BOISE, Idaho — Parenthood requires care and love, not DNA. The Monteith family knows how true that is.
At a party three years ago, they spoke to another family who planted the idea of foster care in their minds.
The Monteiths never saw what was coming, but they did see they could provide a safe, loving home for kids when they needed one most.
“We are here to be a placeholder. We're here to be a safe home for these kids while they transition back into their homes,” Tonisha Monteith said.
Over the past three years, seven foster kids have come through Tonisha and Joshua Monteith’s Boise home.
They knew the goal of foster care was reunification with biological parents and families whenever possible, but were open to the idea of adopting if it presented itself.
“Our goal was just to help kids and help families,” Tonisha said.
The Monteiths ended up adopting a little boy, Malachi, out of foster care. Now, they are in the process of adopting another foster son currently living with them (KTVB is not identifying him to protect his privacy).
“We felt like, wow, there's children in Boise, Idaho, right now who need homes, and we have a home," Tonisha said.
It hasn't been easy and, at times, it gets messy. Fostering is an emotional rollercoaster.
“It truly does take a village to figure this out and do this,” Tonisha added. “It’s not just figuring out how to parent your kids. It’s figuring out how to parent traumatized kids, kids who have been through all sorts of abuse and who carry a lot of baggage. It's helping them work through that baggage.”
Tonisha thinks fear of pain, finances, and the unknown keep more people from becoming foster parents and keeps them from helping.
A system overwhelmed
But that help is critical right now, as the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (IDHW) has more children in the system than it can place with families.
“We're seeing a lot more [kids] now, especially this fall,” said Cameron Gilliland, IDHW Administrator of Family and Community Services. "Foster kids come to us when they come to us. It often involves police or a judge, and it often happens late at night or on a weekend."
Gilliland points to multiple reasons why the system is more overwhelmed right now:
- Growth and more children moving in to the area.
- Kids have more eyes on them with the start of the school year, meaning more people who report abuse and neglect.
- An increase in drug and alcohol abuse and added stress on families, fueled by the pandemic.
- Social workers are burned out.
- Social workers weren't getting into homes early to catch problems.
- But the main reason why the system is overwhelmed: People aren't signing up to foster.
“The seriousness of calls have gone up. That may be a reflection of the pandemic in that people are waiting longer or an issue is lasting longer before somebody sees it, then it's a bigger issue,” Gilliland told 7Investigates.
Recruitment mostly happens through events and gatherings, which have mostly been paused during the pandemic. Gilliland says the department has been stymied in its recruitment over the past two years.
There are nearly 1,600 Idaho children in foster care right now and about 1,200 licensed foster homes.
Without enough families to take them all in, the state had to find a way to house dozens of kids with nowhere to go. So IDHW did something somewhat unprecedented.
Short-term rentals as short-term fix
“As we started to have more kids, we moved to short-term rentals because a home environment is just better,” Gilliland told 7Investigates. “Over the past year we've had about 50 children; we didn't have a place for them. So sometimes we've had to keep them in the office overnight, other times they’ve gone to hotels and short-term rentals.”
There have been a few occasions in the past when the state has had to place a child or two children in hotels overnight, but they say never to this extent.
IDHW is renting two short-term rentals in the Treasure Valley where around five kids at a time live for multiple days.
According to Health and Welfare, most are there for ten days or less, although some stay a bit longer. Most are teenagers, who are much harder to place with foster families than younger kids.
These rentals and 24/7 staff working there cost the state around $100,000 this year. Gilliland says that's more than they'd pay foster parents to care for the kids.
There aren't enough staff members to work at these short-term rentals. To help out and relieve staff, IDHW asked current foster families to take shifts at the houses and hang out with teens.
“They know what they're doing because they're foster parents,” Gilliland said.
Tonisha was one of them.
She said she had an amazing time hanging out with kids, taking them to coffee and doing a photoshoot in a nearby park.
“It was a completely normal day, but you look at it and go: that's not normal,” Tonisha said. “There's no solid ground for them to stand on. And so it's really devastating because they know it.”
More foster families needed
While short-term rentals are the short-term fix, more foster families are needed - especially those willing to take older kids with more issues, remembering parenthood requires care and love, not DNA.
“It's really an opportunity for a family to have a tremendous impact on somebody's life,” Gilliland said.
The Monteiths don't take teenagers because their children are young and they don't have the space. But Tonisha feels called to foster teens in the future, recognizing many have experienced years of abuse and trauma, which can lead to severe behavioral issues at home, at school and in social settings.
“These kids need help. They're desperate for somebody to just say, ‘Hey, I care about you,'” Tonisha added.
To try to get more families, IDHW stepped up recruitment efforts this fall and will hold a class on recruitment for foster parents in December.
Idaho pays foster families less than surrounding states. As Idaho's population and the cost of living grow, the department plans to ask the legislature for more money during the 2022 session.
Foster parents receive about $400 per month for younger children and $675 for older children. IDHW will ask the legislature to increase the reimbursement to $650 for younger children and $800 for older children. That increase in reimbursement would put Idaho in the middle of the pack compared to surrounding states
IDHW is also asking to bump up the incentive for foster families to recruit new ones, especially those willing to take teenagers.
If you want to become a foster parent, call 211, Idaho's helpline, or visit the foster parents application page on the Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare's website. The page includes a step-by-step guide to becoming a foster or foster-to-adopt parent.
Video: Idaho experiencing urgent need for foster families (click link or watch below).