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.