By Michelle Crouch
Dozens of children have been forced to sleep on the floor of Mecklenburg County offices over the past year because of a severe shortage of foster homes and crisis beds, according to the county Department of Social Services.
The children, who come into county custody after allegations of abuse, neglect or abandonment, sleep on air mattresses in two conference rooms, said Charles Bradley, the county’s youth and family services division director.
Bradley said the situation is “as bad as it’s ever been” in his 19 years at the department.
Since July 2022, 55 foster children have slept in county offices, he said. Most are age 12 and older, Bradley said, but a few have been younger. Some have stayed as long as a few weeks.
“Any night they are in the office is an unfortunate situation because we know each and every one of our children that come to us has a history of trauma, abuse or neglect,” Bradley said. “We are in desperate need of more foster families to step up and welcome children into their hearts and their homes.”
During the day, social workers bring in meals for the kids and take them to school, therapy and medical appointments. The kids have access to showers on site. An outside group takes them out for activities and recreation.
On rare occasions when the office space fills, children are sent to local hotels accompanied by social workers, Bradley said. Two social workers go with each child, and they stay in a two-room suite so the child has some privacy. Bradley couldn’t immediately say how many kids have stayed in hotels in the past year.
The makeshift accommodations are not only distressing to children; they also place an enormous burden on county social workers, who have to work overnight shifts to supervise, Bradley said.
“Every placement is challenging”
The problem isn’t unique to Charlotte. Kids are sleeping in offices, converted storage closets and hotels across the state, foster care advocates told The Charlotte Ledger/NC Health News.
In Wake County, for example, the number of foster homes has dropped by half, forcing up to 11 children at a time to spend the night in county offices, Child Welfare Division Director Sheila Donaldson said. To make the kids more comfortable, the county has invested in special chairs that convert into beds, Donaldson said.
The crisis is at least partly due to the fact that more foster children — like other kids across the country — have mental or behavioral health issues in the wake of the pandemic. Counties have long struggled to find placements for those kids, who may need either a “therapeutic” foster home or a hard-to-get bed in a residential treatment facility.
But what’s surprising, child welfare advocates say, is that they’re having trouble placing kids with no identified medical, mental health or behavioral problems. Finding a spot for older kids and those who are part of a sibling group is particularly difficult. Even young children can be hard to place.
“Every placement is challenging,” Donaldson said. “We have workers making upwards of 60 phone calls trying to find a placement for one kid.”
Foster homes in short supply
Although the number of children coming into care hasn’t changed much in recent years, the number of licensed foster homes in North Carolina plunged 23 percent from 2021 to 2022, according to federal data. That leaves the state with only 5,436 licensed homes for more than 10,200 foster children.
In Mecklenburg County, the Department of Social Services typically has about 500 children in care, Bradley said, but there are currently only 88 county-licensed foster homes — down from more than 100 in 2019. To fill the gap, the county contracts with private agencies that have foster homes in the Charlotte area. But they, too, are stretched.
One of them, the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, said it gets more than 300 calls a month from child welfare workers in Mecklenburg and other counties looking for spots for children.
Historically, the agency, which is the largest private provider of foster care in the state, has been able to meet almost all the need, said Shannon Enoch, executive director of its foster care to permanency program.
Since 2022, however, the society has had to turn away growing numbers of kids, she said. The agency even struggles to find placements for infants and toddlers.
“It used to be, if you sent out a referral for a 5-month-old, 100 foster families would throw their hat in the ring,” Enoch said. “Now, it takes us some time. That’s never happened in my 17-year history of this work.”
Why are foster parents opting out?
Many families stopped fostering when COVID-19 hit, because of fears about the disease and because of the challenge of managing extra kids when schools were closed.
But even post-pandemic, the state is losing more foster families than it’s bringing in, said Gaile Osborne, executive director of Foster Family Alliance, a statewide association of foster, kinship and adoptive parents.
Some foster families leave after adopting a child — the best-case scenario, Osborne said. But others leave because they can’t find childcare or quality mental health services for their foster kids. Or they get frustrated with how long it takes child welfare cases to go through the court system.
Another issue: high turnover rates and a rising workload for county social workers, who are the main source of support for foster parents, Osborne said.
