By Raechel Dawson
Cheryl Emmal Butler has been fostering teens for four years.
Not only does she regularly handle typical teenage angst, but she works with children who have behavioral issues. This means the five girls she’s fostered over the years have all experienced some type of trauma and often live with anxiety.
“In general, the issues you deal with when children go through trauma are significant,” Butler said. “Children have behavioral issues and a lot of anxiety – imagine living with a drug addicted parent, not being able to wake them up or no food in the house. When children come to you, they need to be nurtured and stabilized.”
All families of the children she’s fostered have, in some way, been involved in drugs.
Butler said that she had long been a child advocate, working as a guardian ad litem and court volunteer for 20 years, when she decided to become a foster parent. With her own children grown and a divorce finalized, it was the perfect time to help make a difference.
“All these kids are out there and they need somebody to take care of them,” she said. “If they’re not finding homes, they’re going into group settings, residential settings – not a home. And then, sometimes with some teens I’ve had, they are sleeping at the DSHS office while they’re waiting for a home to become available or staying in motels with case workers.”
According to recent data, there are more children in foster care this year than there have been in the last nine years.
President and CEO of Friends of Youth, a Kirkland-based foster care provider, Terry Pottmeyer said the nonprofit has seen a 20 percent increase in the number of children who have come into care statewide since 2012. And although families willing to become foster parents has slowly increased, there’s still not enough homes.
Washington state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) backs those numbers. In January 2012, Partners for Our Children, an organization that has partnered with DSHS and the University of Washington to provide child welfare statistics, reported 7,377 children in care. This January, that number rose to 9,058, a 22 percent increase though it is still below the 10,829 children in care in 2008, during the Great Recession.
The number of families looking to foster is not keeping up. While there has been an increase in foster homes, it has been modest. DSHS reports that there are 5,032 licensed foster homes today compared to 4,980 in 2017 and 4,850 in 2016. That does not mean approximately 4,000 children are living on the streets. Many who are not placed in foster care are placed with relatives or go into group homes.
The reason for the rise, says Pottmeyer, is in part the opioid epidemic is affecting families’ ability to parent their own children.
“So, many children come into care because of neglect rather than abuse, and the opioid epidemic has certainly had a role to play in the number of families that are not able to properly care for their children because of the heartbreak of addiction,” Pottmeyer said, noting that despite Washington state’s best efforts to keep children with families, the opioid epidemic “by all apparent indicators has interfered with continuing efforts in that direction.”
DSHS reports that between 2012 and 2017, the number of children who were removed from their homes each year because of parental drug abuse increased by 26 percent. The overall increase of children entering the system each year was only 7.6 percent.
Although data isn’t available for opioid-specific drug abuse, as the state only keeps track of general substance abuse, Jenna Kiser, DSHS’s intake and safety program manager for the Children’s Administration, said opioids are the current drug of choice.
In Kiser’s 12 years working at DSHS, she says she has seen two or three societal drug trends. When she first started, it was methamphetamines.
Now, she’s “definitely seeing more intakes related to heroin.”
“Whether it’s illegal or legal, we look at how use of substance impacts parents’ ability to take care of a child,” she said.
Kristie Neklason, the director of substance use at Bellevue-based Youth Eastside Services, said while familial substance abuse has always been a factor for children going into foster care, the opioid crisis has played a larger role in recent years.
“For a number of years, we’ve seen an increase in opioid addiction and opioid overdoses, which is the ultimate loss in families,” Neklason said. “Kids are impacted … as well as young people themselves who are at the point of maybe they’ll try this out or not.”
The primary work of Youth Eastside Services is to prevent teens and young adults who are parents from losing their child because of addiction. They do this by various educational efforts and by helping them work through trauma, grief, depression or other mental health issues.
Jerry Blackburn, Friends of Youth’s program manager for substance abuse and prevention services, pointed to the steady increase in opioid prescription abuse in the last 15 years as the root cause. When doctors and the pharmaceutical industry became aware of the issue and prescriptions waned, he says, what was left was a “large quantity of individuals who had a substance abuse disorder but no access.”
Many then turned to heroin, a highly addictive street drug that can be smoked or injected, Blackburn said.
Blackburn said those who try to get off of the drug experience “horrendous” withdrawal symptoms.
