Behind a series of hallways and closed doors at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services center in Sherman, an air mattress sits on a floor. A child might be found borrowing a laptop to listen to music, playing with a toy or reading a book left in the room. But this is not a bedroom. It’s another room in the CPS offices, but this is where Grayson County children sleep when they’ve been removed from their families in an emergency situation and foster families cannot be found to take them in.

Behind a series of hallways and closed doors at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services center in Sherman, an air mattress sits on a floor. A child might be found borrowing a laptop to listen to music, playing with a toy or reading a book left in the room. But this is not a bedroom. It’s another room in the CPS offices, but this is where Grayson County children sleep when they’ve been removed from their families in an emergency situation and foster families cannot be found to take them in.

"Sometimes, on rare occasions, a child will come into care and we can’t find a placement for them immediately, so they may have to stay in an office overnight," DFPS spokesperson Marissa Gonzales said. "Obviously that’s not ideal. Every child should have a place and not just a bed but the right fit for them, which is why it’s important to have as many foster homes as possible."

Recently The Dallas Morning News reported that at least 16 children spent two or more nights sleeping in CPS offices in the North Texas area — a number that is three times more than the year before. Gonzales said that number included at least one child in Grayson County sleeping at the Sherman office. It’s a situation that happens when there are not enough foster homes available, she said, and right now the situation is dire. Grayson County Child Welfare Board statistics show that there are currently 240 children in the custody of CPS within Grayson County, a number that is 181 children more than this time last year. At Plano’s Covenant Kids, an adoption and fostering agency, CEO Bill Lund said he’s been working with this issue over the past 20 years and has seen the number of children that agencies handle grow during that time. With more children in the foster care system, there are simply not enough foster families available to take them in.

It’s these situations that lead to children having to sleep in an office rather than a bedroom with a stable foster family.

"We try to make it (the office) as comfortable as possible, but obviously it’s not the ideal situation," Gonzales said. "… It’s difficult enough being removed from your family. Even if it’s a dangerous situation, it’s hard to be taken away from what you are familiar with. So in order to make the process as least traumatic as possible, you want them to be able to go smoothly into a home where it’s more structured and they have their own space and they can start getting the care that they need. We don’t want to have to keep moving them every couple of days."

When enough families can’t be found to foster a child within his or her own community, the consequences can be greater than just sleeping in an office. Sometimes children are split up from their siblings and taken to different counties where there might be a foster home available.

"They may have to go to another community, either another part of North Texas or, in some situations, other parts of the state," Gonzales said. "They’re not as close to their families. They’re not as close to their communities. They’re not as close to their siblings in some situations. They have to change schools. It’s a lot of upheaval for a child, which is why we want to have as many homes as possible … so they can stay in their communities."

It’s this reason that inspired Sherman city councilor Terrence Steele to act and become licensed to foster children. He said keeping siblings together is a ministry he and his wife have been involved with for the past seven years, and he actively encourages others to explore the possibility of fostering.

"We do have a great need for people to open their homes to the children to give them a sense of normalcy in their lives," Steele said. "I have a sibling group, a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, their brothers are all the way down in Corsicana, Texas. That’s how far they had to go to find another home for their sibling group, so you can imagine the logistics it takes for them to be able to bring all four kids together to keep them in contact with each other. So if we have more foster parents in our local area, then the kids won’t have to be placed so far apart."

The challenge to foster families …

Covenant Kids CEO Bill Lund said the problem is not generating interest. The desire to foster is there, he said, but the challenge of finding foster homes comes when families hear what it takes to receive a foster license.

"Out of a 100 people that inquire, only about 20 of them make it all the way through the process," Lund said. "… When families find out about the amount of information and the amount of investigation that people are going to do into their lives, it can be a little intimidating."

He said he tells potential foster families the requirements that come with fostering up front, and sees many families realize that it’s a lot more work than they’d initially thought.

The process includes agreeing to a home study that involves visits with household members, allowing staff to complete a criminal history background check on all adults in the household, providing references from their grown children and other adults, and other investigations, in addition to the paperwork required.

