Kristen Wright and her husband signed up to be foster parents about a year and a half ago.
“We were just kind of searching how we could continue to use our home and our family, and just really felt like the Lord was moving us in that way,” Wright said, sitting in the cavernous basement of her family's church, Grace Fellowship Church in Snellville.
Currently, Wright and her family are fostering a two-month-old baby girl, whom they have had for about six weeks.
She will stay with them at their Snellville home until she can go back to her parents, a relative volunteers to care for her or she is adopted. The little girl, who still looks like a newborn, is the tenth child Wright has taken in.
Wright said there is no standard for how long a child stays with her. Some stay for a few days, some for several months. But whenever a child leaves, it is only a matter of days until another one -- or two -- arrive.
“The longest was between two and three weeks,” Wright said. “Probably the quickest was one time we were leaving court and we did receive a phone call for another placement.”
That quick turnover is indicative of how pressured the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is to place children who come into state custody. In the last few years, the number of children in state custody has grown by the thousands.
Meanwhile, the number of foster homes and adoption openings in which to put them has stayed relatively flat. The imbalance has the left the state’s child welfare agency and the agencies that contract with it scrambling to find enough placements to meet the growing need.
“I would say if we place 25 percent of the kids, we’re doing pretty good,” said Wayne Naugle, who leads United Hope 4 Children, a Loganville group that works to recruit and train foster families. The Wrights are one of Naugle’s families, and he said Georgia needs many, many more.
“I’d say in the last year we’ve placed 150 kids and I’m sure we’ve had over 500 phone calls,” Naugle said.
“A lot of the families are full,” said Michelle Christian, the foster care program manager for the Devereux Georgia Treatment Center, which is based in Kennesaw.
Christian said she has been struggling to place older kids and sibling groups.
“On a given day I may receive a phone call from four or five different DFCS agencies saying we have a sibling group of seven,” Christian said.
DFCS is the state agency that's ultimately responsible for the state's foster children.
“It’s fair to say we’re in a crisis around our need for foster homes and adoptive placements,” said Susan Boatwright, communications director for the agency.
In 2010, state numbers show Georgia cared for 13,000 children at some point that year. Last year, the number grew to around 15,600. Boatwright said that number is expected to be at least the same this year.
Meanwhile, the number of foster homes in the same timeframe stayed flat, at around 4,000.
According to Boatwright, the main reason for the increase was a new statewide 1-800, 24-hour hotline that rolled out early last year.
“It has brought more cases to our attention, and they’re cases that we needed to be involved in,” Boatwright said.
In September 2013, before the call center rolled out, the state got about 14,000 potential abuse reports that month. The following September, with the call center, it got 26,000.
Boatwright said that as the state started investigating more cases, more kids came into its care -- all at a time, she said, when state money was short.
“While we were not able to replace staff that left, we often needed to move staff from positions that weren’t involved in going out to assess the safety because that’s the first thing we have to make sure we do,” Boatwright said.
The result has been a system that is overwhelmed, said Melissa Carter, who heads Emory’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center.
“We are bringing more children into care than we are exiting them,” Carter said. “Certainly it’s more complicated than just a numbers game, but that is one indication about the emphasis being perhaps greater on the front end than it is on those exit strategies.”
Carter, who is also the former head of Georgia's Office of the Child Advocate, said DFCS would ideally have two to three placement options per child who comes into care. By that metric, Georgia is more than 10,000 placement options short.
Those realities are pushing DFCS and the private foster care agencies that contract with the state to ask families to take more kids.
“Couples will come in and they’ll think, oh I want to be a foster parents, I want the 0-6 [age] range,” said Christian with the Devereux Treatment Center. “You know, they want this one child, and we need you to be able to take three, or take two.”
Christian said the cases they are seeing now are also more complex.
“There's been a recent increase in 15, 16, 17 year-olds who need homes just to be able to graduate from high school and again to just remember living in a home,” she said.
This summer, the state started spending $5.8 million allocated in the state budget just to recruit more foster families. It’s the first time DFCS has ever gotten money for this type of work.
The agency is working on an ad campaign and hiring more staff to recruit and train foster families.
But that training takes between two and six months, and homes for foster children are needed right now.