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Just a few minutes into an information session for potential foster parents at Guilford County’s social services office, it starts to become clear why the state is struggling to recruit for this critical part of the child welfare system. 

“We’re going to make sure you’re healthy enough to be a foster parent, so we’re going to assess your health,” foster home recruiter Chris Hines tells the crowd. “If you’re renting, then the person or agency that you are renting from is going to have to know you’re trying to be a foster parent because we might have to make some tweaks to your home.”

The list gets longer as the clock ticks. 

“If you want to travel outside of the state, then you need a travel letter that will be signed by our director,” he says.

“There's another part of our process. You have to get a fire inspection at your home.”

Hines, who has worked for the Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services since 2006, has somehow figured out a way to fit all of the requirements for foster parent licensure into a catchy hour-long speech peppered with dad jokes — all the more impressive when you realize just how much there is to cover. 

To be licensed in North Carolina, potential foster parents have to take a 30-hour training course and submit to home visits, background checks, and interviews. It’s a tall order, but Hines says that’s the way it should be.    

“It's an involved process. It's actually an invasive process because we have to kind of dig into folks’ lives and find out who they are,” he says. “But when you understand that we're training and licensing folks who we're going to trust to care for traumatized children, you understand that it's a big undertaking.”

It’s an undertaking that has become increasingly critical in the past few years. That’s particularly true for Guilford County, which is under a state corrective action plan due to an investigation which found in part that children were being moved around too frequently and social workers had unmanageable caseloads. 

Statewide, the number of available foster homes dropped by 23% between 2021 and 2022. Adrienne Turner with the Forsyth County Department of Social Services says when the pandemic hit, fewer people were interested in opening their homes to foster children, and recruitment numbers just haven’t recovered. 

“That means more children are definitely being placed further away from their homes. They are sometimes having to spend the nights in Department of Social Services (DSS) buildings,” she says. “Sometimes we have a child go to the hospital. That child will have to stay in the hospital longer than they may really need to be there because there is no place to safely discharge them.”

The problem has become so widespread that the North Carolina Association of County Directors of Social Services is asking its members to report how many children they have sleeping in their offices each week, according to a spokesperson for the state health department. Turner says the situation puts an additional strain on children who are already traumatized, and also on the social workers tasked with caring for them on top of their regular workloads. 

“We go to the grocery store and we get food for them. We get cots that they can sleep on, that costs us additional money with having to have staff here around the clock to care for them. And we’re not trained to give medications but we’re having to give medications to youth,” she says. “And making sure that, you know, they're staying on a daily routine, making sure that if they have schoolwork, they're doing schoolwork, making sure that they have things to do so they’re not just sitting here all day.” 

Sara DePasquale with the UNC School of Government studies North Carolina’s child welfare system. She says the children who are the most difficult to place are often the ones who need the most help: those with significant mental health issues or who aren’t used to speaking English at home. 

“We have a large Spanish-speaking population in the state and there's a disproportionate number of available foster families who are Spanish speaking, compared to children who are in foster care that are Spanish speaking,” says DePasquale.

State legislators have taken two actions this year aimed at recruiting more foster families. They upped the monthly supplement licensed parents receive, and DePasquale says they recently passed a law allowing so-called kinship placements to receive stipends. 

“I know the district court judges are hopeful that with relatives being able to receive some financial assistance for being willing to have the children in their homes and provide care and supervision for them, that more relatives will be willing to have children placed with them,” she says. 

Hines says the stipends help, but they alone are not enough to motivate people to get involved in the foster system. He says his focus remains on awareness — getting the word out to as many people as possible by meeting them where they’re at.

“We just kind of believe in, you know, putting our boots to the ground and going out and talking to folks and being available to ask and answer questions and offer our literature and just make people aware,” he says. “It requires a lot of energy. Just a willingness to stick to it. And to be wherever we have an opportunity to be to share our message.”

Hines says in some cases, that could mean doing recruitment talks for church groups or being present at community events.

Back at the information session, a Greensboro resident, Tarsha, who asked to be identified by first name only, says watching a news story about children sleeping in offices was enough to get her to sign up to learn more about how to help.

“I feel like I have a lot to offer children because I genuinely love them. And I've raised a special needs child and he's doing very well. And with me seeing how well I did with him, it just reaffirms that I can also love and nurture and protect children,” she says. “So I want to help.”

It’s the kind of attitude Hines says they are looking for in foster parents. In the end though, out of the eight people who showed up to the session, just two picked up an application.  Hines isn’t discouraged. Right before he wraps things up, he puts in one final plug: 

“Oh, if can you do me one last thing,” Hines says. “If you know of any family or friends or you happen to just be standing in line at a store, please help us get the word out that we need folks to become foster parents.”

Guilford County will hold its next foster parent information session on September 28, 2023 at 6 p.m.. 

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