“There’s not even words to describe it,” Blackburn said of the muscle cramps, shakes and pain associated with withdrawal. “So it’s relatively impossible to manage that and not return to use. Heroin users don’t even talk about getting high, they talk about getting ‘well’ after five to eight hours coming off of the substance.”
This need to feel “well” or normal, Blackburn said, becomes the No. 1 priority, which can be as deep-seated as the body’s response to hunger.
“Regardless of what substance they’re using, people will prioritize their drug use over other stuff,” he said.
That, he said, includes the health and well-being of their children.
Although DSHS has seen an increase in the number of licensed foster homes since 2015, a couple of years ago they did see a dip in licensed providers and the amount of homes they do have still isn’t enough.
“While that number is increasing, we do continue to have a great need for licensed foster homes to meet the increasingly high needs of the children who come into foster care – whether that be medical needs, behavioral and mental health needs, the needs of older children, the need to be placed with their sibling group, etc.,” Norah West, a spokeswoman for DSHS, said.
Pottmeyer said there are many reasons families who might otherwise foster choose not to. For instance, the complex, time-consuming licensing process can be a deterrent.
Rising housing costs may also play a part, according to Pottmeyer.
Decades ago, more families could afford five-bedroom homes that could house not only themselves and their own children, but two-to-three foster children as well.
As housing prices have skyrocketed – the median price for a home in Bellevue is $791,000 while Mercer Island’s is $1.2 million, according to King County – homes have gotten smaller.
“I think a real shift has been fewer people can afford to have larger homes with the extra bedrooms,” Pottmeyer said. “The most common demographic foster parents tend to be are younger parents who have their own children, so they’re at a place in their lives where they’re not at the same economic capacity as a family, perhaps, that’s well established.”
Then there’s the matter of finding the right match. Some families may only want a 4-year-old instead of a teenager, Pottmeyer explained, adding there’s rarely a home that’s the best fit for foster children right from the get go.
“So what we do is we take a child out of a very traumatic environment and because of our inability to respond because of the right placement, we end up inadvertently, and it makes everybody so sad, increasing the trauma the child’s experiencing,” Pottmeyer said, adding that those actions could start those children on a spiral of unintended consequences.
While Friends of Youth can’t do much to stop the opioid crisis, there is some work being done to figure out best ways to recruit more foster parents. Pottmeyer said a group of philanthropists have asked 12 local child-placing agencies in a group called the Foster Care Collaborative for data to figure out the most effective way to recruit.
“We just heard back from the funders and they were able to bring in some expertise of a researcher who is working with us to help us understand: Where do we do our outreach? How do we outreach? What’s our target demographic? What are the most likely characteristics of a family that will say yes to fostering?” Pottmeyer said. “… We have 100 ideas but we don’t know if those ideas will be productive or not. This is professionalizing our recruitment in a way that we’re really excited about and we’re all collaborating on it.”
Friends of Youth currently offers monthly “lunch and learn” meetings for families interested in fostering and continuously reaches out to faith-based communities or regular community events to spread the word that foster parents are needed.
For those who can’t afford to live on the Eastside, which is Friends of Youth’s primary coverage area, there is an option to live in one of the nonprofit’s four foster homes.
And while homes are needed, Pottmeyer explains there’s also a need for respite foster parents, or licensed providers who can take children for a few days. This option, she says, allows parents to understand if fostering is right for them.
Butler, the foster mom of four years, said she became licensed through Friends of Youth and her experience has been very successful.
“Within seconds, I can text, phone or email someone,” Butler said of her access to support for foster care. “I get my own case manager in addition to the state worker.”
Even though caring for the teens she takes in can be challenging, Butler said she remains very passionate about helping children.
“I have given a child her first ever birthday party,” she said. “I met a child recently who just wanted to make sure we could eat together ‘as a family’ if she came to my home and would she have a bed to sleep on. I taught a teenager how to ride a bike – she never had a bike. We take so much for granted.”
Butler, 61, said anyone can foster – married, single, gay, transgender, two moms, two dads, one dad and “one old lady like her.” And even with the housing issue, families with two-bedroom apartments are perfectly acceptable.
“I have seen kids make amazing progress while in care because I was a ‘present’ person in their life and they were able to relax and just be a child,” Butler said. “It can really be that simple, to be present and willing to listen and provide calm, gentle guidance and care.”