Family relationships

Number of Foster Children Climbs as Economy Dips

By Bethany Fuller, Mooresville Tribune, June 9, 2009, Mooresville, NC -- The moment the 4-year-old boy stepped through her screened porch, Anj Shutt instantly, almost instinctually, felt connected with him. "I was amazed because I felt the same love and care for him that I did my birth children," Anj said about her foster son. The little boy, who can't be named, was a day away from moving from one foster family to another. The Shutt family was preparing themselves for the changes coming with their first foster child. The Shutts are one of many families handling the growing number of foster children in Iredell County. Agencies charged with taking care or placing the hundreds of children in the care and custody of the Iredell County Department of Social Service's system are becoming overwhelmed.

A year ago, 141 children were placed in foster care or a group homes in Iredell. That number has grown by almost 50 percent — to 205 — in the past 12 months. "It has gotten so bad that we've had to move some staff from other positions to handle these," said Lisa York, DSS program administrator. "We've looked at moving some people from our foster care licensing and adoption." A growing number of these children are feeling the side effects of the economy. Domestic violence has become an increasing problem for families, along with substance abuse and neglect, said Bariums Springs Home for Children Foster Care Director Marc Murphy. Many of the cases before the court have some tie to substance abuse, primarily prescription medication, or some serious mental health issues. "This economy has made everyone struggle," Murphy said. "Some of these unhealthy habits tend to be more tempting." Faced with budget cuts and inadequate staffing, DSS is struggling to meet the needs of the children and the expectations of the court, York said "Anything that could happen has happened," she said. "We are using every resource that we have available."

Placing a child in foster care is difficult on everyone, York said. Social workers and parents have to find a way to tell children they aren't going home today. Leaving the only home they've ever known is emotionally upsetting for many children, she said. It's important not to mislead them, York said, but they need to know what to expect. "In just recent weeks, I have seen children who said they don't want to see their mother again," she said. "It's heartbreaking." Anj's husband, Tim, said the family of five spent a lot of time preparing for whoever came into their lives. The staff at Barium Springs trained the couple how to prepare their three children for what happened next. Sometimes the foster children will come in with their own possessions, while others have little more than the clothes on their backs, Tim said. The children were reassured that they didn't have to compete because the child coming into their house needed everyone's support. "They've all embraced the process," he said.

It was business as usual for the Shutts family the night their first foster child settled in. Tim was with one of their three children at a soccer game, while the rest stayed at home getting to know the newest member of their family. He just wanted to play, Anj said. "He was having a good time," she said. The couple decided ahead of time to treat the little boy the same way they treated their other children. "He still gets held to the same level of accountability and responsibility," Tim said. After filling up the available spots within its own network of foster families, DSS turns to those trained by private providers, such as Barium Springs Home for Children, or places them in group homes, such as Children's Homes of Iredell County. In some cases, DSS places children with families outside Iredell.

Foster homes and space are usually in high demand. "We are pretty much bursting at the seams," said Murphy. "It's something that we are always doing actually. I can't have enough homes. We weren't keeping up with all of last year's demands." Murphy said foster homes fill up almost as soon as they are licensed, and beds at group homes are promised to various agencies before the children leave. Children's Homes of Iredell County Executive Director Brenda Speece said the nonprofit's board of directors has discussed the need for additional temporary bedding for months. She even gave up her new office to make room for an additional bed. In early May, when she went to DSS to pick up two children out of a family group of seven, she decided the nonprofit couldn't wait any longer. The children's home recently received $5,000 from Lowe's Companies Inc. and rather than make structural repairs or improvements to the driveway, the board of directors decided to look for a house to rent. "Anytime we are going to be someplace, we are interested in giving our kids a positive environment," Speece said. "We are standing up for the needs of children and the need to keep them safe.

Iredell County has an obligation to their children to be given an opportunity." Murphy said DSS and private groups, such as Barium Springs, take every precaution not to harm the children and to place them near the environment they are most familiar with. York said federal law dictates that foster children have to remain in the same school, which can make placement difficult. Families call often wanting to go through foster care training, Murphy said. Anj would see the signs for Barium Springs Home for Children when she was driving down Interstate 77. "I think there has always been that tug at my heart," she said. "It was one of those things that I finally surrendered to." The couple originally went to a county orientation program, but found out another class wouldn't be starting for several weeks. Since they lived close to Bariums Springs, Tim called Murphy and found out when the next orientation session would be held. "We had an immediate rapport and respect for Marc," Anj said. "It was also evident from early on that it was going to be a different kind of training. At Barium, you are trained more hours and they provide a lot more support." The Shutts went through several scenarios in their training, but they weren't quite ready for the little boy who came in and stole their hearts.

The honeymoon period between the Shutts and their foster child lasted two days. Then the 4-year-old did what children his age do and started to test his boundaries. The Shutts expected an adjustment period as they all adjusted to a new routine and tried to build up some consistency. "If your compassion is overriding everything you do, then you are probably not going to be setting boundaries for the child or teaching them to respect authority," Anj said. It is hard to imagine what children in the foster care system have been through, Tim said. It can be frustrating and hard at times, but there are a lot of benefits. Tim said the social worker has seen remarkable changes in the little boy during the past 10 months. Sometimes it feels like he's been around for years, Tim said. "He is part of our family makeup right now," he said. The Shutts know that one day they might have to say good-bye. From the time the children enter the foster care system, the main goal is finding a way to get them back home, whether it is with their parents or an adoptive family. Anj said some people are hesitant about becoming foster parents because they are afraid of what will happen when the child leaves. She said they shouldn't worry. "It's amazing how fulfilling it can be to help a child reshape their life," she said. "It's taking ownership of the process of parenting and not the child."

Original Article, Mooresville Tribune, retrieved on June 9, 2009.