Robbin and Ernesto Pineda had opened their Pottstown home to many a foster child over 15 years. Last year, though, the requests from Montgomery County seemed to slow, and the house started feeling empty.

So the Pinedas turned to Philadelphia. They asked whether the city's system for placing kids in good homes could use another family.

Within a week, their house was full.

"We had a baby on Monday, two brothers on Wednesday, and two sisters on Friday, so we had five within five days," said Robbin Pineda, 53.

For the Pinedas, seasoned foster parents who both come from big families, the situation is more than manageable - it's welcomed. Robbin Pineda has a routine for the kids, a 15-seat passenger van, and two washer-dryers.

But her full house exhibits what officials say is a growing need for more foster parents for kids in Philadelphia, where the number of at-risk children needing a safe home keeps increasing.

"The need is great right now, and we're saying to our more experienced families, 'Will you take one more? If we buy a bed, will you take another child?' kind of in desperation rather than having them spend a night at the agency," said Deborah Croston, director of foster care at Turning Points, a community umbrella agency contracted by the city's Department of Human Services (DHS).

As of Dec. 31, 5,948 kids in Philadelphia were living in foster care, group homes, or with relatives or close friends (known as kinship care). That is 774 more than in late 2014, and 1,380 more than in 2013.

City officials say new reporting laws sparked by the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal increased hotline calls, investigations and, in turn, the need to find foster homes for kids at risk.

In neighboring Montgomery and Delaware County, the law change also caused more investigations, but foster placements stayed level or fell. (Those counties' needs are dwarfed by the city's - Montgomery and Delaware Counties have 277 and 435 children in foster placement, respectively, compared with Philadelphia's nearly 6,000).

The need is increasing

"Our numbers have continued to climb," said Alicia Taylor, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Children and Families, which includes DHS. "So we're looking for people who, whether empty-nesters or someone who just wants to be involved in a child's life, will step forward."

As the number of children entering the system has grown, so, too, have the ranks of registered foster families such as the Pinedas. In Philadelphia, just 117 new families registered in 2011; last year, 241 signed up, according to state data.

Placing a child in DHS custody is a last resort, Taylor said, a path taken only if social workers' interventions with a troubled family fail. If a child is deemed to be in peril from abuse or neglect and must be taken from his or her family, the system looks first to relatives or close friends; if that option isn't available, foster placements are sought.

Lately, requests for such placements have come in rapidly - as many as 15 to 20 a day, says Kia Butler, director of foster care for Tabor Northern Community Partners in Northwest Philadelphia, another of DHS's so-called community umbrella agencies.

And often it's more than one child at risk. "Each referral is a family, so a family could have one child or 11 children," Butler said.

Another challenge is keeping kids close to home. Part of the revamped DHS "Improving Outcomes for Children" model emphasizes community support.

"We try to find homes in the neighborhood so they see that same crossing guard, go to the same barbershop," Butler explained. "The normalcy of the child's life we try to keep intact because of trauma and neglect they've experienced."

That can be difficult in neighborhoods where many residents are too poor to qualify as foster parents.

Recruiters fight erroneous perceptions. Foster parents - now dubbed "resource parents" - need not be married or own their home. Same-sex couples can qualify, and are especially needed for a rising number of LGBT youth who feel more comfortable with LGBT placements. A foster parent can be as young as 21; there is no upper age cutoff.

Those who apply go through an orientation and are questioned about family background, employment, income, medical history, education, and community involvement. They undergo medical exams, and all adults in the home get criminal and child-abuse background checks. Only Pennsylvanians can be foster parents in the state - unless they are kin to the child.

The process takes about four months before training and certification.

A blank sign-up sheet

Last Wednesday, Dominique Johnson, a recruiter for Net Community Care, based in North Central Philadelphia, set up a table at a YMCA near Temple University. Johnson wore a "Keep Calm and Foster Teens" sweatshirt and tried to chat up passersby. Teenagers are difficult to place, because many foster parents request younger children.

A sign-up sheet on the table remained blank an hour into Johnson's shift.

"This is about getting the word out, but the best way to recruit is networking, person-to-person," she said. "And the best people to do it are foster parents themselves."

People who work in child services are constantly recruiting - at work, through Facebook, in the line at the grocery. Email taglines and business cards say "Become a Foster Parent today!" - with links and phone numbers on how to sign up.

Recruitment isn't nearly as important as retention, said Garry Krentz, head of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania State Resource Family Association, which has authored legislation aimed at stopping high foster-parent turnover rates.

A decade ago, Krentz said, two-thirds of new foster parents quit within a year. He's helped push a recent "prudent parent" law that grants foster parents more day-to-day decision-making ability.

"Say a kid in a [foster family] home wants to stay with friends on an overnight sleepover. That would be impossible before," Krentz said.

On Thursday, Robbin Pineda picked up a high chair at a Walmart for the 14-month-old baby in her care. Pineda, who with her husband also has three adopted children, says she thinks she has 10 years left as a foster parent.

"Everybody I talk to that says, 'Oh, how do you do that?,' we talk to them and say, 'You can do this, too. You can make this fit in your family.' "

She repeats advice that a trainer once gave her.

"You can go through everything, all the training, and still say 'no.' Or, even if you foster one child and it's not for you, that's all right," she said. "But you still helped that one child."

For information about applying to become a foster parent in Philadelphia, call 215-683-6054 or email DHS.FosteringPhilly@phila.gov.

215-854-5506

@juliaterruso