Dean Duncan, a professor in the UNC School of Social Work, has been collecting data about the state’s foster care system for about 20 years. He said North Carolina’s foster care caseload tends to fluctuate, and today’s levels parallel those of 2000 and 2006.
Wingate said potential causes for the increase in children in foster care custody, including the opioid crisis, changes to the state’s approach towards mental health and poverty.
Kevin Kelley, the child welfare section chief within the state’s Division of Social Services, said the group noticed in late 2012 and 2013 that the number of children coming into foster care was beginning to exceed the number of children able to exit the system.
“The funds available to county departmental services to provide those in-home services to prevent children from coming into care diminished, partly because of the lesser amounts of federal funds that are available,” he said.
“And at that same time, there was the beginning of what we refer to as the opiate epidemic.”
He said these issues are amplified in vulnerable populations, such as families who struggle to meet their children’s financial needs.
Duncan said an increase in the number of children removed from homes due to maltreatment might be an additional factor.
He said federal guidelines allow Social Services offices only six months of in-home counseling for families with histories of maltreatment before taking children into state custody.
If issues at home were not resolved, Duncan said childcare officials often err on the side of caution and placing the child in a foster home.
“And a number of counties said they wound up, anecdotally, bringing more children into care because of that,” he said.
Kelley said usually the county can provide services to families without having to take the children into custody, but between 5 and 10 percent of cases result in the children being removed from the home.
Duncan said he has not seen a direct connection between the opioid crisis and the increase in children in foster care, but he has been tracking the number of children that enter care due to parental substance abuse.
He said between 2007 and 2012, substance abuse was the reason for about 30 percent of children coming into care, but that statistic increased to between 30 and 40 percent in 2015.
For children under six, the largest group entering foster care, Duncan said 40-50 percent of cases were due to parental substance abuse in 2015.
Kelley said it is known that substance abuse by parents contributes to child maltreatment.
“It puts a lot of pressure on the foster care system in terms of foster parents being available, it puts pressure on county departmental services to provide services to more and more children and their families, so they have to increase their staff load,” he said.
Kelley said Social Services is now having to look for homes further away from the children’s home communities and faces the threat of splitting up siblings — disrupting the child’s schooling, friendships and extracurricular activities.
“If you have a family of more than a few children, then obviously that’s a challenge for the system to find a home in their community that meets their needs that has the capacity of the number of siblings,” he said. “The goal is to keep them together whenever possible.”
Duncan said he expects the caseload to fall as Social Services adapts to the level of need, such as supporting families before their child has to be taken into custody and improving the adoption process.
The foster care system is a system that relies on help from the whole community, even those who cannot become foster parents, Kelley said.
“(The system improves) the more we can partner with, not only the public Social Services system and the private child placement agencies, but the community at large to support families who are struggling to care for their children,” he said.