The twins were like living dolls when they came into Heather Purtle’s life; two underweight bundles of neediness that the Department of Social Services dropped off at her house with little warning and not much in the way of instruction.
The girls are thriving 17 months later and Purtle is in the process of adopting them since the agency sees no chance of reuniting them with their family.
The story is typical of foster care throughout South Carolina in a time of ever dwindling resources and never failing demand, said officials with DSS.
The agency’s total budget has been cut $121 million since 2008, DSS figures show.
In a way, Purtle said she is fortunate in that she knew what to expect with the girls since she sits on the Greenville County Foster Care Review Board.
“No one gets put into foster care because they’ve been spanked,” she said. “These children have suffered greatly at the hands of the people that should have only had their best interests at heart.”
Purtle said she was stunned during her first few reviews at the levels of abuse and neglect.
“One little boy talked about his younger brother coughing up cherry Kool-Aid,” Purtle recalled. “It fact, it was blood and the younger boy died.”
There are quite a few misconceptions about foster care in South Carolina, said Wilbert Lewis, interim director of child welfare services for DSS. One of them is that the state will take a child out of a home because he was disciplined.
“There are strict standards that we adhere to at DSS,” Lewis said. A simple spanking, or correcting a child, does not fall into that category.
Another misconception is that DSS whisks children away into foster care and never tries to reunite families, Lewis said.
“In fact our top priority (after ensuring the safety of a child) is reuniting families,” he said.
DSS figures for the past five years show an average of 2,800 children returned home each year. The numbers on children in foster care average just over 5,000 each year.
The numbers are remarkably stable on children coming into foster care, just under 4,000 per year, and on children leaving foster care the numbers are about the same.
What has shown a sharp rise over the last few years, since the start of the recession, is the numbers of children who have been adopted. It has risen from a low of 418 in fiscal year 2006-07 to 513 in 2007-2008; 527 children were adopted in 2008-2009; and so far in fiscal year 2009-2010 528 have been adopted.
Purtle hopes she’s part of that growing adoption trend. She’s a middle class single businesswoman who holds degrees from the University of Georgia and Duke and who owns a store on Woodruff Road that sells school supplies.
She can afford to care for the girls since DSS only pays $11.07 per day to board children of that age.
“It costs me $40 a day to board my dog,” Purtle said. “You really have to want to be a foster care provider. No one gets into this for the money.”