HOULTON, Maine — May has been designated as national Foster Care Recognition Month, and Peter Crovo of Community Health and Counseling of Houlton is hoping to raise awareness for the dire need of foster families in the state.

As part of his job, Crovo recruits and develops foster families for Community Health and Counseling in Aroostook County, but the number of people willing to enter into this type of program has been on an alarming decline for a number of years.

Community Health and Counseling has offices throughout the state, including three in Aroostook County (Houlton, Caribou and Fort Kent), and specializes in placing foster children with special needs in homes.

“It certainly is a crisis,” Crovo said. “There is a definite lack of foster homes of all types throughout the state. There is a cry for help, but most people just haven’t heard it. These kids need families.”

More than 2,100 children are in foster care throughout the state, according to Crovo. Those youths enter foster care due to abuse or neglect, despite every effort to maintain them safely within their birth families with mental health and substance abuse services.

Many youths in the foster care system have mental health issues due to years of neglect, Crovo said.

“Once children come into the foster care system, many are placed with relatives who can provide a loving, caring and stable home for these children,” he said. “When relatives are not available or suitable, then foster families are needed to provide a temporary family setting while the birth parents work on the issues that caused their children to come into foster care in the first place.”

The foster families can care for the children for as little as a few months to as long as a couple of years while the birth parents work on their issues. The foster children often maintain a relationship with their birth parents through weekly scheduled visits and phone calls.

“Maintaining a relationship is important to children as the goal is to reunify them with one or both birth parents through a healthy and safe process,” Crovo said. “Foster parents are crucial in this process and they help the child heal and recover from past trauma while developing a trust with the child and the child’s parents in the reunification process. As one would expect this is challenging work that requires the help of mental health professionals to guide the process of reunifying families.”

After a year or two of working toward reunification, a legal decision by a judge may determine that the parents are unable to complete their rehabilitation plan in a timely manner and can decide to terminate all rights of the birth parents. Then the children become available for adoption. Many foster families are able to adopt the children once the parents’ rights have been terminated by the judge.

Currently, there are more than 150 children available for adoption throughout the state, Crovo said.

Despite the efforts of many, however, a shortage of foster families persists. Many potential families decide against becoming foster parents after hearing negative stories about the foster care system, which is often poorly portrayed in movies made for TV, according to Crovo. He stressed that there are thousands of success stories and rewarding experiences in foster care that are not publicized due to confidentiality laws protecting the children.

“Without families to care for the children, DHHS workers have had to even stay in motel rooms [with the youngsters] while other workers have desperately searched for a family throughout the state,” Crovo said. “Each day presents a challenge to find a foster family for children who may simply need a place to call home so they can start the healing process and reunification process with their birth parents. The shortage of foster homes covers the entire state of Maine from Fort Kent to Kittery.”

Sharon and John Bulley of Houlton have served as foster parents for many years and also have taken on a more permanent parental role by adopting many of the youths who have entered their home. The Bulleys are parents of three adopted youngsters who were once foster children.

The Bulleys, who also have three adult children of their own, first became foster parents about seven years ago through a program called Kin Care, which places a child with a relative. It wasn’t until they became registered with this program that the Bulleys discovered just how huge the need was for foster parents.

“I don’t know what the statistics are, but I do know a lot of foster children are never reunited with their birth parents,” Sharon Bulley said. She said that many of the youngsters have been through some very difficult times.

“It’s a lifetime commitment,” she said of foster parenting. “My husband and I both have a big heart for children and once we saw the huge need it was an easy decision.”