PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — There are a staggering number of children in Illinois without permanent housing.

Peoria leaders said out of the more than 20,000 children in the state who don’t have a permanent place to call home, 1,500 of them are in the tri-county area.

Stephanie Alkhafaji, the Chief Operating Officer for Children’s Home Association of Illinois in Peoria, said Peoria County is the third-highest county in Illinois for youth in care.

“850 kids right now in Peoria County are looking for a place to call home,” Alkhafaji said. “It is a staggering number, and one I feel most folks are surprised to realize.”

She said the environment looks different for each child, saying some are in residential facilities, some are in hospitals, some are couch-surfing from different friends, and others are just homeless. Alkhafaji this reality is intensifying the need for more foster families in the state.

“People who are willing to open their homes to any of these kids and provide them with a stable, supportive environment to feel safe,” Alkhafaji said.

Alkhafaji said the pool of available foster parents dwindled between 2019 and 2020 and the resources to help these children are becoming more strained. She said the need to grow a pool of foster families is also a direct way to impact and help prevent child abuse.

According to data provided by Children’s Home, DCFS reported almost 200,000 calls to the Child Abuse hotline in Illinois in 2021.

“In situations of abuse and neglect, violence in the home, these kids are removed from their home and we have to figure out a place for them to go,” Alkhafaji said. “When we don’t have foster families willing to take them in these kids sort of get stuck in the system.”

She said many of the children who are considered youth in care have witnessed or at times have been victims of significant trauma, and the potential foster families should help support and console them.

“When we are looking for foster families we’re looking for kind people who are willing to be that stability for youth in care, but are also able to advocate and provide them the resources that they need to heal, to recover, and provide some continuity,” Alkhafaji said.

Ann Lading-Ferguson, the CEO of FamilyCore in Peoria, said there is a great need for foster parents with the ability and patience to take in children with medical and mental complexities.

“There maybe someone who has a medical complexity, maybe they have asthma, maybe they take psychiatric medication, and just making sure they’re working with the professionals that are around working with this child to make sure that they’re providing the structure and the services,” Lading-Ferguson said. “But also help manage whatever medical or mental health challenge that child may have.”

She said in addition, for those looking to adopt, there’s a need for parents to step up and support the biological parents for the children to return home if at all possible.

For those looking to explore the possibility of becoming foster parent and work with organizations such as FamilyCore and Children’s Home, you can click the links to find out more.