WAREHOUSING OUR CHILDREN (copy)

The Jenkins Institute for Children, located in North Charleston, is one of more than 100 group homes and institutions in South Carolina that accept foster children from the Department of Social Services. A new report published by the Chronicle for Social Change indicates the number of foster children in this state outnumbers available beds in foster homes. File/Staff

The number of children in foster care in South Carolina grew substantially over the past five years, even as the number of available foster beds declined by more than 650, a new report shows. 

And this happened while the Department of Social Services launched an ambitious campaign last year called “Champions for Children" to recruit an additional 1,500 foster families. 

But recent efforts don't seem to be working, said John Kelly, editor-in-chief of The Chronicle for Social Change, which published the new report on Wednesday.

He said that South Carolina proposed to the federal government a "regionalization" of foster home recruitment, with the goal of increasing the number of homes in the state between 2015 and 2019. 

"The results from this research show that clearly, thus far, that has not been successful in increasing the overall number of homes," Kelly said. 

The Chronicle for Social Change report found South Carolina ranked third worst in the decline of available foster beds between 2012 and 2017. Only Washington, D.C., and Nebraska lost more foster home beds during those years. The research identified 11 other states where the number of beds also declined between 2012 and 2017. Fifteen states were not able to "make a basic determination of capacity" and were not included in the report. 

Chrysti Shain, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Social Services, acknowledged that this state needs about 1,300 more foster homes. 

To that end, she said, the agency hired a full-time foster care recruiter about a year ago and recently began "a recruiting blitz" in Spartanburg, with TV spots, news articles and a 5K race. A similar blitz is planned in the Charleston region starting this month, she said. 

Shain also explained that available space in foster homes may have declined because some of those foster families adopted children in state custody. 

"That means the child comes out of foster care, but it also means that the family is no longer a foster family," Shain said. "That’s one reason the numbers fluctuate frequently."

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, the number of foster children climbed from 3,113 in 2012 to more than 4,000 earlier this year. 

Jim Kenny, a retired psychologist and foster care expert, said the problem is largely tied to the fact that foster parents aren't paid enough money to participate. 

The national average each family receives is $24 per child per day, he said, and the rates paid to foster families in South Carolina have been historically lower. At most, foster families in this state receive about $18 a day to care for a teenager, according to the Department of Social Services. Families that take in younger children are paid as little as $14 a day in South Carolina. 

"(The national average) falls a good bit short of what is required," Kenny said. "Foster parents are basically volunteers. ... It may have made sense 50, 60 years ago, but today it doesn’t."

Compounding the capacity problem in South Carolina, very few foster children in this state are placed with relatives when they are removed from their homes. In this regard, South Carolina also ranks near the bottom of all states.

Here, only 6 percent of foster children were placed with kin in 2015. On the other end of the spectrum — in Arizona, Florida, Hawaii and Montana — at least 45 percent of foster children were placed with relatives.  

The Post and Courier published an investigation in 2015 that found an abnormally high number of South Carolina's youngest foster children were placed in group homes and institutions. Even then, the state struggled with available space in foster homes. 

According to data provided by the Department of Social Services, approximately 4,100 children in South Carolina were enrolled in the foster care system on June 30. About 22 percent lived in a congregate care setting, such as a group home; 66 percent lived in a foster home; and about 6 percent lived with a relative. Another 6 percent lived in a "pre-adoptive" home. 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.