A shortage of foster care homes is squeezing both foster parents and state Child Protective Services workers, causing them to bend licensing rules to give children places to sleep.
No one knows how often it’s happening because the state doesn’t keep track. But a recent case in Tempe highlights this symptom of an increasingly overloaded child welfare system, where the number of foster kids continues to grow.
Foster parent Ann McElfresh was asked to exceed her licensing limit recently to temporarily take in two young brothers.
The CPS caseworker knew McElfresh, who already cares for four foster children, would be going over the state limit of five children. But she had removed the malnourished boys, ages 1 month and 1 year, and had no other options.
“She spent quite a bit of time trying to find a placement for them, and there was no place for them to go,” McElfresh said.
A growing number of children who need foster homes are younger than 6. As of last week, there were 74 such children waiting in shelters or group homes, 41 children ages 6 to 12, and 34 teens between 13 and 18 years. There are more than 6,600 children in foster care, up about 15 percent over last year.
CPS can ask for an emergency “overcapacity” to waive a foster parent’s licensing limit for a few days. Both the state’s licensing division and the private agency that licenses the foster parent are supposed to be contacted, as well as a senior CPS administrator.
On Sept. 22, however, McElfresh received a call from her foster care agency and was told she would be penalized for taking the boys and her foster care license could be in jeopardy.
McElfresh, who with her husband has adopted one foster child and is in the process of adopting another, told the worker the brothers would have to go. She did not want to disrupt her four foster boys, three of whom had been with her almost since birth.
“She said, ‘I can’t do that. There’s nowhere for them to go.’ ” McElfresh said. “I think the really tragic part is that the kids are going to suffer.”
It appears neither the licensing agency nor the proper CPS administrator were notified that the McElfreshes would be going over their limit, said Janice Mickens, program administrator for the Division of Children Youth and Families. The foster parents will not be penalized, she said. The brothers were placed in another foster home last week.
New policy is being written to clarify the overcapacity process and to track the number of cases, Mickens said. She said CPS workers are unfamiliar with the policy because it’s used so rarely, but added that the state doesn’t keep track of it.
McElfresh and other foster parents said they’ve been asked several times to exceed their limits for a few days to care for children immediately after they are removed from their homes, until a more permanent foster home or a relative can be located.
Bev Crawford, who runs a Tempe foster care agency, tells parents not to take children from CPS workers seeking to make “back-door placements” without notifying licensing or CPS higher-ups.
“All you need is one sick mom or two sick kids and you’re over the edge,” she said.
In addition to a five-child limit, state licensing rules also require that parents have no more than two children younger than 1 year or four children younger than 6.
Mickens said both CPS workers and foster parents are struggling. Recently, a caseworker spent the night in a CPS office with a young ward because there were no beds available in foster homes, group homes or shelters, Mickens said. “Obviously, we need more foster homes,” she said. The problem is particularly acute with the youngest children, in contrast to recent years when teens were the most difficult to place. Now, babies are routinely going to shelters rather than getting the consistency of a foster parent or relative.
Children also are staying longer in what are supposed to be temporary placements. Over the past year, the number of youngsters in shelters for more than three weeks has increased by more than 40 percent, from 917 to 1,300 children. Half of the 1,300 children in shelter were younger than 6.
Foster parents have not had a rate increase since 1996. And provisions to recruit and retain foster parents have been given little attention in recent proposals to reform the child welfare system, even as officials advocate law and policy changes that would further increase the number of kids in foster care.
McElfresh said she agreed to take the baby brothers because she knows CPS is in a bind and she wanted to help. “But this is why they lose foster parents, because (last) Monday I was ready to call it quits,” McElfresh said. “I certainly did not expect a thank you from anyone, but I didn’t expect to get penalized either.”