Renae Smith understands firsthand why there's a severe shortage of foster parents.
"Oh, it's a roller coaster," she says, shaking her head and smiling. Two weeks after her first placements arrived, 2-1/2-year-old twins with special needs and a penchant for tantrums, she found herself on the living room floor in tears. "I thought, 'I can't do this, I can't,'" she says. "And I prayed to dear God to help me."
That was in 1994, after her daughter went to college. Today, the single mother glows with pride as the two boys in matching plaid shirts and khaki shorts talk about their last few days at school before summer. Now 11 years old, they're well adjusted, and last October became her legally adopted sons.
The experience was trying, but also one of the most satisfying of her life. So much so, she's on a mission not only to recruit, mentor, and support as many foster parents as she can, but also to reform a national system that gets more press for its chaos and abuse than for its vast number of successes. It's a mission that's applauded by social-welfare activists nationwide.
"There's a severe shortage of foster families that has been growing," says Ruth Massinga, president and chief executive officer of Casey Family Programs, a national advocacy foundation for children in the social-welfare system based in Seattle. "We're at a virtual standstill in the numbers of new recruits, as the number of children in foster care continues to grow."
Currently there are more than 580,000 children in foster care in the US, according to the Child Welfare League. That's 20,000 more than last year and twice as many as in 1987. While there are no concrete numbers, it's estimated that there are only 144,000 foster families. That means hundreds of thousands of children end up in group homes, temporary detention, and psychiatric wards awaiting placement - a wait that can last months, even years, for difficult children.
"Having a structured family situation is central to helping children grow into healthy, productive community members," says Ms. Smith. "We've already lost several generations because they didn't have the parental guidance that they should have."
Myriad factors in the last decade contribute to the foster-parent shortage, from a decline in the number of "stay-at-home moms" able to take on extra children, to underfunded, understaffed agencies. And with social workers stretched thin, parents may get little support.
Lynn Maynard Gollin and her husband learned about that firsthand. They were foster parents to, then adopted, a brother and sister. The little boy's emotional problems required extensive medical services.
"It's not always easy: You're dealing with a bureaucracy," says Ms. Gollin, an attorney whose husband cares for the children full time. "I spent as much as 20 hours a week trying to find the right services. I can't tell you how great they have been for us, but there is no doubt whatsoever that you have to advocate for your children."
Most states' reimbursement rates for foster care have also fallen way below USDA estimates of childrearing costs. That leaves parents reaching into their own pockets for almost anything besides food and basic clothing.
Add to those challenges the emotional toll of negative press on foster care, highlighting the worst cases of neglect, from Florida's "loss" of what advocates say is as many as 400 children, to the recent death of a young boy in New Jersey, found stuffed in a box in a basement, where his two, malnourished brothers were kept.
For foster parents and child advocates, such stories create a double bind. While exposing problems and, ideally, spurring change, the negative focus is trying and taints the vast majority of foster parents who do a good job despite the system's failings.
"It's circular. If a system ... does not provide support, the better foster parents, unless they've got extraordinary personal resources, often don't stay on," says Marcia Lowry, the executive director of Children's Rights, Inc., a national nonprofit children's advocacy organization.
Children's Rights has recently won a landmark settlement in New Jersey, mandating a massive overhaul of its Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). It includes an immediate infusion of more than $22 million dollars to hire new social workers and an additional $1.5 million to recruit new foster parents. The group has other cases pending in several states, including Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and the District of Columbia.
Ms. Lowery contends there are a "handful" of states where parts of the system are working well - but not a single one gets a passing grade for its entire child-welfare program. And with strained state budgets, she's not optimistic the situation will get better without a massive public outcry.
But Renae Smith and other foster parents aren't waiting on systemic reform. Smith is the regional vice president of the National Foster Parent Association, a nationwide group of foster parents who reach out to each other and to policymakers. Across the country, groups are springing up to deal with what's perceived as increasingly acute problems with the child-welfare system. In Florida, a group of lawyers and child advocates has started "Florida's Children First!" to pressure the state to improve.
"In Florida there's just gridlock.... Unfortunately when good people take on these children and they act out, the parents call for counseling, there's often no response," says Howard Talenfeld, the president of FCF. "That's got to change." Renae Smith has also taken her mission to a personal level. She mentors other foster parents, like Dmitria Farrow, a teacher and single mother of two who's taken in three foster children, including a 16-year-old and her newborn.
On a recent day, Ms. Farrow sat talking on her beige leather couch in a home full of books as her son, Brian, played with the baby. Farrow agrees there should be better training and support for foster parents. But she believes that state agencies also must train biological parents, and the public, to understand the foster parents' role. "There needs to be more togetherness ... so the children will have all the tools they need.... We as a society need to provide loving homes to these children."