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Cheryl Smith and her husband, Jeremy, had already gone through private adoption to build their family, but the thought of fostering a child scared them.

The thought of having to say goodbye to a child they had cared for and loved seemed like the hardest thing in the world.

But in 2012, the Smiths found themselves at a church meeting in which a representative for the nonprofit FaithBridge Foster Care talked about a growing need for foster homes for children caught in metro Atlanta’s opioid crisis.

At any given time, FaithBridge has 165 children in its care. Of those, well over 40 percent are there because of the drug crisis, said Bob Bruder-Mattson, president and CEO of the child placement agency.

“Last year, DFCS called seeking placement for almost 2,800 children,” he said. “We have 250 licensed foster families and we need more.”

According to Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services, there are over 13,000 children in foster care. Of those, about 40 percent were removed from families due to substance abuse.

RELATED: Who steps in when parents’ drug use unravels their children’s lives?

Nationwide, the number of children in foster care increased 8 percent from 397,000 in 2012 to 428,000 in 2015, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Why? Opioid and methamphetamine addiction.

Because of the shortage, Bruder-Mattson said the state is often forced to place children hundreds of miles away from their homes and everything they know.

The Smiths had to make a decision.

“Selfishly turn our backs because it’s too hard to let them go or rise up and do what we could to help.”

They decided to help and since then have taken in four children, newborn to 4 years old, over the past five years. All but one of them were children of addicts.

The Smiths adopted their third foster child, a little girl named Emily, after the mother decided “she didn’t want to do what was necessary to provide a home for her.”

“For every step forward she took to get clean, she took two steps back,” Cheryl Smith said. “The addiction was a stronger pull for her than the child.”

Emily was 2 when she came to live with the Smiths. She was 4 when they adopted her. She is 6 now.

RELATED: What happens to kids when they age out of foster care?

FaithBridge has spent the past 10 years working feverishly to build a network of churches willing to both increase awareness about the need and recruit more foster families.

To date, more than 40 have signed on to help, including Mount Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Tri-Cities Church in East Point, Life Church International in Duluth, First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Momentum Christian Church in McDonough, and North Point Community Church in Alpharetta.

Why churches?

FaithBridge is all about creating high-quality homes where kids will experience the hope, healing and unconditional love of Jesus Christ, Bruder-Mattson said.

“We want to have homes in the communities where kids are being removed from. It’s already traumatic; if we can keep them in their communities, it’s so much better.”

Five years ago, Bruder-Mattson said, there were only about 6,500 kids in foster care in Georgia. The number shot up exponentially after the highly publicized 2013 starvation death of 10-year-old Emani Moss, which resulted in the firing of two DFCS employees and the punishment of four others for failing to assess the risks to Emani or to properly review the family’s troubled history.

The girl’s father, Eman Moss, pleaded guilty to murder in 2015 and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole. Her stepmother, Tiffany Moss, was scheduled to stand trial for murder late last year.

Removing a child used to be because of neglect, or parents unable to provide adequate housing or food.

“Now we’re seeing so many more families who have significant addictions,” he said. “It’s no longer a secondary reason for removal. It’s the primary reason.”

So much so, Bruder-Mattson said that when his agency started looking at the numbers, he discovered as many as 60 percent of kids in Georgia were being placed outside their county of residence.

“That’s a huge problem, but what’s so impactful is sometimes they are placed hundreds of miles away,” he said. “Kids who lived in Cartersville are being placed in homes in Brunswick, 350 miles away.”

The distance, he said, makes reunification with their biological parents nearly impossible because parents must be able to visit their children in the interim.

In addition to being placed farther away from their parents, children are staying in care longer, too.

“I believe that almost 100 percent of these parents deeply love their children, but when they are addicted, they’re all about self. You don’t just wake up one day and say I’m going to stop using,” Bruder-Mattson said. “There’s physical and emotional dependencies. It’s not like something you flip a switch on and it goes away.”

RELATED: Why heroin and why now?

These are our kids, in our communities, Bruder-Mattson said. Those who do not get adopted and who age out of foster care are significantly less likely to graduate from high school or become gainfully employed. They will not become productive members of our community if we don’t help them.

“We need to be concerned,” he said, “and we need new and innovative ways to get these parents the help they need to break the cycle of addiction, especially in rural areas where it’s hard to find treatment programs and support groups.”

That’s why awareness is so important.

“If you asked the average Georgian if they understand what foster care is and how kids are being impacted, it’s unlikely they could answer the question. There is a lack of awareness,” he said. “Not everyone is called to foster, but everybody is called to do something.”

As she cared for her latest charge the other day, Smith said she believes she and her husband have found their calling, providing loving care to children who wouldn’t otherwise receive it.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.



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