There are less than 90 children in foster care in Sampson County, a number that has decreased substantially in recent years on the back of a concerted push by county officials to build awareness through foster care fairs and advertising campaigns, while working with court officials to keep families together.
The lowering numbers — from an average of 130 children in foster care a few years ago in Sampson to a figure that has stayed below 90 this year — goes directly against a trend being seen across North Carolina, which some say has reached crisis-level proportions.
Recently, a steadily rising number of children in N.C. foster care broke the 11,000 mark, the highest level in a decade and a nearly 28 percent increase over the last five years. Sampson has bumped that statewide trend.
“Between 2015 and 2016, we worked really hard to seek permanency for our children,” Lynn Fields, program manager of Adult & Children Services at Sampson’s Department of Social Services (DSS). “Throughout 2016, there were a total of 170 different children who were at one point in the custody of Sampson County DSS, but we have been able to obtain permanence for those children, either by reuniting them with their parents or finding a permanent home through a foster home or relative placement.”
Foster care is a temporary living arrangement for children who have been abused or neglected and need a safe place to live. With the approval of a judge, the local DSS can take custody of at-risk children.
When a child comes into care, Fields said, the intent is not for them to remain in care, but cycle out. That can happen through family member and kinship (close friend) placements, which are preferred, but also through licensed foster homes. Foster children, whether with relatives or in foster care, are monitored monthly by DSS. The ultimate goal is to reunite children with their parents.
As of last week, there were 87 foster children in the custody of Sampson DSS.
That number can fluctuate from day to day, so the agency normally uses monthly averages. In 2016, that monthly average hovered around 100 children. That is a significant dip from past years.
“For a while there, we were looking at 130,” Fields remarked. “In 2017 what we’re seeing is closer to the 85 mark, versus 100. I’ve been the program manager for three years, and this is the lowest I’ve seen it. When I became program manager the average was about 130, then we dropped it down to 100. Now we’re looking at 85.”
Similarly, Sampson had just a handful of licensed foster homes several years ago and about six at the beginning of 2015. Now, there are 13 licensed foster homes.
“That is great, because for several years, we had four or five. Last year, we did a big push to try to recruit foster parents,” Fields said.
Several events were held in November, including a foster parent recruiting event, where turkeys were given out for those who attended. The purpose of the event was to identify families in Sampson County who could be potential foster or adoptive parents. Billboards have also gone up across the county in the past year touting the importance of foster parents.
Fields said drug abuse and addiction are the main reason why children come into the system, and may be a large factor in the spike being seen across the state.
“There are many reasons, but what we’re seeing a lot of is parents who can’t parent because of drug addiction — at a point where they can’t provide a safe, stable home for their children,” she said.
Sampson DSS director Sarah Bradshaw said she was “extremely proud” of the strategic, collective efforts of social work staff, attorneys, judges, Guardian ad Litems and others in addressing the issue.
“A reduction in foster care cases often requires a combination of efforts to accomplish,” Bradshaw said. “Many times, it is not just an increased rate of reports and substantiations that increases the number of children in care. Other factors are involved that can impact the rate at which we can reunite children, terminate parental rights and complete adoptions.”
“It’s just about reaching out to community resources, and trying to keep children in their homes versus removing children and bringing them into foster care,” Fields added.
She specifically noted Easterseals Wraparound services, which has allowed Sampson workers to get services put into the place “when we see there is a danger of a child being removed from the home.”
“We see if we can front-load some services to keep that from happening,” Fields noted. “Even when (DSS does take custody), our social workers work really hard with those families to get them to the point where they can parent again. We have some really good social workers that are committed to that.”
Front-loading services to families with quality social work, parental training, foster/adoptive parent licensure efforts and timely court proceedings are key, said Bradshaw.
“(They are) especially important ingredients for successful child welfare services and we have had good outcomes recently in all of these areas,” the DSS director attested.
The local billboards, while they have moved around, have been displayed prominently on N.C. 24 and a commercial has started playing at Eastpark Movie Theater prior to movies, again building awareness of the crucial role a foster parent can play.
“It’s all nice to see, and seems to attract a lot of attention and interest,” said Bradshaw.
For more information, contact the Sampson County Department of Social Services at 910-592-7131.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.