Foster care crisis emerges in Haywood
Part one of a two-part series
The foster care system in Haywood County is facing a dilemma.
Rising numbers of children entering foster care have caused a $342,000 funding shortage in the budget for the remainder of the fiscal year (March through June 2013).
At the county commissioners meeting last week, Haywood County Department of Social Services Director Ira Dove explained that the projected funds originally budgeted for foster care in the county — an amount of about $1.69 million — is falling short of the actual need. The unexpected influx of children to the foster care system is because of several factors, including an increase in substance abuse issues in homes with children and a number of children being moved from therapeutic care at Smoky Mountain Center into foster care under DSS.
“The present issue that we’re facing is that there is an increase in the amount of children that we had in foster care and that’s led to an increase in the expense. We’re needing more money from the county to make sure we’re covering the cost of caring for the children,” Dove said, adding there are 72 families with a total of 109 children in foster care currently.
While about 60 to 65 percent of the county’s money will be reimbursed through federal and state programs, the county still has to come up with all of the money up front. Although the commissioners approved the funding, they did have questions about the 53-percent rise in the number of children entering foster care in Haywood County, especially when statistics show those numbers decreasing in most other states.
Problems at home
When the matter came before the board of commissioners this month, C hairman Mark Swanger asked what makes North Carolina and Haywood County so different as to have such an increase. Dove answered that much of the problem now seems to come from substance abuse issues. In the current situation, prescription drug abuse is on the rise, and although Dove said he can’t speculate as to why more people are abusing drugs, he did say it is a known fact that the more available a type of drug is, the more people will abuse it.
“Every time you hear about a (drug) epidemic, it’s going to affect children,” Dove said.
Substance abuse problems in the home have been found to affect children emotionally and physically as well.
“We’re finding more and more that when people are using these substances in the presence of their children, particularly smoking a substance, (the children) are testing positive for drug exposure,” said Social Work Program Administrator Donna Lupton. “We’ve got some very young kids testing positive, and we can’t leave those children in homes where they’re exposed to it.”
But even though 68 percent of Haywood County children in foster care come from homes where there is a substance abuse problem, all of the families in the county system have multiple issues resulting in the removal of a child from the home.
“We’ve seen an increase in our county of unmet mental and emotional health issues,” Dove said.
In comparison, it is striking that the percentage of families with substance abuse issues in the home matches that of parents and guardians with emotional and mental health issues at 68 percent. Forty nine percent have no stable housing, and 46 percent are cases of chronic neglect. Other issues include domestic violence and/or physical abuse of the child, homes where there has been sexual abuse or a sex offender is in the home, and cases where one or both parents are deceased. Nearly all of the homes are in poverty.
When foster care is necessary
Children are not removed from homes unless their safety or well-being is at stake, and the process of determining if a child should be removed is a long and thorough one, Dove said.
First DSS does an investigation and assessment of the home to determine if there is a risk to the health and safety of that child, whatever the issue or issues might be.
There are situations in which DSS can offer in-home services to help the family stay together, and currently, Haywood County has 85 families with 176 children receiving in-home care.
Dove said the goal is to make sure the child will be safe in the home, and if that can be accomplished by working with the parents, it is the course DSS will pursue.
“We’ve stepped up our efforts in that regard,” Dove said of the in-home services offered. “That’s netted some results and kept some kids out of foster care because we’re able to help a parent get sober, or deal with issues. You might have people who simply lack parenting skills. That would be an in-home issue we’d deal with to try to get that kid safe.”
When the worst does happen and a child must be removed from a home, DSS tries to place that child with relatives or the other parent if possible. If family cannot be found to take a child in, he or she enters the foster care system, either moving into a licensed home or a group home.
Others in need of more intensive therapeutic foster care, or higher levels of care, are sent to Smoky Mountain Center. The care for these children is paid mostly through Medicaid dollars, but when the center determines they no longer meet the criteria for that level of care, the responsibility switches back to DSS. The agency must find family foster care for the child, and it also means the expense for that care reverts back to the county, which is another reason more funds are needed in the budget as more children move from Smoky Mountain Center into foster homes.
“The hope is that we’re going to wind up with what is in the best interest of the child. I know mental health providers are trying to make the best determination for the children,” Dove said. “We don’t want children growing up in an institution.”
While certain types of care are more expensive for the county, Dove said in the long run, it is in the best interests of the child and the community to raise children in healthy home environments.
“But the plan relies on the fact that there will be community services available to help those kids,” Dove said.
In addition to running over the projected budget, the foster care program in Haywood County is also running short on licensed foster care providers who can give these children a home.
“We’re always needing — everybody’s always needing — foster parents,” Lupton said. “A lot of our children don’t get to stay in our county because there aren’t enough foster homes.”
For more information, look for a follow up story in The Mountaineer on Wednesday about the need for foster homes in Haywood County and what people can do to become a licensed foster care provider.