Georgina Aguirre gazes at two neatly packed suitcases, in a small bedroom adorned with posters of Winnie-the-Pooh. In just a few hours, a brother and sister will be moving out of Ms. Aguirre's house and moving in with their new adoptive family.
Following nearly two decades as a single foster parent, saying goodbye is still the hardest part, she says. "It's a blessing for the children. But you really do get attached."
The children assigned to Aguirre's modest home in this working-class Arizona neighborhood are some of the more fortunate in a nation with a growing shortage of foster-care homes. With more than 530,000 children in the foster-care system, emergency shelters and group homes - less stable environments for at-risk children - are catching the overflow. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Arizona, which leads the nation in the percentage of children living in group homes.
Using the analogy of a lifeboat, expert Carol Emig says, "The foster-care system is leaking. The first job is to get kids into that lifeboat if the family ship is sinking. But that's only half the job, because we've got a lot of kids crowding into too few lifeboats," says the executive director of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care in Washington, D.C.
In Arizona alone, 31 percent of children in state custody - more than 2,100 - are waiting in shelters or group homes, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES). Among the reasons: a growing population without the support of extended families and heightened state efforts to lift more children out of harmful situations.
"This isn't like the small hometown where an aunt or grandma live in the same neighborhood" and can help out when problems arise, says Rob Ameln, a consultant with The Community Partnership of Southern Arizona. "Oftentimes, that support system no longer exists."
Arizona is also losing more foster families each year who are dropping out of the system when they decide to adopt. Three hundred additional foster homes have been recruited over the past year, but "we're barely keeping pace with the number of kids coming in," says David Berns, director of the Arizona DES.
Instead, shelters must fill the gap. As a result, space can become so tight that one case worker recently spent the night in a Child Protective Services office with seven siblings, because there was no place for them to go. When a spot in a foster family does open up, it can mean that children must move six or seven hours away from their own communities, further disrupting their daily routines.
Arizona's case is extreme but hardly unique. Over the past year, for example, Louisiana has seen a 6 percent increase in the number of children entering foster care - even as the state reported a nearly 15 percent drop in the number of adoptions. And Washington State is in the process of revamping its foster-care system after a startling case reported that one child had been bounced between 34 foster families.
Experts see many paths to improvement, from increased foster parent recruitment to changing the funding process. The Pew Commission castigates federal policies that subsidize foster care and adoptions but not legal guardianship by relatives. Another key is bringing recruitment efforts to the local level. The Community Partnership coordinates such efforts among organizations ranging from Catholic Community Services to Devereux Arizona, the organization which oversees Ms. Aguirre's foster children. It's crucial "that all of these agencies can band together to do their own recruitment on a small, more community-oriented scale," says Mr. Ameln.
There is also room for optimism nationwide, with intensified recruitment advertising for foster parents by Adopt US Kids and the National Ad Council. "Research from the National Ad council showed that many people were aware of the need for foster homes, but felt that you had to be perfect to be a foster parent," says Liz Barker, a spokeswoman for the Arizona DES. "And that's just not true."
Instead, the most crucial requirement for being a foster parent is simply having love to spare for needy children - and undertaking a sometimes thankless task.
But for Aguirre, being a foster parent is simply a labor of love. "It's been wonderful having these children here," she says, waiting for her kids to return from school. "For children who have nothing, at least I've been able to give them a home and security for awhile."