Politics & Government

Foster home shortage sends Pierce County kids elsewhere

There are not enough foster homes in Pierce County.

That sends children from the county elsewhere — King County, for some, but placements can be anywhere in the state, or beyond. Of the 1,299 children from Pierce County in the foster care system as of May 1, 417 were moved elsewhere, including 177 to counties not bordering Pierce.

Even foster children who stay in Pierce County often end up being housed on a night-by-night basis — staying in homes that provide little more than a bed, or even in a hotel room.

During the day, those children go to a state office, hanging out in a cubicle while their case worker is on the job, before a more permanent placement is made.

To keep kids from having to stay in a cubicle all day, Amara, a Seattle-based foster care nonprofit, is creating an emergency sanctuary.

“We don’t want kids from Pierce County to leave their community,” said local director Maureen Sorenson. “That’s why we want to have a home here.”

Funded through philanthropy, the sanctuary will offer children a place to stay in their first three days in the foster system. Sorenson expects the building, which can house up to five children at once, to open in November. Amara is planning a $150,000 initial investment in the sanctuary and has an annual operating budget of $525,000 for it.

Amara, which recently opened an office in Pierce County, has operated an emergency sanctuary in King County since December 2014.

Local businesses and the Children’s Museum of Tacoma have agreed to help the Pierce County sanctuary get off the ground, but two hurdles remain: finding a location and finding enough volunteers to staff it.

Once a location is selected, it will need to be furnished and ready to go before the state can certify it as a foster home.

Ideally, 120 volunteers will work a shift a month at the sanctuary after being trained to deal with children who have undergone trauma, Sorenson said.

After their stay of up to 72 hours, children will leave with a duffel bag of clean clothes.

Amara opened its Pierce County office because children here are twice as likely to end up in foster care than youngsters from King County.

“People are shocked to hear that there are 1,500 kids in foster care here and such a shortage of homes,” Sorenson said.

On May 1, there were 613 foster homes in Pierce County and 5,057 statewide, dealing with 9,046 children.

Until enrollment in January and February broke records, the statewide number of homes was below 5,000, said Connie Lambert-Eckel, director of field operations at Children’s Administration for the state Department of Social and Human Services.

“We were really, really feeling that pinch desperately, around the state,” she said.

But even with the uptick in homes, and the welcome assistance from private nonprofits, there still aren’t enough to meet the demand.

Lambert-Eckel said she wishes she had two or three homes available for each child entering the system, but often has only one. Instead of the best fit for a child, it’s the only one.

“We try to keep them as close as possible,” Lambert-Eckel said of how children are placed in foster homes. “We really do move mountains to try and get kids back to their home schools.”

The number of foster homes joining or leaving the system is close to static, she said, which can be a problem when there is a sudden influx of kids needing somewhere to stay.

“We don’t manage that front door,” Lambert-Eckel said. “We can’t say, ‘We’re full, we’re not taking any more calls.’ 

When foster children — some traumatized by leaving their parents’ care because of abuse or neglect — leave the county, they leave their communities, their classmates, their schools and their stability.

Keeping children close to home is part of DSHS’ mission of reuniting families after parents correct their deficiencies. But because keeping the kids safe takes precedence, kids often must be placed out of the county.

“It’s not that anybody in the system wants this to be happening,” said Julie Lowery, a Pierce County Juvenile Court dependency supervisor. “It’s just a matter of the resources. It’s very sad.”

Juvenile Court Administrator TJ Bohl said he is concerned about the number of children leaving the county through the foster care system because they become unplugged from their communities, leading to more crime and lower graduation rates.

“It’s really troubling for this community,” he said. “You take kids, uproot them and move them somewhere else, and they’re disconnected from the community. And then we bring them back and they don’t feel connected.”

Juvenile Court processes every child who enters the foster system. In 2008, the court had seven guardians ad litem to represent the children’s best interests as their cases go through the court. Now there are 19.

The Court Appointed Special Advocate program has 238 volunteers who take on the children’s cases; the 19 guardians ad litem split up the other cases, of which there were 1,299 as of May 1.

Juvenile Court cases start when Child Protective Services removes a child from a home after an incident of abuse or neglect.

DSHS represents the state’s interests, parents represent themselves and the guardians ad litem or CASA volunteers represent the child during the proceedings.

Parents have up to two years to correct their behaviors, but if they cannot, they relinquish their custodial rights.

Lowery, the juvenile court dependency supervisor, says children are traumatized when they move, when they’re split up from their parents and by whatever caused CPS to step in.

That strain worsens when children leave their communities, even if the move is in their best interests.

“The effect — regardless of intent — is that kids experience more trauma,” she said.

This article has been updated to correctly identify the cost of Amara’s planned sanctuary for foster children. The initial investment is expected to be $150,000. The $525,000 figure is the annual operating budget for the sanctuary.

Kenny Ocker: 253-597-8627, @KennyOcker

Becoming a foster parent

Washington’s Children’s Administration has information online on how to become a foster parent, which can be found at dshs.wa.gov/ca. Information is also available by calling 888-549-1414.

Becoming a court appointed special advocate

Contact Pierce County CASA coordinator Carrie Appling at 253-798-3837, or go to piercecasa.org.