ELKHART — Charlene Slabaugh says her three foster daughters are only starting to understand that they won't have to go anywhere else.
For her, from the moment she met the 4-, 5- and 7-year-old sisters almost a year ago, there was no going back.
Slabaugh was one of several foster parents who came to The Villages Wednesday to speak with Congresswoman Jackie Walorski. The Republican representative was looking for input on where to go now that her bill to expand an electronic interstate case-processing system nationwide has passed the House.
Walorski said wide adoption of the National Electronic Interstate Compact Enterprise, which was launched in Indiana and four other states as a pilot program in 2013, would speed up the adoption process by months. It would no longer require caseworkers to print and mail hundreds of pages of paperwork to place a foster child in a home across state lines, even if it's with a grandparent or other relative.
Betsy Kuhn, regional director for The Villages, said she appreciates how the law would reduce the amount of time a child has to stay in limbo.
"There are children who do move from home to home to home because of the amount of bureaucracy," Kuhn said. "There's kids that linger in the system three years, five years, eight years... if they're staying within the system because of the bureaucracy, we're actually traumatizing our own children."
Slabaugh said hers is the fourth foster home for the girls she's in the process of adopting. She said they've been in the system for far too long and it's taken a toll.
"It's taken them almost a year to start to understand that 'You're not going anywhere,'" she said. "'It doesn't matter what you do, it doesn't matter what happens to you, none of it matters, you're staying here, because you're ours and we'll protect you.'"
Adoption wasn't the original plan, and it's meant a lot of changes, like leaving her job in order to stay home with them, but she said she would do it again in a heartbeat.
"Could we have 20,000 more of you?" Walorski asked. "Just in our state?"
There are more around 29,000 kids in Indiana's foster system, a number which has spiked in large part because of the opioid epidemic, according to Walorski. Kuhn said she sees the most need in rural southern Indiana counties and in Marion County, but the shortage of foster parents is felt throughout the state, including Michiana.
Her agency oversaw nearly 700 children in foster care cases statewide last year, and about 3,000 kids and families were involved in all of its programs. The private, not-for-profit child and family services agency marks its 40th anniversary this year, and she said they're celebrating with outings like the Fort Wayne Childrens Zoo and Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, as well as highlighting a staff member or foster parent each month.
She noted the agency's decisions aren't driven by fiscal concerns but by what's in the best interest of the child. They're able to do a lot that's above and beyond normal contractual services thanks largely to sponsors and donors.
"So if people can't necessarily open up their home to a child, in foster care or adoption, they can always give donations and it will go to the children," she said. "We're a smaller community so it doesn't appear to be as big a demand, but there is, it's everywhere."