Washington's foster care system in need of families

The foster care system in our state is under stress. According to the nonprofit organization Partners for Our Children, there are more than 9,000 kids in foster care in Washington. That's a 22 percent increase from 2012. At the same time, the number of foster care families willing to open their homes isn't keeping up.

During a spring day in late May, several foster families attended a special event during a Seattle Mariners game. The event, called "We are Family Day" means so much for them.

"They just want to be a kid. Just love them. They just need somebody to love and talk to and be a parent for them," said foster parent Loren Hoekema.

The event itself has grown too.

"Our event has grown from 35 people 10 years ago, to over 3,100 people this year," said Meri Waterhouse, caregiver recruitment and retention program manager for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

Parents, Loren and Katie Hoekema attended the game. They have three biological children and one more, who they say is close to being adopted, Renae. At the game, Renae got to throw out the first pitch. The Hoekemas say foster parenting has been very rewarding.

"It's impossible not to get attached. You're going to get attached. And that's what kids need," said Katie.

While "We Are Family Day" is a lot of fun, it is also the state's largest recruiting event for foster families.

And they will be the first to tell you, they need more families badly.

“Right now our circumstances is that we got a bed or so, for every child that comes into the care and custody of the state of Washington. In an ideal set of circumstances, we’d have up to three options to choose from,” said Connie Lambert-Eckel,  acting assistant secretary for the children's administration and DSHS.

What's causing the rise of foster kids in the system with the number of foster families not keeping up? According to foster care experts, there is not one specific factor, but instead, so many.

One of the reasons, is the rising opioid crisis. State statistics show there's been a 26 percent increase in the number of kids removed from a home because of parental drug abuse.

“Sometimes kids are placed out of county outside of their immediate area, away from their families, away from their communities of origin. Away from their school districts,” said Lambert-Eckel.

Even nonprofit foster care agencies such as Amara are seeing an increase too.

“I think in the past 10 years, the national trend and the local trend was that it was ticking down the number of kids in foster care. But now we're ticking back up, mostly because of the opioid crisis,” said Trey Rabun, a  family outreach specialist for Amara

Another reason for the lack of families is a negative experience that one foster family can sometimes get spread to others, Rabun said.

“We’re not keeping up with new foster parents either coming on board or we're not renewing enough. So it’s kind of the recruitment side, but also the retention side,” he said.

And yet a third reason, is that the state's case workers are just overwhelmed, and there is high turnover too.

“They have huge caseloads and they’re in crisis mode a lot of the time, so supporting foster parents falls on the lower part of their workload,” said Rabun.

For the Katie and Jonathan Biron, they see the need as well. Every day, they receive emails to see if they're interested in taking in more kids.

“There are, I would say everyday 10 to 15 kids on there,” said foster parent Katie Biron.

The Biron’s have four children. Their oldest and youngest were adopted through foster care. They’ve been foster parents for more than three years. And while they’ve had ups-and-downs, they said it’s the kids who aren’t being put in foster care who are suffering the most.

"The situation is absolutely dire and because there's not enough foster parents, it's stressing the one's that are there," said Katie.

For the Biron's, they said if you’re interested in fostering, just do it. Or at least consider it. It's been a rewarding experience.

"We're just regular people. We're not superhero people. We're just a regular couple who has children who’s willing to share their life with other children who need help," said Jonathan.