As of June 2018, there were 14,491 children in out-of-home care, also known as foster care, according to numbers from the most recent semi-annual child welfare report from the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS).
Of those children, the case plan goal is for just over half (52.4 percent) will return to their families. The other 47.6 percent will either: live with other relatives, be adopted, be in foster care long-term, become independent living; or stay under a guardianship.
For those vulnerable children, foster care is a vital resource they need and seek, and it requires strong people to open their home and take in a child who may have been through abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences.
Just off Highway 51 and Thomas Road tucked away behind the frontage road is the nonprofit Aid to Adoption of Special Kids (AASK).
AASK is an organization that specializes in supporting foster parents and families. They also provide support to legally free children — children who are independent from their biological family and seeking a new, adoptive family.
Russ Funk is the director of community engagement. He has been in the field since 1986 — the year he and his wife fostered their first child. The Funks have fostered seven children in all, and have four children of their own, two of whom are adopted.
In the case of one child, a temporary fostering situation grew into something permanent. But placing a child with a loving foster family to watch over them for years isn’t the goal of the fostering system.
“One thing that people don’t understand about foster care is it’s an intervention,” Funk said. “And this was true of myself too. Because when I got involved, I thought we were taking kids away from bad parents, but we’re really just providing what foster care should be: a safe place for kids to be until they can go back to their parents.”
DCS in Arizona is tasked with this “intervention.” They’re the ones who respond when there is a report of a child being neglected or abused. And when they arrive and find that a child is at risk of being neglected or abused, DCS takes the child.
If DCS takes the child out of the home for more than three days, and the child becomes a dependent of the state, then they’re also responsible for fixing the home so the child may be able to return.
“It might take a matter of six days. For other kids, it might take years. It all depends what the situation was at the home,” Funk said.
Funk added that the number of children in out-of-home care “would look like a backwards fish hook.”
“In 2006, it was probably the lowest it’s been. It started to creep back up, and then it shot up in about 2009, 2010, after the big financial collapse of ’08,” he said. “Largely because so many people were being forced out of their homes due to the housing bubble, and many people were in financial stress. It’s kind of like this perfect storm of two different things came together at the same time that put, basically, families on the street, and kids who were already at risk in more risk.”
In 2005, the number of children in out-of-home care was hovering just under 10,000. That number — as Funk said — shot up after the market crash. And it only continued to grow for the next several years, peaking at 18,782 children between April 2015 and March 2016.
But everything has its ebbs-and-flows. In October of 2015, that number started to make its way down, and as of June 2018, the number is back down to 14,491. However, just because the number is going down, doesn’t mean families aren’t needed.
“There’s always a need for community homes for kids in foster care, and that’s even when the numbers start to go back down,” Funk said.
One of the services that Funk and AASK provides to foster families is a kinship program. If a child is taken away from their home, the first people that DCS would call would be next immediate family members, like an aunt, uncle or grandparents. AASK helps those family members navigate the system.
If the relative says yes to taking care of the child, the process can be a whirlwind — and a scary one if the process isn’t known.
“The (DCS worker) will pull up in the driveway, leave the car running, get the child out of the car, and assuming the child has anything with them — a backpack, a school bag, they certainly don’t have any clothes or a suit case,” Funk said. “They walk the child to their grandma or grandpa’s house, have grandma or grandpa sign a piece of paper and give them a copy and say ‘someone else will be in touch with you.’
“Then grandma and grandpa don’t hear from somebody, or they hear from three different people, and they don’t know who these people are because they haven’t been given any information on how the system works.”
AASK helps to provide information. They help families understand their responsibilities and roles, and how to seek help if they need it. They also helps foster families to not get discouraged and continue on.
“’Why would I need food stamps? I just feed them.’ Six, seven, nine months from now, my savings is gone, my credit cards are maxed out, I’ve had to take (the child) to different visits, to court appointments, there are seven people who call me every month who are wanting information, and I’ve had it,” Funk said of the thought process relatives fostering children can obtain.
AASK, and other similar organizations though, can only do so much.
“The foster care system still relies on people in the community to open up their homes and their hearts.”
Continue to part 2 of Arizona’s Children.