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Number of transitional beds for Delaware youth leaving foster care more than doubled during pandemic

The gates of the Elizabeth Murphey school in Dover.
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
The Elizabeth Murphey school in Dover is the only designated provider of transitional housing for people leaving foster care in Delaware.

The only designated transitional housing provider for Delaware youth leaving foster care has more than doubled its available bed space, but demand remains high.

The Elizabeth Murphey School in Dover recently added an eleventh bed — a small number when compared to the more than 500 Delaware children in foster care, but a substantial increase from the four beds available before the pandemic. School Director Michael Kopp says a surge in demand for transitional housing during the pandemic was in part an unintended consequence of the eviction moratorium.

“What happened during the pandemic was that landlords weren’t allowed to put people out of housing," he said. "So they had to make decisions about not even bringing them in. So the kids leaving foster care who had no credit history – landlords wouldn’t take a chance on them.”

Facing rising demand for transitional housing, the Murphy School began seeking grant funding to acquire houses in Dover — including one near its original campus north of downtown — to convert into transitional housing.

Division of Family Services Director Trenee Parker says while the Murphey School is the state’s only designated transitional housing for young people leaving foster care, her agency can offer other support, namely rental assistance vouchers.

“Some of our youth are able to stay with us until they complete their education so they don’t leave the traditional foster care system when they turn 18," she said. "We provide housing for them, even though they are adults.”

But Parker notes the shortage of landlords willing to accept vouchers presented challenges when trying to house those leaving foster care."

The Murphy School is also one of four facilities statewide taking children in DFS custody that aren’t placed with foster families. A facility in Milford only takes girls, Wilmington has a limited-stay emergency shelter, and a Seaford center houses children with serious behavioral health needs.

While DFS is obligated to attempt to reunite children with their families, Kopp says the shortage of long-term facilities like the Murphy School means that children from New Castle and Sussex Counties are sometimes placed in Dover. “It’s very difficult to claim that you’re trying to reunify if you’re sending the kid to a different county, where it’s harder to meet and do therapy together," he said, "but because of need, it happens.”

With winter approaching, the number of cases reported to DFS is rising. According to Kopp, the Murphy School has taken in four children from New Castle County in the last two days alone.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.