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On the Edge: Children sleep in offices as foster care falls short

The empty playground at Southwestern Child Development Commission in Webster. The commission also works with foster system to provide childcare.
Lilly Knoepp
The empty playground at Southwestern Child Development Commission in Webster. The commission also works with foster system to provide childcare.

This is part three in On the Edge series.

Since the pandemic, fewer families have been signing up to become foster parents. In North Carolina, the number of licensed foster homes dropped 23% in one year to just 5,436 across the state in 2022, according to federal data. This decline has led to foster children sleeping at department of social services (DSS) facilities across the state. Experts say that they have been advocating for additional resources for children and families for years. The state budget included new health care funding for foster families, but will it be enough to make an impact?

In September, a video circulating on TikTok called for donations to help foster children in Jackson County.

“One of my closest friends is an investigator for Jackson County DSS. They currently have kids there who have been there since January — living at DSS,” TikTok user Rebecca said in a video, becoming visibly emotional. “Sorry, had to take a minute. That takes me out.”

Community outrage on social media called for funding and support to keep children from having to sleep in office spaces.

At the time, Jackson County DSS Director Cris Weatherford confirmed that children were sleeping in the office due to a lack of sufficient foster care. Months later, the situation remained unchanged.

“It seems to be hitting our county particularly hard, even though other counties are dealing with the same issue,” Weatherford told BPR in November.

About 100 children are in foster care in the county. Weatherford said it’s been hard to find placements.

“I’ve got a child that we’ve had in care since March, and she’s on the 12th placement now. [She’s] currently living in the office, and several of the last placements that she’s been in, she’s not been able to go to school at all,” Weatherford said.

The need for more foster families and social services funding in North Carolina is not a new development.

A federal report in 2015 examined 14 factors in foster care cases across the state, including Jackson County. North Carolina failed to meet national standards for child safety, reunification, education needs and others, according to the report. The state also did not meet many standards due to poor data quality.

More recent reports have also given North Carolina bad grades when it comes to children.

Based on children’s health data from 2021, the nonprofit NC Child gave the state an F in terms of housing and economic security, school health, mental health and birth outcomes.

The executive director of NC Child, Erica Palmer Smith, presented data on several WNC counties at the Asheville Region Coffee & County Data Release in September, hosted in partnership with Children First/Communities in Schools of Buncombe County. This painted a fairly positive picture of the region, with three counties showing a lower percentage of children in poor or low-income households than the state average of 41.7%: Buncombe (38%), Henderson (38.4%) and Madison (32.9%).

Despite these statistics, social workers and nonprofit organizers in the room said that the view on the ground in Western North Carolina is very different.

Other counties in the region have much higher percentages of economic insecurity for families, including Transylvania (46.2%), McDowell (47%) and Macon (52%).

More than half the children in Jackson County live in households with incomes below the state average.

“I think a bigger part of the conversation in addition to all the work that the agencies are doing here — we have to look at our foster homes. Right now, in Jackson County, there are three kids living at the DSS. So that’s only a part of a larger conversation of ‘how are we looking at foster care in the state?’” Dorian Palmer, of Big Brothers/Big Sisters Jackson County, said at the meeting. “What does that look like? I don’t know. I don’t know who is having that conversation. But I think that’s an important thing.”

Changes for improvement

Corye Dunn is the executive director of Disability NC, an organization that advocates for all foster children. “I think folks are sometimes surprised to learn that a disability-focused organization pays so much attention to foster care,” he said. “But the truth is that kids whose families have DSS involvement near-universally have some kind of trauma history.

“And if they didn’t have a trauma history already, being taken into DSS custody and removed from the home with which you’re familiar is, in and of itself, a traumatic experience.”

North Carolina is one of just nine states in the country that is directed at the state level but administered at the county level.

This disconnect causes problems, according to Dunn.

“It means that the people who are closest to the work are not closely connected to the people who are closest to the money,” Dunn said. “Some folks might think that the obvious answer is to push control of money to local resources, but what we’ve actually seen is that the administration of foster care by 100 separate entities is deeply inefficient. It fails to take advantage of potential economies of scale, but it also fails to take advantage of expertise that’s in short supply.”

Of those nine states, North Carolina had the lowest per-child investment across all public funding sources in that system, according to a report from NC Health News based on DHHS data from 2018.

Dunn noted that since 2018 there has been a greater understanding that mental health care is needed to support both children and their families.

The state budget includes the creation of a statewide specialty Medicaid plan for kids in foster care and their families to improve their access to physical and mental health care, NC Health News reported.

“Families are systems, so getting proper health care doesn’t just help a kid — it helps a whole network of people,” Dunn explained. “And when you remove one person from the system, they may get treatment, but nothing happens to the rest of the system. So when they go back, it hasn’t necessarily fixed anything.”

Part of this year’s state budget entitles youths receiving care access to trauma-informed interventions and therapy. These will be provided by the regional Local Management Entities/Managed Care Organizations (LME/MCO), although the LME/MCOs will soon be restructured.

The state budget also included expansion of subsidies for kinship foster care placements. Weatherford was optimistic that this would make a difference in Jackson County.

“It’ll definitely help us provide some resources to kinship providers, to people that have historically just taken children that are their relatives,” he said.

The funding, however, is strictly limited to blood or adoptive relationships.

Local agencies are still struggling 

Although issues with foster care can be found throughout the state, problems with the foster care system in Cherokee County stand out. The department of social services was sued by more than two dozen families for unlawful separation. In 2022, Cherokee County commissioners voted to settle the lawsuits. The county ultimately paid about $53 million for the suits, according to Carolina Public Press reporter Kate Martin, and raised taxes to cover its legal costs.

Jackson County officials have worked to supplement funding for the department of social services, and

county commissioners approved a new stipend to help the department in July. To DSS Director Weatherford, however, the extra funding was “not even a band aid.”

“This is putting a bare hand on a wound and trying to stop the bleeding,” he wrote in the Sylva Herald. “The first step to solve a problem is to identify the problem. This is a complex issue that involves several systems that each play an integral role in child welfare in our entire state.”

In October, Jackson County joined a pilot program supporting children in foster care through additional funding. The Foster Care Reinvestment program provides financial assistance for items not covered by Medicaid to keep children safer and help them access local health care.

The program launched in 2021 and now includes five other counties across the state.

“Actually, I’m really excited about that. I think it’s going to really help us develop some programs or some systems here at the local level that may be able to help us,” said Weatherford.

He noted that the money can be used for home improvements, day care services, and other essentials.

Weatherford also highlighted a new program with HIGHTS, a local youth-oriented nonprofit, which will provide in-home therapy for foster children and their families.

Payments to the county for the new program will be about $30,000 per month, according to the Smoky Mountain News.

Dunn expressed hope that local agencies will be able to work together across the state more often.

“This is a problem in a hundred counties. Not in one or five or ten,” she said. “And while the challenges may be different in rural and urban counties, there are certainly challenges in both.”

Weatherford agreed that statewide policy needs to improve.

“It’s getting really, really frustrating to not be heard, that we’re not helping people,” he added. “In fact, in some cases we’re making things profoundly worse, and we’re following policy. If you’re following policy and getting a bad result, then maybe it’s policy.”

BPR’s Helen Chickering also contributed reporting to this piece. 

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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