The number of abused and neglected children in state care has nearly doubled in Pima County over the past decade - even as funding to help them has dropped precipitously and the number of foster homes declined.
Statewide and locally, it is becoming more difficult to place children removed from their homes with families where they can experience some normalcy.
Caseworkers are trying harder to place children with relatives, but it's not a simple solution. Tracking down extended family who might help can be challenging, and resources are scant. Group homes and shelters, meant to offer a temporary reprieve, are becoming long-term housing for many older children, sibling groups and teens.
"They're staffed. That's not about making a family connection," which is what children desperately need, said Angela Martinez, who works locally to recruit foster families for Arizona's Child Protective Services.
"A child can't begin to heal unless they are with a stable family."
Last Sept. 30 there were 2,659 Pima County children in state care, Arizona Department of Economic Security data shows. The same day in 2001, the number was 1,831. That's an increase of 45 percent, significantly outpacing the county's population growth of just under 17 percent.
Since Web-based tracking of Arizona's foster homes started in 2006, the number of new foster families consistently topped those leaving the system - until March 2010, one year after the state cut foster-care funding during the recession.
"We are generating a net loss of foster homes," Martinez said.
The loss is not necessarily just because of lower reimbursements, she said. The economic decline hit foster families especially hard because larger households are more expensive to maintain.
"More mouths to feed, with less resources, is going to greatly add to the stress of a family," she said.
Lin LeClair-Turner and her husband, Dan, won't let state cuts end camping trips or zoo visits for their foster children.
The couple, recently named Pima County's foster parents of the year, estimate they spend about $2,000 out-of-pocket annually. Lin, who runs a tax business, provides discounted advice to foster and adoptive families. She said foster children who are with a family at least 183 days in a calendar year can be claimed as dependents.
Dan and Lin have three grown children, and were introduced to foster care when they took in a young relative more than a decade ago. Together they now serve on a county foster-care review board. Dan is also on the board of the Arizona Association of Foster and Adoptive Families.
As foster parents they have comforted a 15-month-old going through drug withdrawal after drinking heroin-laced breast milk. They saw a child through extensive dental work from "bottle rot syndrome." And their hearts ached for a formerly homeless pre-schooler who carried her backpack everywhere because it was once all she had.
So far, they have opened their home to 27 young children and babies.
The shift started slowly. From October 2009 to March 2010, 582 Arizona families stopped taking in foster kids and 560 new foster families opened their doors.
By September 2010, closures jumped to 903 over a six-month reporting period, while 718 new homes opened.
Children can't necessarily be placed in every foster home with an empty bed.
"Sometimes we have a certain number of homes, and it looks like a significant number, but if the homes aren't willing to accept a child, our hands are tied," Martinez said. "The great need in foster care is for more homes to take in school-age children and teens. There really isn't a need for homes for little kids because most people gravitate to that population of children anyways."
Between October and December, Pima County had more than 700 foster homes, but nearly 390 children and teens were in shelters or group homes because a family match wasn't possible.
Statewide, the numbers are also dramatic: Of 8,693 foster spaces available from April to September, 2,086 were unused because a match was not possible, DES data shows.
Michaela Luna with Rise Family Services is most concerned about those who turn 18 and "age out" of the foster system alone, leaving them at high risk for unemployment, homelessness, pregnancy and incarceration.
Nine agencies provide shelter or group home care in Pima County. Once those are full, children are moved elsewhere - to the Phoenix area, for example.
The push to place more children with relatives is growing, said Juvenile Court Judge Hector Campoy, but more assistance is needed to make the placements stick.
Unlicensed relatives receive 63 cents to $2.63 per day for each child, depending on the child's age and needs. On average, it takes four to six months to get licensed, Luna said, "and so, often, these placements are disrupted because they can't meet the needs of the child."
Campoy fears child-welfare issues will become more complex as more low-income adults lose behavioral-health services such as substance-abuse prevention, crisis intervention and treatment for mental illness because of cuts to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
Vicky Barajas has been working for DES in Tucson for 17 years. For the last three, her time has been staggered between finding homes for children in crisis and doing home studies of foster families.
It's two weeks on, two off because finding placements for children can be very stressful.
"The times that we get calls and the child is just months old or a year, and we hear the reasons why they are coming into care, we hang up and we cry," she said. "And then we pick up the phone again and we go for it."
Martinez, of Child Protective Services, dreams about a program called "Extreme Recruitment" and has a Time Magazine article about it tacked to her bulletin board. The program, which started in St. Louis, places adoptable foster children with relatives in about half the time it usually takes. The approach is to have a team, including a detective, track down all of the relatives they can, not just locally but across the nation.
There's no funding for such a program here, but Martinez hopes it will one day be possible.
"I haven't given up yet," she said. "There are connections out there for these kids."
The average cost to do a nationwide search would be at least $1,400 per child, she said.
"It's expensive, but look at the cost of providing care," she said. "We've got to get creative."
How funding to support children in foster care was cut in March 2009
In March 2009, the following cuts were made to the funding and support foster parents receive:
• Emergency clothing allowance: reduced from $300 per child annually to $150.
• Extra emergency clothing allowance - given only in an extreme circumstance such as a fire: reduced from $200 per child annually to $100.
• Books and education allowance: reduced from $165 per school-age child annually to $82.50.
• Special needs allowance (used to supplement expenditures for a vacation, birthdays or a special holiday): reduced from $45 per child annually to $22.50.
• Diaper allowance for disabled children over age 3: reduced from $125 per child per month to $62.50.
• Camp and vacation allowance: suspended.
• Foster care maintenance payment: cut by 20 percent. Foster families now receive $19.68 per day per child as well as 53 cents for clothing and 10 cents for a child's personal allowance. Children under age 3 get a diaper allowance of 95 cents per day and children under age 1 get $2.10 per day for diapers and formula. (If the child needs a higher level of care - there are three levels - the maintenance payment increases by increments of $3.84 per day).
Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or email@example.com