Tennessee's network of foster homes for abused and neglected children has grown in the past year, but it's still not enough to meet the demand.
After a decade in which fewer and fewer Tennessee kids were in custody - down to fewer than 6,600 - the trend has reversed. More than 8,000 kids are under state care today.
Now, the Department of Children's Services is trying new ways to recruit foster families and persuade them to stay in the program.
That hasn't always happened. DCS caseworkers, sometimes overworked, slow to respond or unable to explain policies, have prompted some families to quit, walking away with deep distrust and promising to tell others to steer clear of fostering.
But those same parents - and a panel of independent experts - say DCS has finally made progress.
"There's been great plans out there, and they get started and just kind of dwindle down," said Rebecca Rogers, president of the Tennessee Foster and Adoptive Care Association. "I think they're doing much better of following through."
For example, families thinking about fostering get their calls returned, and regional foster care leaders can access DCS data to match children with available homes.
Earlier this month, DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day asked Gov. Bill Haslam for increased funding to hire 20 new family service workers, who focus on foster families, and a $7 million increase to pay a little more to those families each month.
Tennessee foster families receive more than the $16-$18 federal minimum for fostering, but the rate of about $25 per day per child hasn't increased since 2009.
"To me, you can never pay a foster parent enough for the work they do. It's a 24/7 job," Rogers said. "But any additional funding or help they can provide for the foster parents is going to help retain them."
Help along the way
In Rutherford County, foster parents Gina and Billy Jones have watched others come to foster care to make money. But many don't last through the first foster parenting class.
"A lot of people quit after going to the very first PATH (Parents As Tender Healers) class," Gina Jones said.
"They don't sugarcoat it," Billy Jones added.
For example, he said foster parents are often warned they might have to go to court quite often, deal with the biological families and learn how to handle the emotional needs of the foster children.
The Joneses, parents to a biological son and daughter, will finalize adoptions of two girls this month.
It's a dream come true for Gina Jones, who grew up in a family with 17 aunts and uncles and was surrounded by relatives who had fostered and adopted.
"When you're a kid you have simple dreams of doing stuff. Mine was that somebody would just put a kid on my front porch and I would raise it. Which is kind of what DCS does, really," she said, laughing.
The parents credit their local foster care association with helping them get prepared. They've had fellow foster parents tell them what to wear to court and what all the government jargon means.
"It's really good to have friends that can say, 'This is what's going to happen. This is the person you need to call for that,' " Gina Jones said. "DCS, they have a job to do. ... They don't have the time to hold everybody's hand."
Filling the void
Child agencies have long known that current foster parents like Rogers and the Joneses are their best hope for recruiting other foster families.
But DCS can't sit back and wait for referrals from satisfied foster parents. Children are constantly moving into and out of custody, and some 80 percent of foster parents end up adopting or taking over custody of a child, often ending their time as foster parents.
Tennessee gets children adopted faster than any state in the nation - the average time of adoption is 24 months - a point of pride for DCS, but it means the agency must always be on the lookout for potential foster parents to fill the void.
In 2009, "we recognized we weren't doing a very good job at recruiting," said John Johnson, state director of foster care and adoption services.
Working with a consultant, DCS tried to make realistic plans and then follow through by checking on data quarterly and annually. When counties found recruiting tricks that worked, they presented those to other regions.
In particular, DCS wanted to find more homes that could care for teenagers.
It also pushed for more placements with relatives, where kids are more likely to be successful. Since then, the state has doubled kinship placements. Almost 25 percent of foster placements are with relatives, Johnson said.
Meanwhile, finding willing foster parents for children with special needs or multiple siblings continues to be difficult. Many of those young people end up in foster homes connected to one of the state's private providers.
One of the largest, Youth Villages, created a radical new approach to recruiting a few years ago - one that sounds similar to modern-day political campaigning.
Using surveys and demographic data, Youth Villages created a profile of the type of person who makes for a good foster parent.
"What that person was like, and what they like to do, and where they went, and what they spent their money on, and what TV shows they like to watch," said Echelle Rutschman, communications director for the nonprofit.
Through a massive radio campaign, and later through TV, Youth Villages sought out foster families and soon saw a 25 percent increase in inquiries. The company also offered $1,500 bonuses to current foster families for each new family recruited.
Now, three years later and armed with new data, the nonprofit will start using more digital tactics, especially to stay in regular contact with potential foster parents who have yet to commit.
"Our research showed that on the average, a person thinks about becoming a foster parent for 21/2 years before they call, so we know that it can be years before you kind of reap the rewards of planting that message with people," Rutschman said.
Once foster families come on board, it's up to DCS to keep them satisfied.
DCS staffing levels have been questioned by the expert committee that monitors the department. The experts said in June that support for foster families is not consistent across all counties.
The experts said records have not been kept to gauge caseloads, which can lead to slow responses to foster family needs. The experts also had concerns about whether foster families were taking part in regular meetings - hosted by DCS - that determine the future placement of a child.
Rude staff and poor communication also were common themes that cropped up in foster family exit interviews.
And DCS had trouble getting some families to participate in the exit interviews.
In the last report that DCS did about former foster families, the state reached just 59 of 207 parents who had quit in a year's time. Many declined to be interviewed.
Of those reached, 78 percent gave reasons for leaving that were not based on DCS failings - a positive finding.
Roger Conner, a foster and adoptive parent and chairman of a nonprofit that works with teenage foster youth, said exit interviews won't always provide quality information because foster families in the process of quitting want as little to do with state government as possible.
"The last thing he wanted to do was get further involved by telling them what went wrong," he said.
DCS found the exit interviews weren't especially informative. The agency is now working on online surveys, instead of waiting to talk only to those who quit.
The various reforms have helped DCS increase its supply of foster homes by more than 1,000 in the past two years. Some 2,000 calls come in each year to the state fostering hotline. And the department's parenting classes remain full, Johnson said.
Still, the mantra remains the same, and the challenge unrelenting, Conner said.
"You never have enough families because of children always coming in and out of the system."