Durham County’s Department of Social Services is trying to recruit more foster parents to deal with a startling trend of kids who need to be placed in foster care. But to do that, it needs more money.
In his recommended budget, county manager Wendell Davis acknowledged that the DSS “has experienced unprecedented growth in the number of children in foster care”—a 47 percent increase between January 2013 and December 2015, mirroring statewide statistics.
And though that number has flat-lined over the last few months, county officials expect it to resume its upward trajectory as the age limit for kids receiving foster care services is incrementally increased from eighteen to twenty-one, per a new state law.
DSS director Michael Becketts told commissioners that there were 206 children in foster care a year ago, compared to 241 today. He later told the INDY that the increase stems from more cases of “blatant abuse and neglect” being reported.
Earlier this year, Becketts asked for a $1.8 million boost to his department’s $64 million annual budget. But that was too much, especially considering that twenty other departments were also asking for increases.
So in collaboration with the county manager, that request was walked back to just $450,000.
Becketts says that will be enough both to accommodate more foster kids and focus on their mental health care. “There are very few children who end up in foster care who do not have a health or a mental health diagnosis,” he says.
The county needs to spend more on foster care, officials say, because the state’s child welfare funding is woefully inadequate.
“Reimbursement by the state stayed flat for so many years,” county commissioner Wendy Jacobs said at a budget work session last week. The state provides a maximum of $634 per month to cover room and board and clothing. The county and federal government help cover any other reimbursable needs.
Jacobs says the poor financial incentive hurts efforts to keep foster kids close to their birth parents’ home. “We’re sending kids out of county, which is more expensive,” says Jacobs. “We have to pay for families to visit their kids. We have to pay for the social workers to go check on them.”
What’s more, to say that the state is understaffed to certify foster homes in all one hundred counties would be an understatement.
“You would think that there would be more than one person completing the licensing process for foster homes,” says Becketts. “But there’s only one person in North Carolina that’s doing that work right now.”
(Becketts says he’s been assured by Kevin Kelley, section chief of the state’s child welfare services, that two additional people will soon be brought in to speed up the process.)
As Becketts noted in his presentation to commissioners, the DSS and the county manager agree that they might eventually need more than $450,000. The DSS might come back to the commission in November and request more money if the county is adding more foster kids than it can handle.