"They’re going to have to have just an incredible amount of information that they’re going to have to provide," Lund said.

In addition to becoming licensed, fostering itself isn’t always easy, he added. Sometimes a family will want to foster to simply add another child into their lives, but Lund pointed out there’s a lot more responsibility that comes with taking care of a child in CPS custody. Some of these responsibilities include CPS case workers and agency case worker visits at least once a month, therapy for the children and weekend trips to bring the children to visit their siblings or biological parents, as well as transporting the children to and from court.

"Foster parents suddenly realize, ‘My gosh, this is more than just adding another kid to our family, this is an incredible disruption in our lives,’" Lund said. "… It can be overwhelming to them."

Lund said the reason he’s honest about these challenges is because the worst thing that can happen is for a child to come into a home and after a month or two have to be taken away again, because a foster family decided they could not handle the responsibility after all.

"We try to avoid any situation where we’re going to cause another disruption in that child’s life," Lund said. "When our families come through, we ask them to commit that they’re going to stick it out with those kids and that they won’t give up on them, regardless of how difficult those kids are because that just really is another profound trauma in that child’s life."

Foster families can cite preferences that CPS and other foster agencies consider when placing a child with a foster family. Steele, for example, said he prefers taking children between 2 years and 5 years old.

"After you’ve done this for a little while, you figure out what can you handle that doesn’t disrupt your home too much," Steele said. "Even bringing kids in is a disruption, but you want to make sure you can bring kids in that you can very best serve."

… and the reward

Ask just about any foster family and they’ll tell you what they do isn’t easy. Yet they keep doing it. It’s a service that affects not only the children but the foster families themselves in what former foster parent Jennifer Bond referred to as a dual-service.

"You are playing an influential role in these kids’ lives, and frankly they’re playing an influential role in yours," Bond said. "I started out with it thinking, ‘OK, this is something I’m doing for them,’ and the truth is you learn real quickly that they almost do more for you than you do for them. They change your whole life."

Susan Lewis hasn’t had much sleep in 22 years — she’s fostering infants and newborns after adopting four. Her family has a tradition of fostering after her parents did it, and now her kids are also fostering.

"It is a blessing," she said.

Sherman Foster and Adoptive Home Development worker Debra Brown also advocates that fostering is a benefit to children and to families.

"It’s not easy, but the reward is great knowing you took care of a child," she said. "… Sometimes when kids are in foster care they don’t feel like they’re part of the family, but the kids in foster families that I work with, they let the kids be part of their family. They let the kids go on vacation with them, to get to experience that, so it’s a great asset. For a parent to want to be a foster parent, it’s not about just saying the words, it’s about doing and providing love and care to a child that’s in need and being unselfish in the process. It really runs deep."

There is help for families wanting to foster. Most CPS offices have a Rainbow Room that helps provide everyday essentials a child who comes into foster care might not have. There is also a government stipend of $23.10 a day to help pay for the costs associated with fostering a child, but she said that should never be the reason why a family wants to foster.

Steele said one of the pushbacks he sees when he talks to families about fostering is the fear of getting attached to a child that will only stay in the home for just about a year. He understands that hesitation, he said, but the focus has to be on the greater work that’s being done.

"When the kids leave, we cry with them, but we know that we have gotten them out of an environment that was detrimental to them, to a normal environment and we’re hoping to plant a seed in their lives that will flourish," he said. "They’ll see that when something bad happened there was a family that took me in and showed me love."

Lund said his agency sees 150 adoptions a year and calls each one of them a miracle. Even if a foster family doesn’t adopt, it’s enough just to see a child be rescued from an emergency situation by a family that goes above and beyond to make a difference.

"When we see kids’ lives turned around and see them get into stable foster homes or into forever families that love them and raise them as their own, it makes the work and the challenges worthwhile," Lund said. "Every child’s a miracle and we never give up on them, so in spite of all the challenges, we’re here because the kids need the help."