 15 percent of children in care have volunteers who represent them at court hearings. Two years ago, about 30 percent of children had these advocates, who can recommend services for children and their families.
• Respite caregivers. Only certified caregivers can give foster families a break by watching their children.
• Donating goods and services. Foster parents were given two pay raises this year and now receive $19.44 a day for children under 12, and $21.45 for kids 12 and older. The state doesn’t cover extras like bicycles, sports teams, musical instruments and class trips.
The United Way also will reach out to faith-based organizations. Many foster parents, like the Olsons, are enveloped by support from their church.
"We need a lot of people to step forward and address this problem," said John Giles, a former Mesa City Council member and chairman of the Mesa Interfaith Clergy Association. "We’d like to have Mesa meet Mesa’s needs, and provide help to other communities as well."
It takes training, a background check and a home inspection, all over about four to six months, to become a licensed foster parent.
"Having a good heart and love is essential, but it’s not enough," said David Berns, director of the state Department of Economic Security, which oversees Child Protective Services. "But their home doesn’t have to be perfect, and their income doesn’t have to be extraordinary."
Berns said more children are coming into foster care because "there are a lot of children in danger out there." A civil verdict last week against CPS, in which the family of a toddler who was beaten to death was awarded $2.5 million, is likely to increase their numbers, he said.
"Certainly, that will have an effect on workers," Berns said. "That case certainly puts more pressure to remove children."
Some parents worry that they’ll become attached to a foster child, only to see them off to an uncertain future.
"The alternative is for that child to not have a place to go," said Kris Jacober, who last year started the Arizona Association for Foster and Adoptive Parents.
"I know that every day in my home, they’re safe and they are loved. And that’s all I can really control."
Become a parent
To learn about becoming a foster or adoptive parent contact:
• State Department of Economic Security, (602) 255-5437 or (877) 543-7633, or online, www.de.state.az.us/dcyf/ adoption/
• Arizona Action for Foster Children, (480) 345-9555, or online,
• Aid to Adoption of Special Kids, (602) 254-2275, or online,
• Mesa United Way, (480) 969-8601
Other ways to help
There are other ways you can help besides becoming a foster parent.
• To volunteer for the Arizona Foster Care Review Board, call (602) 542-9683, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Foster Care Review Board, 1502 W. Washington St., Suite 128, Phoenix, AZ 85007. Find out more online at www.supreme.state.az.us/fcrb/
• To learn about becoming a certified respite caregiver, providing short-term care in your home for a foster child, call (877) 543-7633.
• For information about representing foster children at court hearings as a court-appointed special advocate, call (602) 506-4083 or visit
• To donate products or services to foster children and families, contact Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, (602) 252-9445 or
• To learn about the Arizona Association for Foster and Adoptive Parents, call Kris Jacober at (602) 488-2374 or visit www.azafap.org