According to SLO County resident Ann Ward, the decision to open her home to youth in SLO County’s foster care system was just as rewarding as it was challenging.
“It gave me a purpose,” said Ward, who along with her husband has been a foster care family for more than 30 years, taking in everyone from kids fresh out of juvenile probation to teenage mothers. “It made me a better person because of the challenges that came with it.”
But finding families like the Wards has become increasingly difficult, raising concerns about a critical shortage of individuals and families willing to take in youth from SLO County’s foster care system.
- PROVIDE FOR ANOTHER: Interested in becoming a foster parent in SLO County? Go to slofostercare.com, or call 781-1700. To contact Family Care Network, go to fcni.org, or call 781-3535.
One of those raising the alarm about the lack of foster parents is Jim Roberts. Roberts is CEO of Family Care Network Inc., a private nonprofit organization that provides services for youth and families, including finding homes for SLO’s foster youth. Roberts told New Times that it’s become increasingly difficult to place those children in local foster homes.
“It’s a slow, but becoming more rapid, diminishment of the available families and people willing to be foster families,” Roberts said.
According to data from the SLO County Department of Social Services, there were an estimated 378 children in the county’s foster care system at the end of 2016. Those children can be placed within a variety of situations, including with other family members, foster families, or in group homes both inside and outside of the county. According to Roberts, the best outcome is for a child to be placed in the care of a local, qualified family. In order to do so, Roberts says the county is in need of at least 25 more foster families.
Roberts said one of the biggest needs is finding foster families willing to provide emergency shelter on short notice for children taken into protective custody by police or the county’s child protective services.
Frances Munoz, a SLO County resident and former teacher, has been fostering children for the last 12 years. Since December of last year, she has provided her home as one of those emergency shelters. Speaking to New Times, Munoz said the length of stay for a child could vary.
“I take the kids who come in on an emergency basis, and they are here with me while we figure out the next steps,” Munoz said. “Sometimes they are just here overnight, other times I have them for a few weeks or even a month.”
Without more individuals like Munoz, Roberts said his organization has had to resort to other means of finding emergency shelter for foster youth.
“We don’t have families to put them in, so we are scrambling,” Roberts said. “We actually had to put them in hotel rooms with 24/7 staff to watch these kids until we can find a family for them.”
The shortage also makes it more difficult to find local placement for SLO County children currently living in group homes outside the county. According to the county’s data, 81 percent of the 27 local youth placed in a group home as of December 2016 were placed in a group home located outside of SLO County.
Roberts said a recent overhaul of California’s foster care system requires that more children and youth be cared for in therapeutic home placements instead of group homes.
“But there are no homes,” Roberts said. “No families to move them to.”
Roberts had some theories about what is driving the shortage. Some of it may have to do with outdated or negative perceptions about foster youth, and who is able to take them in. In addition, Roberts posited that the high cost of housing might also play a role.
“I think our area is a little challenging because of the affordability factor and the cost of housing,” he said. “Some people are worried that they can’t afford a home with additional space to take on a couple of foster kids.”
To combat the shortage, Roberts said he has been working with the county and other stakeholders to address the issue. He hopes that by getting the word out, more willing families will come forward to help local children in need of a safe and supportive home and family.
“They’re just youth. They’re kids,” Roberts said. “A lot of them really need and respond to having some stability from a family.”
For those who do take the plunge, Ward said the experience, while sometimes challenging, is a rewarding one.
“I think it did a lot for our family,” Ward said. “These are children that are having some really tough things going on in their life, and we were able to give them a safe place.”
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.