HUNTSVILLE, Ala. —  WHNT News 19’s special report, “Alone” takes a closer look at the problem facing thousands of kids in Alabama, a lack of a permanent home.

It’s the beginning of a reporting effort to better understand how Alabama’s kids are doing, what needs to be done better and how to help.

Here’s some of what we learned while reporting “Alone”

The problem

More than 6,000 kids in state care and only 1,500 foster families in Alabama.

“In my opinion, we are in a crisis in the state of Alabama when it comes to the need for foster families,” Lee Marshall, CEO and founder of Kids to Love. “We have over 6,000 kids in care and only 1,500 foster families in the state of Alabama.”

The faces in the system

Eric Lawrence is an aspiring mechanical engineer, with a love of cars and a desire to one day design cars. He’s been in the foster care for more than 10 years.

He says, over the years he’s bounced around the system.

“I got put in foster care in Selma, and I kind of went from Selma to Birmingham, Montgomery, came up here, back to Selma, back to Montgomery, now back up here again,” he said.

“The reality is if every child in foster care was a 5-year-old little girl, we would have no problem placing every child,” Lee Marshall told WHNT News 19.

A co-worker recently told Eric he was thinking about adopting. Eric spoke up for the forgotten kids in Alabama.

“I felt like that was my place to step in and say, ‘Hey, don’t count this group of people out and just go straight for an infant, because you feel like they can’t be controlled. It’s not right.’ And I just feel like I can speak on that change from experience, because I know what you can expect.”

Through Kids to Love, Eric has received vocational skills training certifications that helped him land a job.

KTECH 2019 Graduation

LaDerrick Thomas entered foster care when he was 7, 12 years ago. He entered technical certifications through Kids to Love’s KTECH program and graduated Thursday night. He wants to travel and is looking forward to getting a passport.

LaDerrick Thomas (R), Lee Marshall (L)

His journey through the system has seen hard days.

He recalls what it can be like, walking into a new foster home.

“Then like the first couple days, or the first week, it’s like a little trial run, they observe how you are, and if they don’t like you, boom, you’re going to another home,” he said.

After years, his last foster parent changed his life. He was finally trusted.

“She actually built me to who I am,” he said. “Without her help, I don’t know where I’d be.”

So what was different?

“The love, like you can actually feel the love that was there,” LaDerrick said. “Most of them will say like, you’re their family, but don’t actually like prove it, she actually proved it.”

A collage made from the Alabama Department of Human Resources website featuring “Alabama’s waiting children.”

Who’s trying to help?

But it can be a hard road to independence.

Darnell Sharperson who runs child welfare consulting in Atlanta. He worked for the Alabama Department of Human Resources in Alabama’s foster care system for 11 years. He spent the first 18 years of his life in foster care in Washington, D.C.

“Alabama has a very good transitional living program, and it starts with about age 14, and goes all the way to the emancipated at age 19,” he said. “So that’s five years of preparation for your transition for exiting out of foster care.”

But a number of those young people — dealing with mental, emotional and behavioral problems – don’t absorb the lessons.

“A lot of time if that individual, that young youth, has a lot of behavioral problems, then he’s not going to be able to focus on the instructions that are going to be given to him, because they’re going to be focused on the behavior and he or she is going to be bouncing from place to place,” Sharperson said.

Alabama’s prisons are so overcrowded and brutal the federal government is threatening to take over. And, the foster kids who are unprepared for a transition to life on their own too often trade one system for another.

“Most of those children, within 6 months after exiting care, they`re either homeless, okay, or they’re couch-hopping going from friends and friends couches, or they`re on their way into the penal system.”

Kids to Love was founded in 2004 by CEO Lee Marshall, with the goal of finding “forever families for foster children.” The nonprofit offers an array of services and programs from classes for would-be parents, to technical and vocational training, to Davidson Farms, a home for girls.

Huntsville residents Holly Clark and her husband, who had three kids already, have adopted three foster children, including two teenagers. She said the key to success has been making it clear they are welcome.

“They’re not bad kids, some of them might have bad behaviors, or have some things, but even then I find, if you’re really open with them and just clear basic expectations, they’re going to try to rise to those,” Clark said. “Because they’re going to see that they’re receiving respect, and they’re welcome in your home.”

Clark said the years of uncertainty take a toll on foster kids.

“Kind of feeling like the rug can be pulled out at any moment, but even after the adoption, like, ‘This is real, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night, oh, I’m home, I’m not moving again, this is my home.’”

Alabama’s Department of Human Resources works toward a goal for permanency for every child who is taken into their custody due to a parent who is unable to take care of them, at least temporarily.

But permanency can be elusive. Parents have rights, there can be competing family interests, possibly criminal charges s to contend with or substance issue battles.

Resolving those issues can take time, and DHR reports there often encounter cases where there is not a relative able to take in the children caught in the middle.

Alabama’s Department of Human Resources offers a list of adoption contacts, including: