As a lobbyist for the Southern Environmental Law Center, Brooks Rainey Pearson is immersed every day in seemingly intractable problems—pollution, conservation, environmental justice.

“My day job is trying to stop, basically, our species from rendering itself extinct by destroying the environment,” she says. “I’m a teeny-tiny cog in this whole huge machine that’s trying to fix this big problem, and I maybe make a tiny impact on it, but I can’t see that impact.”

In the fall of 2016, with Donald Trump careening toward the presidency, those problems took on a new urgency. So Rainey Pearson and her husband, Dave, started thinking about tangible differences they could make where they live in Durham. One problem in particular grabbed her attention. On the news and at the General Assembly, Rainey Pearson had been hearing about the ballooning number of children in North Carolina’s foster care system, and the pressing need for families to take them in. The couple, who have no biological children, decided to look into helping fill that gap.

“We didn’t come to fostering because we wanted to be parents,” Rainey Pearson says. “We came to fostering because we wanted to help solve a problem in our community and parenting is the way we’re helping solve that.”

In August 2017, after background checks, home visits, and thirty hours of training, they were licensed as foster parents. The next day, a sweet, anxious, thoughtful five-year-old became their first placement.

They were his fifth.

Kids in foster care can bounce around for any number of reasons: Their foster parents might reach the limit of five children per household. The parents could also move or decide to adopt instead of taking in foster children. Or—faced with caring for often-traumatized kids—they might simply ask that a child be moved, or stop fostering altogether. When foster homes fill up, kids are moved out of the county—away from their biological families, support networks, and social workers—or could end up in a succession of temporary placements.

This issue is indicative of a larger problem: There are more kids in Durham County custody than there have been in at least eighteen years, and there aren’t enough foster parents to take care of them.

Durham isn’t alone. Across the country, the number of children in foster care has, after years of steady decline, been rising since 2012—from 297,000 in September 2012 to 437,000 in September 2016. They’re living with foster parents, relatives, and family friends, and in group homes, jails, and hospitals while—in most cases—allegations of neglect or abuse against their parents make their way through the justice system.

North Carolina’s foster population reached a ten-year high last year, with about eleven thousand kids in the system, up from fewer than nine thousand four years earlier. The state is now in the process of overhauling its child welfare system—studying the gaps in a system that failed a 2015 federal review, implementing new performance standards for county social services departments, and creating a mechanism to take over child welfare services in counties that fail to meet those standards.

In Durham, the rise in the foster population began in late 2013, about a year after the rest of the state. Michael Becketts, assistant secretary for human services at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and Durham County’s social services director from 2012 to 2017, attributes that delay in part to a large number of adoptions being finalized while the foster population grew elsewhere.

“While most counties were trending up, Durham was just behind in the curve. In 2014 and 2015, not only was there a growth, there was a sharp increase,” Beckets recalls.

On the first day of September 2013, there were 142 juveniles in the custody of the Durham County Department of Social Services. By the first of September this year, that number had more than doubled to 304—the highest it’s been since 2000. As of late September, there were just ninety-five families licensed to care for these children, as well as a growing number of eighteen-to-twenty-one-year-olds allowed to stay in the foster system by a recent change in state law (see “Durham’s Foster Care Crisis Is Particularly Acute for Teenagers”).

As the foster population has grown, so has the strain on local resources—and the share of foster care costs falling on the county. (Foster care is paid for through a combination of county, state, and federal funds.) Phrases like “unprecedented” and “pressing concern” have started showing up in county budgets.

Elsewhere, an oft-cited culprit is the opioid crisis, with overdoses sending kids into the system. But that’s not the case here. Wendy Jacobs, chairwoman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners and vice chairwoman of the county’s social services board, says the problems landing children in foster care—poverty, instability, mental illness, and substance use—have always existed in Durham. But now, those problems are being exacerbated by insufficient wage growth, gentrification, and cuts to mental health services.

“All of these pressures,” Jacobs says, “I think we’re seeing them play out in our community.”

Indeed, DSS officials say there’s no single factor driving the crisis in Durham. Rather, children who come to the attention of Child Protective Services have increasingly been exposed to multiple, complex problems at home, and those hard-to-resolve cases are getting stalled in an overburdened system.

As the numbers inch upward, Durham County is looking for more resources to handle increased caseloads, more innovative approaches to prevent children from entering the system, and more foster parents, like Rainey Pearson, willing to take on this seemingly intractable problem.

“Now there are layers and layers of issues that might be in a case with the families and even with the children,” says Shirley Harley-Smith, district administrator for Guardian Ad Litem in Durham, whose volunteers advocate in court for foster children. “We see issues of mental health and substance abuse and domestic violence and just issues on top of issues. They are very complex cases—not an easy answer, not an easy fix.”

Foster care cases begin with Child Protective Services. 

When CPS gets a report of abuse, neglect, or dependency—meaning, when a child can’t depend on a parent—caseworkers decide whether it requires further investigation and whether a child needs to be moved or can remain in their home while the Department of Social Services works with the family. If the child can’t safely stay at home, the DSS petitions the court for custody. After that, the clock begins ticking to find them a place to stay. The goal is to uproot the child as few times as possible on the way to a permanent home.

First, social workers try to place the child with a relative or family friend. If that’s not possible, they look to county-licensed foster families and families licensed by private agencies, who may be outside the county. In the meantime, the kids are at the county DSS—although Jovetta Whitfield, assistant director of child and family services at Durham’s DSS, says they don’t stay overnight or go home with staffers. The county’s licensing workers know which of their families’ homes are full, what ages they prefer to take, what schools they live near, and whom they can call short notice.

About half of the kids in Durham County custody are in a foster home. Another quarter are with relatives. Fewer than one-fifth are in therapeutic foster homes, which are set up for children with cognitive or behavioral problems, and a handful are in group homes, jails, hospitals, and other settings.

Throughout North Carolina, parental drug use is an increasingly common reason for children to be removed; it was cited as the reason for 39 percent of removals last fiscal year, up from 28 percent in fiscal year 2013, according to the DHHS. But Durham lags behind other counties in opioid-related deaths and emergency room visits. In 2015, drug use was involved in just 10 percent of removals in Durham, and has not accounted for a significantly larger share since the foster population started rising, according to data from the UNC School of Social Work.

“It is not due to opiates,” Whitfield says. “We don’t have prescription addictions. We don’t have the oxycodone.”

In Durham, the most common factor is neglect, which has been cited in about three-fifths of removals in recent years. In 2015, physical abuse was cited in about 9 percent of cases. Other, infrequently cited reasons include parental alcohol use, parental incarceration, and inadequate housing.

“There’s always a story,” says Harley-Smith. “There’s always an underlying thing. No one wants their children taken. These parents love their children. Life happens.”

Like Jacobs, Durham County DSS director Ben Rose believes poverty often underlies the reasons children come into care. According to census data, a quarter of Durham County children live in households with incomes below the poverty level.

“We still have a lot of families struggling to make ends meet, and that’s stressful. That creates tension, potential domestic violence,” Rose says.

As DSS officials point out, children in foster care have experienced at least two traumas: whatever caused them to be removed from their homes, and the removal itself. Each new placement marks its own upheaval.

Whitfield, who’s worked with the Durham County DSS for twenty-two years, says caseworkers are having a hard time finding relatives to take children at risk because they have their own histories with CPS—which is indicative of a cycle of trauma.

“I’ve been here long enough that I’ve seen kids who were in foster care now are parents and their children are in foster care,” she says.

Even though Durham County has recruited many more foster families in recent years, there are still too few to meet the county’s needs. One hundred and thirty-three individuals—mostly teenagers and therapeutic cases—in the custody of the Durham County DSS are living outside of the county because there are not foster homes for them in Durham.

The kids stay in foster care until a judge says it’s safe for them to go home or terminates their caretaker’s parental rights, allowing them to be adopted. Reunification is DSS’s first choice, and the most common outcome.

Foster parents don’t really have a say in what happens, and either option—adoption or reunification—means one family stays together at the expense of another.

“It kind of drives me crazy when people say, ‘I couldn’t do it, I’d get too attached,’ as if I’m not a person who gets attached,” says Rainey Pearson, who is still caring for the child who came to live with her last summer. “These kids deserve to have a grown-up who is too attached, who is so invested in them. You know going in that you’re going to get your heart broken. Either you’re going to lose the child or watch them struggle with where they came from.”

For all the heartbreak, what keeps foster parents going is a desire—and a sense of responsibility—to be there for kids who are at the mercy of a system they have been thrown into through no fault of their own.

“Basically what they’re asking you to do is take this child, love them, and know that they’re going to leave,” says Kim Grier, a Durham foster parent who recently started the Triangle Foster Parent Association. “Us being hurt and grieving for a while and having that pain is worth having this child feel loved and have a supportive, safe place for as long as we have them.”

It’s logical to assume that more kids are entering foster care in Durham because there are more complaints coming into CPS. But that’s not the case. The number of calls has remained steady—about three thousand per year—and county data shows the number of complaints being investigated is declining. Instead, Rose says, more investigations are finding kids at risk and resulting in removals.

That’s partly because the public is more educated about what to report, and partly because the cases themselves are becoming more complicated. For example, if there’s a parent with mental illness who self-medicates with drugs, both issues have to be addressed before a judge will restore custody.

“A lot of the therapeutic interventions for children have become more sophisticated, but that means more labor-intensive and more time-consuming,” says GAL attorney Alice Espenshade. “I think back in the seventies and eighties, we got good at finding children in harm’s way and rescuing them, but since then, there’s been this evolution of, ‘OK, how do we make these children whole and functional?’ That’s the tricky part.”

The end result is that Durham’s foster care pipeline is clogged.

The median length of stay for children who entered care in fiscal year 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, is 879 days. That’s higher than the median stay for children who entered foster care in any previous year going back to 1997. Both the county and the state lag behind the federal standard of less than twelve months for finding permanent living situations for foster children. (The county does, however, have few children re-enter foster care, which staffers say is a testament to the effort they put into finding stable homes.)

The increased foster population has meant higher caseloads for social workers. Citing burnout and turnover, the DSS made a rare mid-cycle budget request earlier this year for five new CPS investigators and an additional supervisor. At the time, Rose estimated that each CPS worker was handling about thirty cases each or more, well above the state standard of ten. County commissioners approved the request—about $500,000 a year—in February, and in late October, each of the twenty-six CPS investigator positions carried about eleven cases.

The state standard for foster care social workers is fifteen cases. With twenty-four positions dedicated to finding permanent homes for foster children, their caseload ratio is now around one to twelve.

Social workers are in short supply across North Carolina. In 2017, the turnover rate for child welfare social workers was 32 percent, according to a report released in late August by The Center for the Support of Families, which was contracted by the state to map out a plan for child welfare reform.

Courts are also strained. In Durham County, two District Court judges hear allegations of abuse, neglect, and dependency, in addition to other matters. According to The Center for the Support of Families report, “a shortage of court time was consistently cited as an issue” among social service departments.

“If we had more court time, meaning more judges, then you might be able to move cases along,” Whitfield says.

In the meantime, children remain in foster care, often for months, while the process plays out. Two foster parents who spoke to the INDY in March said they were expecting their foster placements could turn into adoptions soon. In November, they were still in the same position.

Guardian Ad Litem is similarly overburdened. In early October, the organization had 128 volunteers to advocate for more than three hundred children in Durham. Along with Harley-Smith, three supervisors recruit, train, and manage volunteers, who meet with children and foster parents and relay their findings to Espenshade, who handles every GAL case in the county.

“With a smaller caseload, each of us could maintain a better knowledge of the details of each case and fend off problems we saw coming,” Espenshade says.

Cases may also be delayed while parents seek out resources—like psychiatric care or substance abuse treatment—to correct the reason for their child’s removal. Here, too, the system is taxed.

North Carolina’s managed care organizations, which administer mental health services for people with Medicaid or no insurance, have seen hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding cuts in the past five years. This year, Alliance Behavioral Health, which serves Durham, Wake, Johnston, and Cumberland Counties, saw its funding cut by $18 million. According to the 2018 State Medical Facilities Plan, Alliance has just 356 inpatient psychiatric care beds to cover that region of nearly two million people, plus just 32 licensed substance-use treatment beds. (In addition, the state operates three substance abuse treatment centers and three psychiatric hospitals.)

“It’s not that Durham lacks resources,” Whitfield says. “It’s that the resources that are here are at capacity. [Service providers] can’t take any additional families in a timely manner—and it’s not just Durham citizens or residents or families. It’s surrounding counties who are coming and utilizing those same resources.”

Complicating things further, most parents with children in the system either don’t have medical insurance or, if they qualified for Medicaid based on having children, lose it when they no longer have custody.

“They have a mandate of, this is what you need to do to have your children reunified with you—what you have to do is have substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment—but we don’t have providers that can see families or parents as readily as we need them to be seen,” says Sharyn Flood, program manager for child placement and supportive services at the Durham County DSS.

While the DSS has reduced social worker caseloads, the agency hasn’t gotten all of the funding it’s requested to help manage the growing foster population.

In fiscal year 2016, the DSS received $450,000—less than it had asked for—from Durham County to help manage caseload growth. This fiscal year, the county didn’t grant the department’s foster care-related budget requests—$600,000 for help with caseloads as well as for another social worker and a child-and-family facilitator to help get kids permanent homes.

That’s forced the agency to try to shuffle positions from within as certain divisions get busier—“robbing Peter to pay Paul,” as Whitfield puts it.

Asked why the requests weren’t granted, Jacobs, the board chairwoman, says county manager Wendell Davis didn’t include those items in his budget recommendations. “Anything that’s ever come before us, we’ve always supported,” Jacobs says.

Davis told the INDY it would be “impossible” to include every request in an “extremely tight” budget. He says the DSS requested the funds after running out of foster care maintenance dollars—which go toward room and board, clothing, therapy, medical care, and other services—last fiscal year. The county, Davis says, will “monitor this line item” and “look at reserves to help cover the expanding costs” if the DSS exceeds expenses again.

The county has increased its foster care spending in recent years. According to John Kenion, finance and reimbursement officer for the DSS, foster care expenses have increased 61 percent in the past six years, to $3.8 million. The money coming in via reimbursements—from the federal government and, to a lesser extent, the state—is going up, too.

But the share left to the county has grown as well.

The county had to cover $612,000 in 2014; that figure climbed to $1.1 million in 2017 before dipping to about $800,000 this fiscal year. For children who aren’t eligible for federal and state funding—including kids who weren’t removed from very low-income households, children staying with relatives, and some children who are not citizens—the county covers 100 percent of their costs. Kenion says this accounts for the largest growth in the county’s foster care costs.

While the county is struggling to meet the system’s needs, the state is demanding that local officials do more.

In 2015, a federal review found that North Carolina’s child welfare system had failed to meet nearly all of the standards on which it was graded, from protecting children from abuse and helping them achieve stable living situations to staff training.

As a result, the state put in place what’s called a Program Improvement Plan, and contracted with The Center for the Support of Families to craft the preliminary recommendations that came out in August, and a final Social Services Reform Plan and the Child Welfare Reform Plan due out in February. The effort has led to new policies, including House Bill 630, which requires social services departments to enter into performance-standard agreements with the state—and risk a state takeover if they fail to meet those benchmarks, like timelines for moving along CPS and foster care cases.

“Everything falls to the local level, when it shouldn’t,” says Jacobs. “That’s what we see more and more with state and federal funding. We’re seeing that with school funding, housing, everything. It’s not fair. The state, especially with child welfare reform, they’re going to be expecting counties to do all of these things—improve outcomes, reduce caseloads—but are they going to provide the funding to go along with implementing things like professional development or prevention programs?”

Though the state’s reforms have led to potentially onerous mandates, the Program Improvement Plan also spurred some cutting-edge pilot programs in which Durham is taking part—for example, childcare meetings that bring together foster and biological families, social workers, GAL volunteers, and family engagement teams.

Beyond that, Durham County is also exploring ways to keep kids from entering the child welfare system in the first place.

A federal grant that enables DSS to educate staffers and first responders on how to respond to domestic violence is connecting victims, including children, to mental health services. The county is working with Duke University to analyze child welfare data and identify points where social services may have been able to intervene before a CPS report was filed. Mothers and children who visit pediatric clinics in Durham are being screened for early traumas that are tied to poor health and abuse later in life. Meanwhile, staffers in the county’s human services divisions are being trained in trauma-informed care, and the hope is that training will be expanded to public school and library staff.

“These are some of the innovative things that we can do in Durham whether we have the support from outside or not,” says Jacobs. “I have a lot of hope for this approach, and I’m also hopeful that out of child welfare reform, we will get some more focus on preventative funding.”

The county DSS has also stepped up its recruitment of foster parents. That’s paying off—at the end of September, there were ninety-five licensed foster homes in the county, up from fifty-four in 2014—although staffers say they need more.

