Conceived out of anguish over a 12-year-old girl's murder and implemented by a $5 million community fundraising effort, a unique haven for foster children in Santa Rosa is struggling for survival.

The Children's Village of Sonoma, a cluster of four homes with capacity for 24 foster children, now has just 16 children — six fewer than it needs to cover operating costs.

"You can imagine the stress it's putting on us," said Anjana Utarid, executive director of the nonprofit organization, which has served 57 foster children since it opened in 2006.

Referrals from county child welfare officials dried up last year, just as the village's population fell below capacity and the state of California codified a shift away from long-term placement of foster children in group homes.

"There is a philosophical belief that all children should live with a committed, permanent and nurturing family," said Nick Honey, Family, Youth and Children's Services director with the county Human Services Department.

Advocates for foster children support the idea of placing more youths with families, rather than group homes, even as the trend appears to be creating a surplus of beds at the county's nine group home organizations.

"We want to have children in more family-like environments," said Millie Gilson, executive director for Court Appointed Special Advocates, a local nonprofit known as CASA.

Jim Galsterer, executive director of TLC Child and Family Services, which runs three group homes, said the goal is to return foster children to their families or some other form of a "forever home."

"I've never met a child who didn't want that," he said. "Group homes are not a place for children to grow up."

The shift was underscored by a law, enacted last year as part of the state budget, that for the first time set limits on how long foster children may stay in group homes.

The law, Assembly Bill 74, says children younger than 6 cannot be placed in a group home for longer than two months — and children 6 to 12 no longer than six months — unless there is a case plan approved by a county child welfare director.

Children 12 and older can't stay in a group home longer than a year.

There is no deadline, however, for relocating the 75 foster children that were in Sonoma County group homes in December, Honey said, noting that each child's case will be assessed separately.

"It's going to take a while to get where we want to go," he said.

The number of foster children placed in the county's group homes declined from 106 in December 2012, and Honey said fewer foster children are now being placed in group homes.

Overall, the county in December had 539 children in the foster care system, which handles youths who have been removed from parental custody.

Nearly 200 lived in foster care homes, 150 lived with relatives and 58 lived with guardians. The rest were at other facilities, including 23 at Valley of the Moon Children's Home, an emergency shelter where children spend an average of three months, Honey said.

Children's Village, located on a 2.2-acre parcel off Petaluma Hill Road, was forged out of community angst over the still-unsolved murder of Georgia Moses, a 12-year-old Santa Rosa girl whose body was found in Petaluma in 1997.

The idea of establishing a permanent home for foster children — especially to keep siblings from large families together — got a $5 million boost from donors, including former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and his wife, Jennifer.

Over the past eight years, the Village has served 57 foster children, with 19 leaving due to aging out of the system, family reunification, adoption or moving to a foster home.

It needs the government payments for at least 22 children to cover its operating costs and now has 16, Utarid said.

The Village received an average of nearly eight foster child placements a year through 2012, then only two last year and none so far in 2014.

"We want to be part of the process," Utarid said. The organization needs placements to survive, but fully supports the reunification of foster children with their families, she said.

Children live for an average of 2? years at the Village, which was founded on the premise of keeping siblings together and preventing their passing through a succession of foster homes.

The county remains open to sending children to the Village, Honey said, calling it "a wonderful program."

But the shift away from group homes is creating more beds than needed to accommodate Sonoma County's foster care population, he said, suggesting that the Village should pursue placements from other, larger counties.

Honey also suggested that the Village might consider converting one house to care for "more difficult kids."

He is preparing for a March 14 meeting with group home operators to explore the changes to the foster care system.

TLC has nine foster care children in a group home population of about 200 teenagers, Galsterer said. The average stay in a TLC home is a little less than a year.

The shift away from group homes has been going on for years, he said, noting that "we're all on the same page with this."

To meet its goals, the county needs to recruit more foster parents, said Gilson, head of the CASA advocacy group.

A foster home gives children structure and role models, and a warmer environment than a group home, she said.

Serving as a foster parent is "a wonderful way to impact a child's life," she said.

The state payment for foster care starts at $657 per month for a child under 5 and increases in steps to $820 a month for children age 15 to 20, plus an annual allowance for clothing.

Counties can increase those payments but must foot the bill, Honey said.

Anyone interested in learning more about foster parenthood may call 565-4274 or go to the website at www.sonomafostercare.org.

Staff writer Chris Smith contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.