In addition to working overnight shifts to supervise foster kids with no placement, caseworkers spend hours trying to find spots for children — on top of their normal responsibilities of visiting foster homes, driving kids to school and medical appointments, testifying in court and more. All for an annual salary that ranges from $49,000 to $74,000, according to a Mecklenburg job listing. The constant pressure has prompted many to quit for higher-paying, less demanding jobs — creating more work for those who remain.
“Social workers are doubling up on their caseloads, supervisors are carrying full caseloads — that’s not how the system was meant to be run,” Osborne said. “What’s happening is, more and more is being dumped on the foster families. Everybody is drinking from a fire hydrant.”
Even emergency shelters are full
Counties typically turn to emergency shelters to temporarily house foster kids, but shelters, too, have been full.
Take The Relatives in Charlotte, for example. The crisis shelter for youth on East Boulevard has been able to make available only six of its nine beds in recent months because of staffing challenges, Executive Director Trish Hobson said. (The shelter has hired more staff and plans to open all its beds this month.)
In addition, kids are staying longer, Hobson said — an average of 30 days instead of nine. The center used to cap the number of days children in county custody could stay at 15, but they extended that to 30 days after a request from the county.
“The healthiest thing is not for a child to be in a shelter, even though our shelter is like a home,” Hobson said. “But we get it. We’ve seen how difficult it is for social workers to find placements.”
An innovative solution
Least of These Carolinas, a Gaston County-based foster care support group, started hearing about growing numbers of children in Mecklenburg and other counties sleeping in county offices last year. It prompted the group’s leaders to “start thinking out of the box,” Executive Director Susanna Kavanaugh said.
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The group worked with two churches in Gaston County to convert houses formerly used for clergy, called parsonages, into places where foster children can stay with their social worker, as an alternative to staying in an office or hotel. They call them Hummingbird Houses.
The first Hummingbird House opened in August 2022, and the second one opened in mid-June. The homes, which can accommodate four to six kids at a time, now serve foster kids from across the state — and they are usually full.
“Kids in care can stay in a real house, sleep in a bed and play Xbox or play in the yard while they wait for a placement,” Kavanaugh said. “In the last six months, I’ve gotten calls for kids to stay who were as young as 2 years old. If we can’t find foster homes for 2-year-olds . . . good grief.”
Bradley said Mecklenburg County caseworkers try to place younger kids at a Hummingbird House when there’s a spot. He said the homes have been a “godsend” during the current crisis. (A similar center, called Anchor Hope, serves children in Guilford County.)
Kavanaugh said her next goal is to open a Hummingbird House in Charlotte. “There must be some empty parsonages there,” she said.
Mecklenburg County also has a plan for relief. The county has set aside funding to renovate an existing facility to provide 12 emergency beds for kids awaiting placement and hopes to open it in 2025.
Money, marketing to attract families
Of course, the long-term solution to the problem is to persuade more families to consider fostering.
In May, as part of the legislation that imposed a 12-week restriction on abortions in North Carolina, state lawmakers voted to boost the monthly stipend for foster families. It will go from $514 to $702 per month for children up to age 5, from $654 to $742 per month for children aged 6 to 12 and from $698 to $810 per month for children aged 13 to 20. That increase went into effect on July 1.
Meanwhile, counties and support groups are intensifying recruitment efforts. Wake and Mecklenburg counties have hired marketing agencies. Mecklenburg’s campaign, which will include print and digital ads, is scheduled to start by the end of the year, Bradley said.
Part of the message he wants to get out is that anyone can foster — you don’t have to be a homeowner, be married, have a certain amount of money or a college degree.
If you can’t serve as a foster parent yourself, you can help by supporting those who do, Osborne said. In the Charlotte area, organizations that provide services for foster families and children include Least of These, Congregations for Kids and Foster Village.
“Burnout is real in foster parents,” Osborne said. “Many quit in the first year. But what if they had three families who walked beside them and cooked a meal three times a week, or helped them transport the kids? That’s a way to make a difference.”
Find out more about how to become a foster parent at www.ncdhhs.gov/fostering.
This article is part of a partnership between The Charlotte Ledger and North Carolina Health News to produce original health care reporting focused on the Charlotte area. For more information, or to support this effort with a tax-free gift, click here.