RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The increasing strain on North Carolina's foster care system is leading counties to scramble to find places for children to stay. On many occasions, this has led to children sleeping in county offices.
"This is not an issue that counties have been prepared to have to deal with. And so we're making the best of an unfortunate situation," said Diamond Wimbish, Wake County's child welfare assistant division director.
Wimbish said Wake County has converted visitation areas within the DSS office into bedrooms; equipped with beds and dressers. County social workers serve as caregivers in these settings in addition to their regular roles.
Last year 78 children slept in the office; a majority stayed for longer than a week.
This number has tripled since 2020 when the county reported just 23 children utilizing the makeshift housing.
As this sleeping arrangement becomes more common, state officials started tracking data earlier this year.
The data obtained by the I-Team reveal dozens of foster children each week are sleeping in DSS offices, DSS housing, or hotels. In early June, 56 children statewide had no homes to go to. Counties are not required to report and dozens of counties don't; so the true extent of the problem could be much more significant.
Melanie Shaw has fostered an estimated 30 children in Wake County for nearly two decades.
"It's been one of the most rewarding experiences ever to see kids get adopted or to see them graduate high school, graduate college. It has been absolutely amazing," Shaw said. "I have seen kids experience the beach for the first time or a traditional Christmas for the first time. So it has been really amazing. It's been a fulfilled 18 years."
She said she believes short-term stays in offices and other temporary homes will have a negative effect on children.
"The current shortages in foster parents impacts the kids the most. Children are having multiple temporary placements and it increases the issues of instability," Shaw said.
While she still finds fulfillment in fostering, many others have stopped accepting children into their homes.
Wake County lost 157 licensed foster homes since 2019, according to data from the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). Other counties, such as Orange and Vance, lost half of their foster homes.
The state has about 5,800 homes -- 18% fewer than before the pandemic.
And with nearly 11,000 foster children, it's not hard to see why some kids are ending up sleeping in county offices.
This reduction has led to children sleeping in offices, but at other times it's meant sending them outside of North Carolina.
"More and more we're having to place children outside of the county, outside of the state, which definitely impacts their ability to reunify with their families," Wimbish said.
The shortage of homes also puts a strain on existing families like Shaw's.
"I currently only have one foster child, and when I need a recharge or a reset, it's often difficult to find respite or a support home, especially in the local area," Shaw said.
Another part of the problem, Wimbish said, is that children have an increasing number of complex behavioral health problems. It's a difference that Shaw has seen firsthand.
"The children are having more crisis-management issues, some kids are more aggressive now. And whether that be physical or verbal, you know, that is very challenging when you're dealing with it," she said.
Many foster families and DSS workers are not trained or licensed to care for children who have more complex behavioral and mental health needs, which leads to even fewer placement options.
"As resource-rich as Wake County is, there's a lack of resources to meet the needs in the community," Wimbish said.
Wimbish does not foresee the need for these spaces to go away in the near future so leaders are continuing to explore every option.
One of those potential solutions could be found in Cumberland County, which operates a DSS group home that serves as an emergency facility so children do not have to stay in offices when they don't have a placement.
As Wake County officials explore more long-term solutions, they have hired more staff to specifically oversee the children who stay in the county building.
"I think initially their response was is this a temporary solution that's needed because it's a result of fallout from COVID? But we are now, you know, two years later and still seeing this problem and actually seeing an increase in, not decrease. And so we're realizing that there are permanent," Wimbish said.