A veteran of 15 years in child welfare, Penny Esser has never weathered a tougher climate for the work to which she is so devoted - recruiting foster parents.
“It’s as bad as I’ve seen,” said Miss Esser, who is based in Medford, Ore. “We are really at a critical shortage. We’re crowding the foster homes that we have.”
Even in good times, recruitment is often challenging because of concern about inadequate reimbursement rates, burdensome oversight or simply a perception that foster parents get a bad rap because of periodic horror stories in the news.
Now, amid epic economic turmoil, the challenge is aggravated - especially in the majority of states, Oregon among them, whose payment rates to foster parents fall well below estimates of what is needed to raise the children.
“It’s the fear factor that’s keeping some people from even applying,” said Don Darland, who heads the Oregon Foster Parent Association. “People are saying, ‘I don’t even want to try. I don’t know what’s going to happen. … Maybe we have enough income, but we’re not sure what’s going to be there in the future.’”
Mr. Darland, a quadriplegic, is a retired Marine officer. He said he and his wife have been foster parents for 18 years, caring over that span for about 60 children, many with physical or emotional problems.
The catch is that there are not more folks like him: Retention is a problem in Oregon, with a need to replace at least 60 percent of the foster parents every two years, Mr. Darland said.
“It’s always been a problem even in the best of times - and it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better,” said Lauri Stewart, a spokeswoman for Oregon’s Department of Human Services. “People are being pinched hard.”
One factor common to many states, she said, is that reimbursement doesn’t cover child-care costs - meaning foster parents who work outside their homes often must pay hundreds of dollars a month from their own pockets for day care.
Miss Stewart said the number of foster homes in Oregon has remained relatively steady in recent years, but at too low a level to provide optimal care for foster children. The consequences, she said, include having to assign multiple children to each available home and settling for less-than-desirable matches for special-needs and minority children.
From the national perspective, foster care advocates are deeply concerned by the budget woes besetting many states. Even if reimbursement rates aren’t reduced, there may be other damaging cutbacks in training and support programs, said Carl Jones, interim executive director of the National Foster Parent Association.
There’s particular concern about the financial struggles of foster parents caring for special-needs children with serious emotional problems.
“The level of therapeutic needs for some kids is pretty high,” said Joe Kroll of the North American Council on Adoptable Children. “As we go into economic downturns, we start to lose some of those supports.”
Foster parent Susan Bell is wrestling with that very issue.
She and her husband already have two teenage foster sons in their home in Portland, and case workers are pleading with them to take more, including one youth who sexually molested a sibling and another who stabbed his mother.
“Are we wanting to tackle that with the amount of reimbursement we’re getting? It’s a heavy subject,” said Mrs. Bell. “We realize the amount of supervision these kids require. … Generally, what’s foremost on our minds is, ‘Can we financially continue to do this?’”
Mrs. Bell, 58, said the state pays $512 a month for each of the boys now in their home, not enough to cover the surging costs of providing for them. Like other teens, the boys take long showers, leave windows open in the winter - jacking up utility bills - and eat heartily. “Teenage boys don’t eat a little bowl of cereal - they eat a mixing-bowl size,” she said.
For now, she and her husband are wary of taking on more children, despite the state’s entreaties.
“If you take in a 14-year-old, you’re looking at a four-year commitment, even if things worsen economically,” Mrs. Bell said. “It’s a 24/7 job that definitely has its rewards, but there is an emotional and financial cost.”
Nationally, the situation varies from state to state.
The president of the Texas Foster Family Association, Irene Clements, said her state’s reimbursement rates - well above the national average - aren’t a problem but that many potential foster parents are deterred by the rules. “The system’s gotten so punitive that they don’t want to do it anymore,” she said.
In Georgia, the foster-care community is waiting to learn what the impact will be of across-the-board budget cuts ordered by Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican who has called for reductions of at least 6 percent for every agency.
David Elliott, head of Georgia’s Foster Parent Association, said cutbacks in foster-parent training are viewed as likely. “I’m not seeing mass panic - I’m seeing people taking a studied approach,” he said. “We are feverishly working and looking for out-of-the box solutions so we can take care of our children.”
In Oregon, Miss Esser also is seeking new solutions. She works for the state’s Child Welfare Division in Jackson County, where about 325 children are in foster care, up from roughly 200 five years ago.
“We’re crowding foster homes,” she said. “People are willing, but we don’t want to burn out our foster parents.
“We’re just finding beds. What we’re not doing is matching. We’re not keeping kids in their neighborhoods or with their siblings.”
Groping for new recruitment tactics, Miss Esser recently went through a local directory, found the names of 134 places of worship in Jackson County and issued an appeal to them.
“My challenge was, ‘Every church, one foster family,’” she said. “If we got every church to recruit one family out of their congregation, we’d be in really good shape.”