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Arizona foster care faces more children, fewer families

More and more kids in Arizona are being separated from their biological families and are in need of foster care.

“We have a community in crisis,” said Pam Giardina, programs officer for the Christian Family Care Agency in Phoenix.

That agency’s president, Mark Upton, agreed.

“We’ve probably increased by more than a couple of thousand kids in the last year that have come into the foster care system in Arizona,” he said. “We were a little over 10,000 a couple of years ago, now we’re up over 13,000.”

Upton said the economy and the decay of the American family are among the reasons.

“There’s fewer two-parent families to give stability to those households,” he said.

Another reason is that people are more aware of potential child abuse.

“There’s been a huge increase in the number of reports going to Child Protective Services,” said Upton. “We’re seeing more kids coming in because of that awareness.”

But Giardina said there aren’t enough families willing to take them in. As a result, “they’re sleeping in CPS offices because of the families that are not available for them.”

Sisters Lilly, 9, and Shelby, 7, are among the kids that have been placed in a new home. Their parents had legally separated. CPS took the girls away from their mother and placed them in the foster home of Paul and Ann Mark.

The Marks adopted Lilly and Shelby last year. They were in the process of adopting their baby sister, Ashley Anne, when tragedy struck.

“I lost my wife in February,” said Mark, 43. “We think that she had pneumonia that affected her breathing in the middle of the night. I really didn’t get a chance to grieve because I had three children to take care of.”

Eventually, Mark was able to adopt Ashley Anne. He has a nanny who helps out three days a week.

“It’s hard,” he said, “but I enjoy the three little girls and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

Mark said it’s been an adjustment for the girls, but “they know that dad is still here with them, and mom is up there looking over us.”

Mark is grateful for the help he’s received from his church, the adoption agency and Child Protective Services.

“CPS is a wonderful group of people,” he said, “They are overworked and underpaid.”

Giardina said that CPS workers suffer burnout and many of them quit.

“It’s a tough job to face children that have gone through such severe abuse and neglect,” she said.

Mark said it took two years to finalize the adoptions.
Part of the reason is that every effort is made for birth parents to regain custody of their children.

Despite the Mark scenario, Arizona is doing well compared to other states in the time it takes to get children adopted out of foster care. Nationally, 36 percent of kids get permanent homes within two years. In Arizona, it’s 47 percent. Giardina said that’s an improvement.

“We used to have kids three, four, five, six years in foster care before permanency,” she said.

Still, Mark thinks courts need to give the biological parents less time to get their act together, so that the kids can get on with their lives with their new families.

“If they don’t complete A, B and C within six to nine months, move forward. Tell the biological parents ‘Guess what? We’re severing your rights with these kids.’ ”

Mark wants state lawmakers to pass legislation to make that possible.