Trey Kay, Samantha Gattsek Published

Us & Them: Our Foster Care Crisis

A black and white photo featuring a close up of a baby's face. The baby looks off to the side of the frame. On the picture are the words, "Us & Them: Our Foster Care Crisis." Up in the corner is the WVPB logo.

There’s a foster care crisis in America. Nationally, more than 390,000 children are in foster care. In West Virginia, that’s just over 6,000 children who need a safe place to call home. Last year, more than half of all states saw their number of licensed homes drop, some as high as 60 percent. That challenge comes because new foster parents don’t stay in the system for long.

On this episode of Us & Them, host Trey Kay hears about the shortage of licensed foster homes. Foster care is most often needed because of parental substance use, mental health challenges, poverty and neglect.

While official foster care cases are tracked and overseen by state agencies and nonprofit organizations, there are many informal kinds of so-called kinship care that are not official or included in state data. Some experts say the number of those kinship cases drives the stakes of the challenge much higher.

This episode of Us & Them is presented with support from the West Virginia Humanities Council, CRC Foundation and Daywood Foundation. Subscribe to Us & Them on Apple Podcasts, NPR One, RadioPublic, Spotify, Stitcher and beyond.

A young man, wearing a gray long sleeved t-shirt, smiles for the camera, while holding a baby wearing a gray shirt with pink polka dots.
Dominic Snuffer was 5 when he and his four younger siblings went into the first of their foster care homes.

“I was in several foster care situations… I think three or four. It always seemed short and seemed as if we were getting bounced around. The hard part was probably just the beginning, how much I just always try to keep my siblings in check. I felt as if, if they behaved in a way, just like the other situations we might get taken away. It feels like yesterday that I got adopted. It went by fast. The things that make me smile was definitely adoption day. ‘Cause I knew, I finally found a family and I could try and live out the rest of my childhood.”

— Dominic Snuffer

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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Larry Cooper is executive vice president of Innovation at The Children’s Home Network (CHN) of Tampa Bay, Florida. The agency works with kids in the foster care system and also provides services to prevent and support families from ever entering into the foster care system. Cooper has worked at CHN for more than 20 years, and he’s spent 8 years licensing foster homes while recruiting and training new foster parents. Cooper says some of the challenges bringing in new foster parents comes from an approval process that’s strict for a reason – but can take more than 12 months. A lot of people drop out along the way.

“You might fall off because of just life experiences that you may be going through. You might have a change in jobs. You might have an illness in your family. You might have a death in the family. And so I used to see for every 100 parents that I recruited, I might get only four to six families actually get a kid into their home for every hundred that would call me and be interested in becoming a foster parent.”

— Larry Cooper

Photo Credit: The Children’s Home Network
An adult couple stand side by side. A man and a woman. The woman scratches a dog's ear who is looking up at her. Both are wearing black shirts. The man has a ball cap on.
Marc and Brandi Wilson live in St. Clairsville, Ohio — just across the river from Wheeling, West Virginia. Brandi was a Child Protective Services worker in West Virginia for 20 years. One day back in 2014, her work at the Department of Health and Human Resources and her personal life collided when they became foster parents to a baby related to Marc.

“They both took the stand and said that they give up the rights to their child, I just started breaking down. [Brandi] was sitting beside me like this and she looked over at me. She said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘I can never imagine saying that about my own child.’ She was kind of numb to it because she’s worked in the field. It was hard to hear somebody say that.” — Marc Wilson

“It wasn’t until he was sitting next to me in the courtroom that I realized not everybody hears relinquishment. Not everybody hears abuse, neglect. Not everybody hears that – as CPS workers [this is] just everyday language. So once I was with him and realized, OK, this isn’t everybody’s life. They may have drug issues, domestic violence, gangs coming in and out of their home, but these words are not everyday life for a lot of people.” — Brandi Wilson

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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Rachel Kinder supervises The Kinship Navigator Program with Mission West Virginia, a nonprofit that’s been around since 1997. Kinder has been working with the foster care system for more than two decades, and has seen lots of trends. In 2019, there was a record high of 7,200 children in West Virginia’s foster care system. She says, while it’s one thing to count the legal cases overseen by the Department of Human Services, there are many informal kinds of kinship care that are not official or included in state data.

“I can tell you the number of kids in formal care, so if there are 6,078 kids in foster care in West Virginia, right now 58 percent of those are in kinship relative placements. For kids in informal care, where grandma or an aunt or some type of relative or even what we call fictive* kin has stepped in, it’s almost impossible to get numbers on that.”

— Rachel Kinder

*Fictive care refers to placements where a foster parent knows the child but is not related to them. This could be a teacher, family friend or a neighbor.

Photo Credit: Mission West Virginia
Two women stand on a porch. One woman has her arm around the other. One woman wears glasses, a gray shirt and red shorts. The other woman wears a gray shirt and jeans. Both women have dark brown hair and smile for the camera.
There’s a clear need for foster families across the nation and in West Virginia. Nikki and Louisa Snuffer knew they would consider becoming foster parents when it came time for them to start a family. There’s a lot going on at their Sissonville home. The couple currently has 12 children, ranging from ages 10 months to 20 years old. Plus, they breed French Bulldogs.

“It actually was a pretty easy decision, because we were both on the same page almost always with helping people. I’ve known since probably my early high school years that I did want to do foster care. However, we really wanted no more than maybe three. And the way life and things happen, we got five at one time. I have two brothers who were put in foster care that I never knew and I still don’t know. So we made a commitment that when we got into it, that we would never split up families.” — Louisa Snuffer

“If they call us for a sibling group, we’re not going to say no to them because that was our number one belief. Like, ‘We need to do whatever we can to keep siblings together.’ When we were initially approved, we were approved for four children. So, DHHR told us we could have four children in the house, given the space. And that was kind of our cap. I said, ‘Maybe we’ll do three tops,’ you know, that seems like a manageable number. And the very first call we got for placement was a sibling group of five. Of course we said yes. We had to do a few things to get approved for a fifth child. They moved in with us. Things went great.” — Nikki Snuffer

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A middle age woman smiles for the camera while holding a baby in one arm. The baby looks up at the camera. The woman wears a gray t-shirt, and there's a patch on the sleeve that reads "Army National Guard." The baby has big, blue eyes, blond hair, and wears a gray shirt with pink polka dots.
Nikki Snuffer is holding her granddaughter. Many of the children the Snuffers have cared for, they know through Nikki’s job at Winfield High School. She’s an instructor for the Future Leaders Program, which is the National Guard’s high school curriculum that’s taught by veterans. In the program, students learn leadership and life skills, science, career prep and other subjects.

“[For] my kids that have gone to Winfield, I make them go through the [Future Leaders] program. Not because I’m teaching it, but because even if it wasn’t me, I’d want them to get these skills. It’s the kind of things that are forgotten these days.”

— Nikki Snuffer

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting