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An effort that started a few years ago to help children languishing in state care may be diminishing the pool of foster parents, according to Irene Clements, president of the National Foster Parent Association based in Minnesota.

There are from 400,000 to 420,000 children nationally in foster care at a given moment, Clements said. About seven or eight years ago, states began recruiting parents who wanted to adopt children to become foster parents. It is considerably cheaper to adopt a foster child, she said, having adopted three of the 127 children she and her husband have fostered.

“The nature of foster care has changed,” she said. “Because people are coming into it more with a mindset to adopt, we don’t have as many long-term foster care parents.”

Up to 62 percent of children who are adopted out of foster care are adopted by foster parents, she said. But she warns such adoptions can have stumbling blocks, such as relatives stepping forward at the last minute during a court proceeding.“There are a lot of broken-hearted foster parents out there,” she said. Many judges and court officials subscribe to “blood is thicker than water.” “It’s just all but impossible to stop a relative from taking a young child.”

Nationally, the number of children in foster care has been declining.

Today, there are almost 25 percent fewer children in foster care in the U.S. than there were in 2002.

John Heithaus, chief development officer for the Family Resource Center in St. Louis, says the biggest challenges the local foster care system faces are finding homes for older children and siblings.

“We recently had five siblings come into care at 5 p.m. on a Friday night, and we struggled mightily to find a foster home that would take all five of them — just for the night.”

There’s a growing need for foster homes for siblings, according to Shannon Mann, associate supervisor of the licensing unit with the Children’s Permanency Partnership. “It seems that there has been an increase in siblings groups entering foster care in varying ages.”

There is also a need for homes for teens and older children, she added.

The average age of children in foster care in Missouri is 10, with 12,160 children in foster care, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services.

BY AISHA SULTAN

Aisha Sultan is home and family editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.