PITTSBORO — A high school boy from Chatham County has changed schools three times this year. His family hasn't moved. He hasn't been kicked out of any of the schools.
He is a teenager in foster care.
Nearly 1 in 4 foster children in Chatham has been placed in foster homes or private agencies outside the county because there aren't enough homes to take them.
This month, the Chatham County Department of Social Services launched a campaign to highlight the problem and offer community members ways to help.
Jamie Bazemore, the teen's placement supervisor, said the problem is so pressing that when a teenager enters the system "there's this sense of almost panic because we know there's a good chance we won't be able to meet this child's needs."
A lack of foster parents has challenged the Department of Social Services to fully do its job, she said.
"We should be able to say to a child in foster care: You're going to be able to stay in the community you're comfortable in, you're going to be able to see your friends, but we don't have the capacity to make those promises," Bazemore said. "And it is preventable."
Kids enter foster care because of abuse, neglect or dependency in their home situation. Dependency means there is no one to care for the child. When a child enters foster care, social workers work with the family to address the issues that forced the child to be placed in DSS custody, so the family can eventually reunite. If officials determine the child cannot safely return home, they will come up with an alternate plan, such as adoption.
For the 75 children in foster care in Chatham County, the options are limited. They can either be placed with one of the few licensed families in-county, or to go to another county. There are no private foster agencies in Chatham County.
The number of foster homes jumped from 28 to 41 after an aggressive advertising campaign two years ago. But the effect wore off and the number of licensed families dropped back to 28. The new Campaign for Chatham's Children will try to make foster care more of a community concern.
One aspect involves reaching out to local businesses as "circles of support." One business, Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe in Chapel Hill, has already signed up to provide free meals to foster parents and their kids.
People in Chatham County can also volunteer to work with the DSS-affiliated nonprofit Faces of Chatham. Volunteers can help recruit foster families through the recruiters network and contribute to a "constant conversation" about this need, which could even include posting something in their church newsletters.
A learning experience
Shirille Lee, a foster parent of 12 years in Chatham County, said foster care is not right for every family, and it is a long-term commitment.
Her first foster child ran away. But she learned from that experience to listen more to the needs of individual children, instead of applying a blanket model of parenting on youth who've had tough backgrounds.
Since that first foster child, she has hosted 37 other children, and just adopted her last two foster children, a pair of sisters.
"Sometimes people think that being a foster parent requires a lot financially," said Lee, who said she lives in a 1,000-square-foot house and has not felt burdened by the cost of raising a foster child.
Lee jokes that, when she was younger, she liked to believe that had she been able to choose her own family, she would have chosen to be a princess in a foreign, exotic country.
"But when we look at the situation some of these kids were born in, they have no control over having parents involved in domestic violence or having a parent that works two or three jobs to make ends meet and then may end up neglecting them," she said.