The night before the interview, Sally remembered the day and minute she felt called to foster.
“I woke up last night and remembered I was 11 and I was playing with friends ...” she said of her epiphany.
Sally (not her real name) grew up in a neighborhood with children who all had intact, healthy could-have-been-in-a-sitcom families.
As they played that day, the group fell into talking about adopted kids or children who had to leave their parents for one reason or another. The empty, devastated feeling Sally and her friends felt that day sobered their play.
At that moment, Sally promised herself that when she grew up, she would take care of a child who did not have parents.
But it wasn’t until she saw the movie “Bucket List” that she remembered her promise to herself.
Now in her third year of fostering, Sally loves what she does.
“It’s the little things,” she said of her calling, “Like when I overhear them say on the phone, ‘Well my mom said I couldn’t come over ...’ referring to me as their mom.”
Another example: Prior to coming to Sally, the boy she cares for had never purchased anything for Mother’s Day. He bought Sally a balloon to commemorate the day. When he brought it to her, his wide-open eyes expressed how he felt.
But these moments also make Sally stop and wonder at the family these children lost. “The biggest challenge is to remain quiet when the children have to go to visit relatives,” said Sally.
Maintaining a relationship with the biological family remains the top priority of Child Protective Services (CPS), say foster family advocates. In all cases, the agency actively works to return children to their parents.
But Emily Jenkins, the president and CEO of the Arizona Council of Human Service Providers, said the devastating cuts to the foster care and Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) programs has made reaching that goal more difficult than ever. AHCCCS provides health care to the poor and to children in foster care and covers more than 30 percent of the residents of Gila County.
“Seventy to 80 percent of CPS cases result from substance abuse,” she said.
With the state slashing budgets for both CPS and AHCCCS, troubled families have been set up by the state to run a loop on a treadmill just about impossible to escape.
The Legislature in the past two years made deep cuts in Child Protective Services funding and rejected the governor’s plea to replace $45 million in federal reductions. As a result, while the number of reports to CPS statewide rise by 2,000 and the number of children living in foster care grew by 828, the number of CPS staff dropped by 99 and the number of licensed foster homes dropped by 78, according to a summary posted by the Children’s Action Alliance.
Jenkins said in 2009 an earlier round of cuts forced the AHCCCS program to remove adults from its substance abuse program if courts take their children away. But that just means these adults no longer can afford the treatment programs that would help them sober up and regain custody.
The cuts have also decimated in-home services, said Jenkins.
Once upon a time, CPS and the foster services went into the home to counsel parents, many of whom have lost jobs and their homes due to the recession.
“I think we’re seeing a crumbling of the systems,” said Jenkins.
She said the state now has the most children it has ever had in its history in the foster care system — more than 13,700.
And those children that enter the system have suffered more intense abuse than in the past, simply because fewer people see these children.
As the Legislature cut funding to schools, the schools in turn cut counselors, teachers and teacher aides.
“As they cut funding to schools, there are fewer observers to spot abuse,” said Jenkins.
On top of that, families can no longer afford to pay for day care, said Jenkins. This forces one parent to stay home to watch the child. If that parent abuses the child, no one is able to see the abuse.
“The level of abuse and neglect is higher and more serious,” said Jenkins of the cases CPS now sees.
Sally said every time she drops off the children to visit their biological family, she hopes everything will work out.
As she talks, Sally struggles to avoid sounding judgmental. As a parent, she respects the sacred relationship a biological family has with its children, but as a mother who understands the responsibility of raising a child, she wonders at the choices her foster kid’s family have made.
“It’s not a good environment all the time. They come back with emotional issues,” said Sally.
Children are only removed from the biological family in cases where their health and/or safety are at risk, say advocates.
Sally treats the visits as an opportunity to give the children an attitude check and diffuse their built up energy.
Sally comforts herself by simply offering a safe haven for the children to feel comfortable and safe.
“I told them when they came, ‘This is your domain to be comfortable,’” she said. Yet, she also requires them to do chores and keep up their grades. It’s a balancing act — as it always is with raising children.
Sally admits the requirements for taking in foster children can overwhelm