ROCK HILL, S.C. -- The state Department of Social Services hope stories like Gayle Starr's will encourage others to become foster parents.
Starr has no children of her own, but her five foster children call her "Mom." The 48-year-old Clover resident grew up in a family of 14 children and has been a foster parent since 1996.
Her goal is to the give her foster children the same caring environment she grew up in.
She has had two of her foster children - who range in age from two to 15 - for seven years.
The Department of Social Services is always looking to recruit more foster parents, but they are hoping to turn National Foster Care month into a reason for people to get involved.
"The need is great," said Lynn Wallace, community resource coordinator for DSS. "People are perhaps not aware of what our needs are."
Foster care is temporary care for children who have been deemed at high risk for abuse or neglect by a parent or other caregiver. Social Services tries to put the children with a relative first, but if that isn't possible, the agency places them in a licensed foster home or other facility until they can be reunited with their families.
"We don't want a child to come into foster care if it can be prevented," Wallace said.
Among the goals of foster care are to keep siblings in the same home and to keep the children in the same school, where being among friends and in a familiar surrounding can make the transition to foster care easier.
"That's their support system that's already in place," Wallace said. "When we don't have enough foster parents, we're not able to do that."
Nationally, there were more than half a million children in foster care as of 2001, according to the latest information from the Administration for Children and Families, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 60 percent of those children were reunited with their parents.
While the number of children in the foster care system is growing at a steady pace, the number of people willing to become foster parents is not.
Wallace said confusion over the role of foster parents may be one reason more people don't join the program.
Foster parents provide daily care for children, including food and shelter, assisting with educational and medical needs and providing transportation to and from school or other appointments. Foster care can last anywhere from a few days to a few years or longer. Some foster parents end up adopting the children.
It takes about four months for qualified applicants to go through the screening process, which includes a criminal background check.
"A lot of these children have potential, but it takes us to bring it out of them," said Starr. "It's not something that they did to be put in the position they're in."