Overwhelmed Foster Care System Faces Crisis

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“Mom, can ‘Joe’ come and live with us?” asked Karen Carlen’s foster son one night as he ate his before-bed snack.

Carlen and her husband already had a full house after adopting her three nephews and nieces. But after hearing about Joe from her foster son, she could not turn him away.

“That’s how it all started,” said Carlen.

The family ultimately found itself on the frontlines of one of the most pressing problems in Arizona, the disintegration of many families under the impact of a sickly economy and ongoing abuse and neglect. The problem has reached crisis proportions in Payson, where 400 students in the district qualify as “homeless.” That means they’re living with friends, relatives, doubled up with other families or on the street — rather in a home with at least one parent.

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Hard Times in High Country

A local group, Payson Assisting Displaced Students (PADS), is posed to help. PADS is currently recruiting families willing to take in teens like Joe, who will otherwise fall through the cracks of an overburdened system. When the school year starts in August, the district will likely need placements for a new crop of teens with no settled place to live.

As a result of the disarray of many families, Arizona Child Protective Services (CPS) now faces a desperate struggle to find enough foster homes.

The Arizona Department of Economic Security reports that the number of licensed foster homes is declining, while the number of children needing foster care is on the rise.

In the year ending in February of this year, the number of children in foster care rose from about 9,000 to more than 12,000 — a stunning 33 percent jump.

During the same time, the number of licensed foster homes dropped from almost 4,000 to fewer than 3,500 — an alarming 13 percent decline.

“I have a friend who works in CPS in another state,” said Carlen, “She said the organization is overwhelmed and many kids never have a case opened on them.”

Carlen calls Joe a “falls through the crack” kid. Due to circumstances beyond his control, his parents were taken from him at a young age. CPS never opened a file on him.

“As his mother was being taken away by authorities, she scribbled a note saying a friend could take care of her son,” said Carlen.

As so often happens, once the friend started taking care of little Joe, they found they could not follow through on their promise. Carlen said it just becomes too difficult to feed their kids. Joe found himself shuttled between people and often ending up on the street between homes.

But he kept on going to school. “Joe is a fighter,” said Carlen. At school, Joe found a stable scheduled environment, regular meals, clothing and supplies. But no one really understood the extent of Joe’s need until Carlen’s foster son talked to him.

“The students know which classmates need help,” said Carlen, “They might not go to a teacher, but they talk to each other.”

By the time Joe came into Carlen’s life, he was an older teen. Before Carlen decided to take him into her home, she wanted all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed.

“I wanted a power of attorney,” said Carlen. “But previous to us, no one had required any paperwork.”

She called CPS. A caseworker told her the state had no place to put Joe. “They asked me, does he have a place to sleep, food, clothes? I answered yes. They said, as long as you’re willing to take him in, we have no problem with that,” said Carlen.

Carlen said most people do not understand how the government defines homelessness. The federal McKinney-Vento act defines a homeless student as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

The definition can cover a broad range of situations, said Carlen. A student might shuttle between an aunt, grandmother or friends. Each night they have a roof over their head, but no fixed place to study or place belongings — nor do they know where they will eat their next meal.

The situation is more dire for older teens, said Carlen. “Families with younger children are nervous about bringing an older teen into their home,” she said, “They don’t know their past.”

Carlen admits accepting a child into a home is a significant commitment, however, she said just mentoring kids can do wonders.

Carlen applauds the work of PADS. The organization works to find homes for older teenage students who for one reason or another do not have a stable place to stay at night, but wish to finish high school.

“PADS takes a kid who wants to stay in school and helps them out,” said Carlen.

Once Joe made it to Carlen’s house, he had a consistent home from which to finish high school. He received a scholarship and went to a mid-western school, but missed Arizona. He’s back now and will continue to attend college until he receives a degree.

“So many are proud of him,” said Carlen.

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