9 Investigates: Foster care in a 'state of crisis' in NC

When Alex and Christian Duzan come home from school, they get hugs from their parents and older sisters. It’s a simple gesture the brothers have not always had. They spent three years in three different foster homes, before Tom and Tammy Duzan adopted them.

"They have really brought a lot of joy to our home and a lot of laughter,” Tom Duzan told Channel 9. “They just have such good hearts and we've been blessed by their friendship with each other has been incredible to watch."

(Click PLAY to watch the Duzan's advice if considering adoption)

A permanent family lifestyle is the goal for the thousands of foster children in North Carolina, but it's becoming harder and harder to achieve. The number of children in foster care in North Carolina has skyrocketed 25 percent in the last five years. Right now, almost 11,000 children are in the state's foster care system.

"Unfortunately, I really do think we're in a bit of a state of crisis in North Carolina," said Brian Maness, the president and CEO of Children's Home Society. CHS is the state's largest foster care and adoption agency.

Maness said the opioid epidemic is one reason so many more children are in foster care. Opioids have led to a 41 percent increase over the past five years, second only to neglect.

[READ: Reasons why children are put into foster care in NC]

"There are not enough services to help families stay together when they're in crisis," Maness said.

The number of children needing foster care has far outgrown the number of families willing to provide it. Right now in Mecklenburg County, foster homes are at a historic low.

Alyssa Crooks, who recruits foster families for Mecklenburg County, said most people don't know how desperate the need is.

"What a lot of people don't understand is you can be a foster parent if you are single. You can be a foster parent if you don't own your own home," Crooks said.

Celeste Fuller has fostered 14 children in Mecklenburg County. She adopted 16-year old Kayla as an infant and is currently caring for two more foster children.

"You're just providing them a chance to have some kind of normalcy in their life for a little bit of time, no matter how much time you can give it, it's important to them and it's important to us to try to provide that," Fuller said.

Foster care statistics from Children's Home Society:

  • 23,000 confirmed cases of abuse and neglect each year
  • Over 5,000 children entered the foster care system last year
  • There are 10,500 children in foster care, a 25% increase in the last five years
  • 2,400 of these children are eligible for adoption
  • The average length of stay in foster care is 1-1/2 years, a 15% increase since 2010
  • More than 500 children age out of foster care each year

But fostering isn't without challenges. Some children come from traumatizing backgrounds with abuse and neglect. Some have developed behavior problems and need very specific care. Experts said their future may rely on a safe and loving foster home.

The Duzans told Channel 9 anchor Liz Foster they are open to fostering again. But for now, they can't picture life, or their family, without Alex and Christian.

"Even beyond that, you feel like they've always been there," Tammy Duzan said.

Not all children in foster care are available for adoption. Agencies try to place them back in the care of a biological parent or family member when possible.

[LINK: Meck. Co. DSS Foster and Adoption Services]

Foster parents are given financial compensation, but must be licensed and undergo training.

To try to keep up with the increasing number of kids in foster care, Children's Home Society is in the middle of an ambitious plan to double the number of children it can care for.