Editor's Note: Almost a year ago, 11-year-old Chandler Nash Elliott's suicide shocked his Lake Tahoe community. Chandler's death prompted a yearlong investigation by the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Nevada Appeal, into the state of Nevada and California's Child Protective Services systems. Documents used during the investigation include public reports, confidential files provided to the Tribune, and school, court and medical records. This is the third in a five-part series.
GARDNERVILLE - With one son away at college and another soon to leave the nest, Pat Zumpft and her husband Chuck of Gardnerville were facing a quiet, empty home.
Realizing there were children who needed a safe place to be, they decided to open their home to foster children last year.
"We had a big house, lots of love to still give and we weren't ready to be an empty house," said Zumpft, 48. "So we thought this would be the best way to fill the needs of children who needed a place to be, and fill our own needs to keep us from being lonely all the time."
The Zumpfts are licensed to care for four children, newborn to age 11. They chose to have younger children, so their older boys wouldn't feel overshadowed.
"We didn't want our own children to feel that they were being replaced, that they were still our biggest focus, and these (children) were just going to enhance our family and bring a different aspect to our family," Zumpft said.
To date, two young siblings and two children from different families have lived with the Zumpfts. A 2-year-old is still with the family after more than a year and a half.
"The little one was just a baby," she said. "You hold, you rock, you walk the floors. If the bigger kids are upset and crying, you just try to hold them and make them feel secure."
Each child gets their own room and their own "stuff," Zumpft said. They take the kids clothes shopping.
"They get excited about it," she said.
She also makes each child their own special blanket.
"So if they're scared, they can snuggle up and it's theirs and no one else can touch and use it," Zumpft said.
The biggest challenge, she said, is not knowing a child's history before they enter the home. The more that foster parents know about a child's life, the more they are able to meet their needs, she said.
"Their history, background, the obstacles they've overcome," she said. "But you don't know everything unless you have them longer."
The children have become a part of her family. They attended her son's high school track meets, yelling "Go CC," the children's nickname for her 18-year-old son, Corbin, who is now in college.
"He just lights up," Zumpft said. "Somebody little rooting for you who thinks you're wonderful - it's a great feeling."
Shortage of homes
The state would "be at a loss if we didn't have people like Pat in our community," said Chrystal Main, social services chief for the Nevada Division of Child Services.
"We are eternally grateful to individuals like Pat and her husband, who are so generous and not only open up their homes, but they open up their lives and their family's lives and provide an opportunity to children who otherwise would not have these great experiences for safety and well being," Main said.
In every county in Nevada, particularly in rural areas like Elko and Douglas County, there's a need for more foster homes.
"There's a need all over," Main said. "We don't have an abundance of homes in any county."
There are a total of 12 foster homes in Douglas County, an area with a population more than 51,000. Carson City, with a population of more than 55,000, has 16 licensed foster homes.
"That's not many homes when you think about how big these counties are," Main said. "People don't realize there's a need because they don't hear about it."
The largest need is for homes that are licensed for multiple children and are able to take in groups of siblings.
"It's always hardest to find homes that will take large sibling groups of three or more, and older children," Main said.
Many foster parents only want young children or babies, said Marla Morris, social services manager for the Carson City office.
"We really have a need for the school-aged sibling groups or teens," Morris said. "There's a lot of parents who have a lot of great parenting skills who would do a great job if they give it a chance."
Fostering a child
Many would-be foster parents get hung up on the mandated safety requirements, said Mikie Franklin, foster care recruitment supervisor for the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services.
"Most people's homes are really safe," Franklin said.
Foster homes in Nevada must provide at least 200 square feet per person, including existing family members; as well as a fire extinguisher and working smoke alarms.
Potential foster parents are fingerprinted and undergo a background check before they begin training. All residents in the home receive an FBI background check. People with felonies, recent misdemeanors or crimes against children are automatically excluded.
The 27-hour training is held every other month in Carson City over three consecutive Saturdays and some evenings.
Potential foster parents learn how children come into foster care, the court process, developmental milestones and the requirements for their homes.
Foster parents can be renters, homeowners or live in a trailer. They can be retired, working or stay-at-home parents. The minimum age requirement is 21.
People become foster parents for different reasons, Main said. Some people want to help children. Others, like the Zumpfts, are empty nesters. Sometimes a family knows a specific child who needs help.
The department tries to screen out people in it for the money. Potential foster parents have to be financially stable, and the state looks at an applicant's finances to ensure the foster parent wouldn't be relying on the monthly reimbursements as income.
For children birth through age 12, the monthly reimbursement is $682.94, or $22.45 per day. For children 13 and older, the reimbursement is $773.17 per month, or $25.42 per day.
"We make it clear to foster parents that it's not a money-making venture," Morris said.
Parents are also prepared for the possibility that a foster child may have emotional or behavioral issues.
Children are assessed for such issues, and the foster parents are connected with services to meet the child's needs, Morris said.
Children must have their own living space and place for their personal items, as well as their own bed.
"Sometimes it's the first time that they have a bed with sheets," Morris said.
Children in foster care eventually leave, unless they are adopted by their foster parents.
Some return to their birth parents, since the initial goal is to reunite the families.
Foster parents sometimes play a role in the process.
"They work with the biological parents and mentor for reunification," Main said.
Unless parental rights have been terminated, most foster children visit with their biological parents for one hour per week. Foster parents aren't required to have these meetings in their homes, although some choose to do so.
Children who are not returned to their parents are typically adopted, like a two-day-old baby who came to live with the Zumpfts. Pat Zumpft said watching the baby go to the adoptive family was "amazing."
"My biggest joy is watching them grow and becoming wonderful people, learning that life doesn't always have to be hard or hurtful," she said.
The Zumpfts see their home as a stepping stone.
"You give these children hope," she said. "So if they go out there, they have a base for what a normal family will be like ... to be able to camp and do sports that won't be done otherwise. We try to give them experiences that they will never have, that they haven't experienced yet."