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Division of Family Services aims to boost foster family recruitment amid shortage

The gates of the Elizabeth Murphy School in Dover.
Paul Kiefer
/
Delaware Public Media
The Elizabeth Murphy School in Dover is one of the few facilities that houses children in DFS custody not placed in a foster home.

Delaware’s Division of Family Services is scaling up its efforts to recruit foster parents as it struggles to find homes for the more than 500 children in its care on a tight turnaround.

“Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the recruitment efforts of the division," said Division Director Trenee Parker. Between March 2020 and May 2022, the number of DFS-licensed foster homes fell from 237 to 203. "The foster care program has identified — based on home closure reasons — that most families are closing for their own personal reasons, such as concerns for their health, changes in their careers, and overall desire to focus on the needs of their immediate family," Parker added.

DFS also partners with seven community partners that license foster families, adding another 100 or more homes, in addition to 48 beds in residential group homes and roughly 10 short-term beds through a contract with a shelter provider. The exact shortfall of beds at a given time is difficult to calculate, given that some homes can take multiple children and that the number of children in the care of DFS isn't static.

Now, Parker says her division is preparing to finalize a contract with a third-party agency to manage recruitment efforts — a task previously handled by a single DFS staffer.

Parker adds her agency is especially in need of families prepared to support children with behavioral health challenges and developmental disabilities.

“We do recognize that the number of youth we are seeing who have some concerns on the autism spectrum is increasing," she said, "so we are looking to recruit families who are able to meet the needs of those children.”

For children who are challenging to place – either because they arrive in DFS’ care after-hours or because they have serious behavioral health challenges – the agency is left to find temporary accommodations.

For some, that means an apartment owned by one of the agency’s community partners. Others spend a few nights in DFS’ offices, with two agency staffers on duty to provide supervision.

“We do have some children who are more difficult to place," she said. "So we may need to bridge the gap for a short period of time until we locate an appropriate placement.”

Foster family shortages nationwide have forced other states to resort to similar temporary placements in offices, including in Texas and Washington state.

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