SIOUX CITY | With just two of their seven children still at home, Chris and Sue Stanek said their house had become too quiet.
The constant coming and going of their kids' friends had slowed. Sue was no longer running an in-home daycare. They missed the hustle and bustle.
"It's just always been a house full of kids," Chris Stanek said.
In September, the Staneks became licensed foster care providers and recently had four children, ages 11 months to 7 years, living with them. Once again, their house is filled with the shouts of young children happily bounding through the rooms.
"I believe we should have done this a long time ago," Sue Stanek said. "What else in your life do you get to do where you're helping other people?"
Social workers would love to hear more families like the Staneks ask and answer that question. Across Iowa, and especially on the western side of the state, a shortage of foster families is leaving an increasing number of children waiting for foster care placement.
"One day we had 12 referrals, and we were like, 'Where are we going to go with those?' " said Dawn Luetje, foster care and adoption program director for Lutheran Services in Iowa in Denison which has a state contract to provide foster care and adoptive services in a 30-county area of western Iowa. "I think there's always been a high need, but now it just seems like removals (of children from homes) have gone up. We really are trying just to make the community aware (of the need)."
In Woodbury County, as of Oct. 31, there were 95 foster families, according to state figures. Of those, 14 take only children eligible for adoption, leaving 81 homes for the 103 children who were in foster care on that date. Plymouth County had 29 children in foster care and 17 available families.
It may seem like a workable ratio, but some of those foster families limit the ages of the children they will accept. In some cases, there may be only a handful of families who take a certain-aged child in need of placement. Chances are good that those families already have foster children living with them and may not be able to accept more.
Luetje recalled a recent case in which workers looked to place a group of three siblings in Woodbury County. Only one home was available, and the family wasn't accepting placements at the time.
"We definitely want enough homes available so we can match rather than just put kids in the first available home," Luetje said.
Workers in that case were left with the possibility of separating the siblings or placing them in a shelter, adding them to a list of approximately 34 children, most of them teenagers or with special needs, on a waiting list. Local children's shelters are full, Luetje said.
Not every county in LSI's service area, which covers roughly the western third of Iowa, has numbers as dire as those in Woodbury County.
On Oct. 31, Sioux County had 24 children in foster placements and 36 foster families, according to state figures. In Ida County, there are two resource families, and one child was in foster care.
Those numbers don't tell the whole story, Luetje said. It was likely that some kids from each county were staying with a family in another county. Some might be staying with relatives who are registered foster care providers in another town.
Regardless of which town or county the children are living in, more foster care providers are needed in Iowa, where more than 4,000 children need a foster home. The need is greatest in western Iowa, said Janee Harvey, chief of the Iowa Department of Human Services Child Welfare Bureau.
"The western side of the state has had for many years the highest removal rate in Iowa. We have a greater need per capita in that area," Harvey said.
The reasons, she said, are a more active juvenile justice system in this area, plus a higher rate of drug use. Of Iowa's child removals, 36 percent are due to parental drug use. The next two leading reasons are neglect and child behavior (delinquency or psychological issues), each at 17 percent.
Children are removed if a DHS worker doesn't think the child is safe in the home or if there's a risk issue such as housing or mental health problems in the family. Social workers immediately try to find a relative for the child to stay with. If that's not possible, foster care is the other option to provide the child's day-to-day needs and "try to make the child's life as normal as possible," Luetje said.
Her agency and others are finding it more challenging to recruit and retain enough families willing to do so. Some who provide foster care "retire" from it after years of service. Other couples become foster parents with the aim of adopting children and stop once they've fulfilled that goal. Complicating matters is the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which, among other things, encourages agencies to try to keep kids in their communities for foster care placement so they don't have to change schools. It means a child in Sioux City might not be placed with a family in Le Mars, for example.
LSI entered into a contract with the Iowa Department of Human Services to provide foster care and adoptive services in western Iowa's Area 1. Four Oaks provides those services in Iowa's other four service areas.
LSI and Four Oaks now lead the efforts to recruit and retain foster families, with assistance from the DHS. Both agencies have performance-based goals and financial incentives to increase the number of foster homes. The agencies took over the contract on July 1, so it's too soon to tell if they're making headway, though signs are encouraging, said Tracey Parker, DHS Foster Family and Adoption Program manager.
"I know that they're running training frequently," Parker said.
Chris and Sue Stanek took foster parent training 15 years ago, then put it off when they found out they were having their sixth child. Then came their seventh child. Providing foster care never left their minds, however, and they decided the time was right last November, when they began looking into it again.
"It came up through the years and things fell into place," Chris Stanek said.
They began the 10-week training class in April and were surprised when they saw the makeup of the class: three single women, one single man, one senior citizen, a young couple and a retired couple.
That variety dispels the notion that only married couples of a certain age can provide foster care. Single or married, you must be 21 years old and pass a background check, among other requirements.
"It really does take all kinds of families because all children have different needs," Luetje said. "We're not looking for perfect families. Sometimes the best families are those that have overcome problems."
There's a great need for all types of families, but especially African-American, Hispanic and Native American families, she said. Also of short supply are families willing to take teenagers, children with special needs and sibling groups of three or more.
The Staneks take children up to age 10. They decided to provide foster care so siblings could stay together while separated from their parents.
"Our intention in doing this was to keep sibling groups together," Sue Stanek said.
That stability, Harvey said, is important for children while their parents deal with the problems that led to removal. Once social workers are happy that the parental issues have been addressed, the family can be reunited.
"Ultimately, the goal is safety and permanency for the children," Harvey said. "Most of our kids that are removed are returned to their parents within 12 months."
While the parents sort out their situation, foster families are needed to care for their children. In western Iowa's Area 1, that means 539 kids living in foster care, with dozens more waiting for placement as of Oct. 31.
Ideally, there would be a foster home for every child, Harvey said, but it's not possible, and many children must live in child shelters.
"DHS is well aware of this challenge," she said.
It's a challenge that the Staneks are glad they accepted and think many others are capable of meeting. They encourage people they know who have indicated an interest to attend one of the free information meetings to find out more about being a foster parent.
"If you think you have an interest in it, just act on it and talk to someone about it," Chris Stanek said. "When you realize the need, you realize it's really worth it."