Estevan Torrez has a hand-lettered sign taped to the inside of his front door.
It reads: Brush your teeth.
But it’s not a prompt for the unmarried 29-year-old machinist. It’s a reminder for his two foster children.
Torrez is one of a small — but growing — group of young men in the Tucson area who have become licensed as foster parents during the last year, in large part to care for the children of family members.
The Arizona Department of Child Safety (formerly Child Protective Services), which oversees the foster-care program, estimates that eight single men between ages 21 and 30 are licensed foster parents in Pima County. Statewide there are about 36 foster parents in that demographic.
Devereux Arizona has licensed five young foster dads, including Torrez, in the last year, said Staci Snyder, program manager for the nonprofit agency.
“We’ve never really had this many guys who’ve stepped up to do this,” Snyder said. “They’re so young and the majority of them are single. It’s unusual to see so many male caregivers.
“If there are other guys out there who are thinking of doing this or wanting to help but don’t think there’s support out there I want them to realize its possible.”
Devereux Arizona is one of a dozen agencies in Pima County that provides foster care licensing services and support. Though most of the agencies contacted reported no perceptible increase in 20-something men becoming licensed foster parents, Michaela Luna Romero, chairwoman of the Foster & Adoptive Council of Tucson, sees increased interest.
Five years ago, single young men interested in becoming foster parents were “far and few between, but now I am seeing more young males stepping up to the plate,” said Romero, who is the family services supervisor for Rise Services, a foster-care licensing agency.
Grandparents often care for children in kinship foster situations. But more and more male relatives are taking in nieces, nephews and other young family members.
Romero predicts that as agencies change their preconceptions of who can be a foster parent, they will get more single men signing up.
“People tell me it’s super-important for them to keep their family together,” she said. “That is what family does, sticks together.”
More rules, less candy
Before becoming licensed to foster, Torrez only saw his 8-year-old nephew and his nephew’s 13-year-old brother on weekends. He could be the fun “tio,” or uncle. But when the boys moved in with him almost a year ago, his role in their lives changed.
“I told them, ‘I’m always your uncle, but now I can’t give you all candy and ice cream’ ” like he used to during weekend visits.
From the start, Torrez laid down rules.
“You drop it, you pick it up. You make a mess, you clean it up,” he said. And, “I made it very clear school is the most important and I told them education will get them wherever they want to go.”
The 8-year-old is intent on becoming an NBA star and, with his uncle’s permission, practices jump shots by launching himself off the arm of the couch and aiming for a small hoop mounted on the living room wall.
The 13-year-old plays football and has already made a top-three list of three colleges he wants to attend in pursuit of a degree in engineering.
The boys get an allowance for doing chores. If they duck their responsibilities, Torres docks their pay.
“I tell them we’re a circle. I have needs. You have needs. We’re all here to help each other,” he said.
The boys have done well in Torrez’s care. He provides them with structure, attention and home cooking.
“They see I’m willing to spend time with them and do the things they like to do,” said Torrez, who balances his time as a foster dad with a full-time job and a girlfriend.
Although he enjoys being a foster dad, this wasn’t the life Torrez had envisioned for himself.
“When I moved out of my parents’ house, I was going to travel and be by myself. But I decided I wanted to do something for someone else. I wanted to be a support for them,” Torrez said of the boys, noting that the custody arrangement likely will be permanent.
If he hadn’t taken the boys, they would have gone to separate foster homes in Maricopa County.
“We’ve got a shortage of foster homes right now,” said Snyder, of Devereux Arizona. “We’ve got about 3,600 kids in Pima County, but only 715 foster homes, so kids are having to be sent to other counties and that makes it really hard for them to access their services, visit with their parents, see their siblings. We’ll have a sibling group that is spread out around different counties in the state.”
Statewide, there are 3,900 licensed foster homes and about 16,000 children in foster care — up from 9,800 in 2006.
The rise is due to the fraying safety net for poor families, found an Arizona Daily Star investigation last year into the surge in state kids being put into foster care. Cuts to child-care subsidies, welfare, family support programs, and substance abuse and mental-health services have pushed more families to the edge.
Also, reports to the state’s child welfare reporting hotline are way up, said Jennifer Bowser, a spokeswoman for the Department of Child Safety. Between October 2005 and March 2006, the hotline received 17,756 reports. Between October 2012 and March 2013 the hotline received 22,161 reports.
Keeping sibling Bonds
Rafael Delgado, 29, was already caring for his son, Santiago, now 2, when he learned late last year that his ex-girlfriend’s three other children were going into foster care.
“I felt it was really important to keep the bond between the siblings,” Delgado said. “I didn’t want to see them separated. The only choice was, I take them or see them go to Maricopa County and go to separate homes.”
The 29-year-old full-time college student had already taken a year off work as a teachers aide to care for Santiago when he learned his son’s three half-siblings — 5- and 8-year-old boys and a newborn girl — needed a home.
“Even before Santiago came along, I thought that was something I was meant to do, have a foster home, take care of foster kids,” said Delgado, who is pursuing a degree in education.
Delgado was adopted, “so adoption and foster was always been a piece of me,” he said. “I want to give children who are already in this world a home.”
It was the judge presiding over the custody case who suggested Delgado become licensed as a foster parent to help with the expense of raising the children, he said. In April he completed the licensing process through Devereux Arizona.
Through his relationship with their mother, Delgado had known the boys for most of their lives.
“I have been ‘Dad’ to them since they were all very little,” he said.
As for taking a newborn when his son was still in diapers, he said, “I had three. I figured what was one more, and she’s the little girl. I had to take the princess! She’s been a blessing. She’s meant to be here.”
While the two oldest boys are at summer camp, Delgado takes the baby for twice-a-week physical therapy appointments and the usual well-baby checkups. There are also medical and dental appointments for the boys and check-ins with the children’s caseworker.
After the older boys finish summer camp for the day, the family spends the sweltering afternoons at the library or an indoor playground at a local mall. At their south-side home the boys roughhouse, play with their baby sister and care for the family pets — four dogs, a cat, a rat and several birds.
If Delgado needs help juggling his schedule, his mother drives to Tucson from Benson.
“My mom’s a huge support. She’s usually a backup,” he said.
Delgado hopes the foster care arrangement will be permanent but, “whatever does end up happening, I’ll still be here. I just want to make sure the right decisions are made that are in the best interest of the children. I know where these kids are coming from. I know the lives they lived. I know what they’ve seen. I will speak what I feel because these kids have been through a lot.”
Jason Blanchard, 30, and his fiancée were planning for children of their own last autumn when he took in his niece and her half-brother and –sister. They range in age from 5 to 14.
He first took in his niece five years ago when Child Protective Services asked him to care for her, but he didn’t become licensed as a foster parent until all three children came to live with him.
Though Blanchard and his fiancée are open to caring for the children permanently, the goal is to reunite them with their mother and father, he said.
“We want them to end up with their parents. The kids love us, but they have parents and that’s where they have their attachment,” he said.
Daniel Campos, 29, is a stay-at-home dad to his own three children and has taken in his nieces several times.
“The first time we took them in, we did it informally. The second time we decided we might as well get licensed to do it,” he said. “Maybe one day we’ll try to help more kids, but right now we’re trying to help family. That’s a big part of who I am and who my wife is. We want to help out family.”
Campos comes from a family of 10 children.
“I used to be one of those guys who never wanted kids, but after I had my first I started seeing how much I wanted to be a parent and I enjoy having kids around. I like to seem them grow,” he said. “I like to see their smiles. I like to hear their laughter. It’s a very soothing thing to see children happy.”