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Children's Village feeling foster care pinch

  • Program director Emily Mann helps a child in foster care with a word search at The Children's Village, in Santa Rosa on Thursday, February 27, 2014.

    (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

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.

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