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Foster care organizations struggle to find homes, youth shelters amid COVID-19

Annie Spratt
Western Iowa faces a shortage of foster families. The coronavirus pandemic has heightened the need.

The coronavirus pandemic has made finding homes for children harder for many foster care organizations. The challenges come as western Iowa faces an acute shortage of foster care families.

In the last year, three of the four emergency youth shelters available for foster children in western Iowa shut down due to staffing shortages. At the same time, Dawn Luetje of Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI) said the number of children in foster care continued to climb.

Unfortunately, the number of homes available for those children didn’t keep pace. Luetje, LSI's director of foster care and adoption services, said she worries about what will happen if this trend continues.

“If there's a shortage of foster homes, and there isn't an available family in that area, and there's not a shelter available, then where are the children going to go?” she asked.

There are a little over 300 long-term foster families available in the 30 counties across western Iowa. But Luetje said that number isn’t filling the high number of referrals, especially for teens and large sibling groups. In the past three years, an average of 529 children were referred into foster care each year in western Iowa alone, according to the Iowa Department of Human Services.

A graph showing the number of foster care children in each county of Iowa in 2020. 491 children were placed into foster care system in Woodbury County alone.
Iowa Department of Human Services
In 2020, 491 children were placed in the foster care system in Woodbury County alone.

She said many families became unable to host children amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Just take a look at what our schedules have been like because of COVID,” she said. “And then you’re bringing in someone else’s child and trying to help them connect with their family while still maintaining their routine and your routine.”

The pandemic has also put stress on the recruitment process. Orientation sessions that were once held in-person have since moved online. Shelby Nelson, a family recruiter for LSI, said they began to see less follow-through on background check forms after going virtual.

“It was a struggle. We couldn't go into the homes. We couldn't go and do fingerprinting, we couldn't see them face to face,” Nelson said. “But now we are slowly getting back into that, which is helping a lot.”

"There is a crisis in our child welfare."
Kim Scorza, executive director of the Crittenton Center

Nelson said it’s also been a challenge to find families who would not need daycare. Foster care families are only permitted to place children in daycares that have been approved by the Department of Human Services. But, Nelson said many of those child centers are not accepting more children.

Pottawattamie County has one of the highest needs for foster care families in the region, with only 34 homes available for placement. But, Nelson emphasized that they are recruiting for every western Iowa county in order to ensure foster children can remain in the same community as their families.

A shortage of emergency shelters

Youth emergency shelters began closing down in droves due to staffing shortages and other operational issues last year.

In January of 2021, the Clarinda Academy shelter closed. The Crittenton Center in Sioux City followed in April. By October of last year, the Forest Ridge Shelter in Estherville also shut its doors, leaving Children’s Square in Council Bluffs as the sole shelter in western Iowa for two months.

Foster care organizations use emergency shelters as a temporary residence for children who need to immediately leave their homes for safety reasons. From February to October 2021 alone, the state saw a 14 percent loss of emergency youth shelter beds. Nelson estimates the closures took more than 20 temporary beds away in western Iowa.

The map shows the emergency shelters throughout the state of Iowa. Three of the four emergency shelters in the western region of the state shut down last year.
The Coalition for Family and Children's Services in Iowa
Three of the four emergency shelters in the western region of the state shut down last year, leaving Council Bluffs' Children's Square as the only remaining shelter for two months. The Crittenton Shelter in Sioux City has since reopened.

One emergency shelter was able to bounce back after more than six months of closing its doors. The Crittenton Center reopened on Jan. 1 and is already housing six children just a little over a week after opening.

Its executive director Kim Scorza said it’s closure was a difficult period of time. She said these shelters are oftentimes responsible for providing care to children with behavioral health services or substance abuse issues, called qualified residential treatment programs (QRTP).

“It's a huge gap because it means that kids are not going to receive the care that they need in a timely manner,” Scorza said. “It may mean that some kids get bounced to multiple facilities in order to get to the appropriate level of care.”

The average wait time for an appropriate placement for children in QRTP between January and September of last year was 46 days, according to the Coalition for Family and Children’s Services in Iowa.

“If there's a shortage of foster homes, and there isn't an available family in that area, and there's not a shelter available, then where are the children going to go?”
Dawn Luetje, the director of foster care and adoption at Lutheran Services in Iowa

In her work as the CEO of Seasons Center for Behavioral Health at the start of the pandemic, Scorza said she saw increased levels of anxiety and depression in children as well as adults. She believes many families are hesitant to take on a child’s behavioral health issues when their own mental health is strained – a challenge for foster care organizations.

But, she said she sees hope in the reopening of the emergency shelter in Sioux City. She’s excited to bring care to each child that uses the shelter as refuge.

“There’s a crisis in our child welfare,” she said.

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.