The number of foster children in Sangamon County is near an all-time high and there are not enough homes for them to live in, the executive director of The James Project shared with Illinois Times recently.
The shortage has become so acute that children are bunking on cots in Department of Children and Family Services offices and emotionally well children are being housed in a Springfield mental health facility, Olivia Hayse, executive director of the James Project, said.
"When a kid can't be placed into a home right away, they stay at a DCFS office on a cot. They go sometimes to different institutions like Lincoln Prairie (Behavioral Health Center) – when they don't need to be there. And that gets put on their record as a foster child, even if they're not needing to have a stay there. That determines things for them as they get placed next, because if there's a history of being in Lincoln Prairie, that's sometimes a turnoff for potential foster parents."
Foster kids temporarily staying in settings such as a DCFS office is nothing new. While such placements are far from ideal, they underscore the need in the community for more families to agree to host foster kids, Hayse said.
Hayse said there are about 600 foster children in the Sangamon County area and around 200 homes available for placement.
Jessica Handy, a Springfield foster mom currently caring for three children, said she routinely receives calls from DCFS asking her to take additional placements.
"I used to write down every time I got contacted, and I quit doing that," she said. "There are days when I get three or four calls. The day I got these two kids placed in my home – which was about a month ago – I had two more calls asking me if I would take more children from DCFS," Handy said.
Hayse said her experience with DCFS caseworkers is quite good, but the need is outstripping the supply of homes available for placement.
"Caseworkers are the unsung heroes of our community," she said. "They are dealing with a lot right now and get blamed for a lot."
Just why the number of foster kids is so high remains a bit of an open question.
"I'm not a researcher," Hayse said. "There's an increase in violence in general in Springfield right now. Meth, I'm pretty sure, is on the rise. So, a lot of kids are being taken for abuse and neglect, but also for drugs being in the family and in the home."
The James Project, a ministry supported by about a dozen churches, is named after the Bible verse James 1:27 which says: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
The James Project currently provides five foster families with houses to live in at no cost. The organization also provides clothes, toiletries, beds, diapers and other items for area foster families and pay for enrichment activities for foster kids, such as gymnastics, karate and piano lessons.
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].