While the number of children removed from area homes in the past five years has increased by 73 percent, the amount of foster homes have remained stable

Across the state and throughout Northeast Missouri, more and more children are separated from their biological parents and in need of foster care, and the resulting need for foster parents and other supporters continues to grow.

In the past five years, there has been a substantial increase — both statewide and throughout the Tenth Judicial Circuit — in the number of children in the custody of the state and living apart from their biological parents, Presiding Judge Rachel Bringer Shepherd said. Attorney & Chief Juvenile Officer for the Tenth Judicial Circuit J.C. Weyand and Shepherd both noted a direct connection between instances of parents using intoxicating substances — particularly methamphetamine and heroin — and instances of child abuse or neglect that could necessitate foster care. As those connected figures continue to rise, community members can make an impact in various ways to help children live in a safe and stable home.

In Fiscal Year 2012, 153 children were living apart from their biological parents and in state custody in the Tenth Judicial Circuit — which includes Marion, Monroe and Ralls counties. Five years later, there were 265 children in the same situation — 110 children lived with a relative or family friend, 109 youth lived in a foster home and 26 children lived in a residential facility for treatment services. The remaining children were in other situations like independent living. Stacy Martin, director of the Children’s Division office for the Tenth Circuit, said between 240 and 250 children are living away from their biological parents within the circuit.

Across the state, the figures mirror those in the Tenth Circuit — 16,487 children were in state custody and apart from their biological parents in Fiscal Year 2012, compared with 20,031 children who were in that situation in Fiscal Year 2017.

Working to address a growing need

Shepherd said the need is greater than ever for foster parents and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) — who offer a voice and constant support for children throughout the stages of a legal case. In each situation, the highest priority is to place children with family members, and siblings are kept together when it is “safe and appropriate.” There are 48 licensed foster homes in the Tenth Judicial Circuit, which Shepherd said reflects the family and friends who are caring for the children as their biological parents seek help. As the need for foster parents continues to grow, Shepherd said that foster parents provide crucial support for youth.

“Our Tenth Circuit foster parents make heroic efforts every day to provide safe homes for children in need, address medical needs that have been neglected, ensure that the children have an opportunity to attend school and receive an education, and teach the children in their care invaluable lessons and life skills,” Shepherd said.

She stressed the demand is stronger than ever for foster families to support children coming out of a residential care facility, along with families who can provide a home for larger groups of siblings. Shepherd and her husband are currently helping to answer that demand.

“My husband Bobby and I are very grateful for the opportunity to have served, intermittently, as foster parents, for neighboring judicial circuits,” she said. “We are currently serving as a temporary emergency placement for three young siblings.”

Weyand and Shepherd said biological parents abusing drugs like meth or heroin represented the primary reason children are placed in foster care. Over the past 20 years, Weyand said the figures for meth and heroin abuse have spiked about 500 percent, and instances of child abuse or neglect mirror that trend.

During that same time period in Missouri, Weyand said there’s been a “philosophical shift” toward providing more services and “safety nets” to help biological parents reunite with their children. Weyand said he strives for permanency for every child — if the parents are unwilling to get the help they need to combat substance abuse or other unsafe practices, he seeks guardianship or adoptive homes.

“There’s nothing more important than the safety of children,” he said.

Turning the situation around

Support from throughout the community is vital, Weyand said, but he stressed that curbing the growing substance abuse problems could help to reverse the trend of more children entering the foster care system. It’s crucial to warn children of the dangers of substance abuse when they are younger, helping to break a cycle that continues to expand. Shepherd also encouraged others in the community to join the cause to help make a difference for kids.

“The more community members become involved either as a foster parent, a CASA, a respite care provider or a volunteer, the better the outcomes for children and families in need in the Tenth Circuit,” she said.

To become a foster parent or short-term/respite provider for foster children, contact Samantha Gosney at Children’s Division in Hannibal at 573-406-6941. To help out as a CASA, contact Sarah Conner at 573-221-3892.

Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com