The number of children in foster care is soaring in Middle Georgia, and there are not nearly enough foster parents willing to take them in.
Georgia now has more than 15,000 children in foster care, up 60 percent from 2014, according to state data provided to The Telegraph. Of those, 5 percent — or 762 children — live in the Middle Georgia counties of Baldwin, Bibb, Crawford, Houston, Jasper, Jones, Monroe, Peach, Putnam, Twiggs and Wilkinson. Figures from the state Division of Family and Children Services show 260 children live in Bibb alone, up 30 percent from 2014.
“We are just now approaching the national average per capita of children in foster care,” said Walter Jones, communications director for the Division of Family and Children Services. “We don't want any child missing from foster care that needs to be in it.”
Georgia has about 7,000 state-run foster homes statewide. There are 91 homes in Middle Georgia — of those, 51 homes are in Bibb County — falling far short of the growing need.
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Beth Greene, director of a private foster agency in Macon called Hope Foster Care, characterized the shortfall as a foster care crisis.
“There's a huge need for foster homes in Middle Georgia to bring our kids closer to home. Those placements that are closer to home make reunification much easier,” she said.
The state Division of Family and Children Services linked the increase in the number of foster children to a state-driven effort to encourage people to report suspected child abuse.
“Three years ago we rolled out a 24/7 telephone number for suspected maltreatment and abuse of children that alone has brought more children to our attention,” Jones said. That number is 855-422-4453. “It has probably accelerated faster recently because of substance abuse, opioids in particular.”
Jones said state officials have been trying to address the foster home shortage indefinitely, but urgency has increased over the last two years because of the increase of children in the system.
The legislature in 2017 approved an increase in the reimbursement rate by $10 a day. And the Division of Family and Children Services is hiring, so each of the 14 regions in the state has at least one support staff member to recruit foster parents.
“Because it’s an ongoing issue we’re continually having to find new people,” Jones said. “We have foster families that have life changes, and they can no longer foster, or they move because of a job transfer. We need to replace them.
“You have the growth of the number of children in the system. It's not like we can just go out and fix the situation, and then it’s solved forever. We’re always going to need to recruit and continue to recruit foster parents.”
Greene’s group, Hope Foster Care, works with the Bibb County Division of Family and Children Services to place children in local homes. Right now, Hope Foster Care has 15 foster families in various stages of the fostering process.
Melanie Duncan, of Macon, began the process to become a foster parent with Hope Foster Care around December. In April, she got a call saying there was a 6-year-old girl in need of a home.
“I have my home, and I want to serve Macon. I thought that was something that I can do since there's such a huge need of foster parents,” Duncan said. “All you need is a home, a room, time to give and serve.”
While fostering can be difficult, Duncan said that, for her, the benefits outweigh the challenges.
Those benefits are “being able to see (the foster child's) joy and how this home, that was so scary at first, has become part of her routine,” Duncan said. “Every little day joys, and it doesn’t have to be this huge moment, it's just the little things where she gets a little more comfortable and gets out of her shell a little more.”
Foster parents are expected to provide children with a safe and loving home. Some other basic requirements for fostering include being at least 25 years old or 10 years older than the child that is fostered. New foster parents must have adequate space in their home for another child and meet state required safety and quality standards and screenings.
Anyone interested in becoming a foster parent can visit fostergeorgia.com or call 877-210-5437.