It’s a constant process because foster parents burn out or reach the household limit of five children, including adopted and biological kids. Deborah Cousin, foster parent recruiter for the DSS, says some people get into fostering with the intent to adopt and stop when they get that opportunity. And, more often than not, foster parents ask to be placed with small children, not teenagers.

“They think they can mold a baby,” Cousin says.

Cousin has also been reaching out to churches and employers—foster parents have to be able to support their household without the stipend they receive (see “How to Become a Foster Parent in Durham”).

“Being a foster parent is not an entitlement,” she says. “We want to make sure you can provide a safe and loving home for our children. I get a lot of calls from people asking, ‘How much do you pay?’ It’s my passion to not just get foster parents, but to get good people that will take care of our children.”

Foster parents say the experience—particularly how much they know about a child’s background and court case—varies greatly depending on the child’s often overworked and underpaid social worker.

“The difficulty is not the kids, for the most part. It’s the system,” says Kim Grier, who is fostering a baby boy with her husband. “The system is very hard to navigate, and I would encourage any new foster parents or people thinking about becoming foster parents to find a good support group and know that you are making a huge difference for these children, even though the system is frustrating.”

Foster parents describe the experience as both the best and hardest thing they’ve ever done. There’s a common thread to their stories: living with uncertainty and competing emotions.

Fostering takes a lot of time—there are school drop-offs, therapy appointments, social worker check-ins, and visits with biological families. Sometimes finding the right therapist or doctor is made more complicated by North Carolina’s mental health care system, Medicaid, and limited information about a child’s history.

“Every day of foster parenting you have to board the ‘forgives all things, loves all things, bears all things’ love train,” says Jessie Larkins, a pastor who lives in Durham and has been fostering with her husband for two years. “It’s about a faithfulness. You’re dealing with kids who expect people to give up on them, and so the whole point is, if you’re going to do this, you’re going to do this because you want to prove to them that there’s somebody who believes they’re worth not giving up on.”

Foster parents who spoke with the INDY talked about coming to terms with the fact that caring for neglected or abused children won’t erase their trauma, or necessarily help their biological parents overcome what may be generational struggles with mental illness, substance use, and poverty.

“Everybody thinks they will be the exception and not the rule,” says Courtney Baker, who’s had six foster placements, including several teenagers. “That’s because most well-intentioned people who are educated think anything is achievable if they just try hard enough, and it’s not achievable for a whole group of people.”

Because most children in Durham County foster care are black and the majority of foster parents are white, there’s often the added complication of parenting a child of a different race—from learning how to do hair to broaching the latest police killing of a black person.

“If something happens in the news—Ferguson, Trayvon Martin—we have to figure out how to talk to them about that,” says Larkins, who has a black adopted son and has fostered other children of color. “The talk that black parents have to have with their black sons, we’re trying to figure out how to talk about that without having that experience and figuring out who in our life can help us have that conversation. It’s changed the way I move in the world and what I fight for and how I fight for it because it’s not abstract anymore.”

Most relatives who take care of children, however, are black. Whitfield says if they were to get licensed—allowing them to get a stipend—the number of black and white foster parents would be more equal. They often don’t get licensed, Whitfield believes, because of a culture of taking care of one’s own family.

For the largely white families who have the resources to take in foster children, the experience puts their own privilege in stark relief. Larkins recalls taking a teenager in her care out for her first sit-down meal. Baker has watched as a now twenty-one-year-old she fostered sits in jail awaiting trial. (She recently closed her foster parent license after adopting a third child.)

“This is the way the world really works for a whole set of people, and I cannot go back. I cannot unlearn that,” Baker says. “There’s a lot of sorrow there, but it’s made me a much deeper person, and it’s made me figure out what’s really sustainable for me, for life. I can’t just go on vacations to the beach and have a Mai Tai. I can’t go back to that reality.”

A year after that little boy came to live with Rainey Pearson and her husband, they’ve moved into a larger home so they can take in more children.

“It’s not what I pictured, but then there are moments that are exactly what I pictured,” she says. Moments like reading to him in the bathtub, or creating a secret hand-squeezing language—three times to say he’s scared or twice to say he loves her.

“I think I had a more rose-colored-glasses idea,” she says. “Maybe I had a bit of a savior complex about it, like I was going to come in and make these huge differences. It’s more about accepting that I can make a big difference in this one kid’s life, and I’m just going to have to do it one kid at a time.”

Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.