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Funds allocated to address foster care needs

Funds allocated to address foster care needs

The Jackson County Department of Social Services has faced incredible challenges over the past year associated with placing children in foster care. Now both the state and the county are providing funding to try and alleviate that problem. 

“Last calendar year was tough; we spent 189 nights in our building with foster children that didn’t have a place to stay,” DSS Director Cris Weatherford said in a report to the county commission. “And that’s probably more than any other county in the state.”

Last July, the county approved a stipend pay plan to compensate employees that needed to stay in the DSS offices in order to care for these children.

“I would like to say that all the time that our staff spent in the office would not have happened without the support of the stipend policy that you guys helped us with,” Weatherford told the board. “Not everybody’s there for the money but when you can receive something a little extra for doing something that’s a lot extra, it means a little bit more. So, I really think that helped cover our bases through that time.”

There are currently 88 children in Jackson County DSS care, including five young adults in the 18-to-21-year-old program. This is a voluntary agreement signed with the young adult to stay in the system and help them transfer into adulthood.

Of the 83 children in DSS care, over 40 of those are placed outside the community.

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“To me, that’s not good,” said Weatherford. “I would like our children that are experiencing our foster care system to at least be able to stay in our community.” 

So far this year, in January staff had 25 nights spent with three different children in the agency. In February, staff spent 21 nights with seven different children.

“We have seen some improvement since the end of February, we’re hopeful that that can continue,” said Weatherford. “We worked tirelessly with the folks at Vaya to try to locate placements and make those placements happen and it’s just a difficult job.”

But while placing individual children is important, it does not address the larger, systemic issue. There is currently a higher rate of children coming into the system versus those that are exiting the system.

“Our efforts are being compounded year after year of not being able to get children out of the foster care system,” said Weatherford. “There’s so much wrong with how things are working. And all the different players and decision makers that need to be at the table, to get them in the same spot, to really hear what the issues are, has been just really challenging to do.”

Much of that problem has to do with the backlog in the court system. The 43rd judicial district, which runs from Haywood County west, has a 40% continuance rate on cases.

“When there’s too few judges for each county, we have too few parent attorneys to represent the parents that we’re involved with, it bogs down our court system tremendously and we’re not able to progress these cases fast enough so we end up with kids staying in foster care longer than they should be,” Weatherford said. “The longer children are in foster care, the worse their outcomes are going to be as an adult.”

According to Weatherford there were 432 children in foster care in the 43rd judicial district as of December, and 13 parent attorneys to serve all those cases.

“Any encouragement we can give our elected officials in that regard, that our district really needs some support — it’s really having a profound negative impact on the children we’re serving — is what it’s going to take to get some movement in that area,” said Weatherford.

As part of an effort to alleviate the immediate problem, the state provided emergency funds to county departments of social services in February. Jackson County received $20,000 for the current fiscal year and will receive $49,000 in the upcoming fiscal year.

“These critical funds come at a time when an average of 32 children are living in DSS offices each week because there is no place for them to go that is appropriate for their care,” a press release from NCDHHS read.

During its March 19 meeting, the county commission allocated $650,000 to purchase a facility where children in DSS care can stay when they don’t have foster care placement.

The county set aside $40,000 for repairs and maintenance, and $610,000 for purchasing the building. Of that total, $500,000 was supplied in a grant from Dogwood Health Trust and $150,000 was allocated from the county’s fund balance.

“I preach it to everyone I know, if there’s anything you can do, in terms of being a foster parent, financial contributions are wonderful, even taking it to the next level of ideas and how we move forward,” Chairman Mark Letson said. “It’s important to keep all of this information in mind…I appreciate you all’s hard work.”

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