The number of children in Hennepin County waiting to be adopted has nearly quadrupled since 2009, to 339 children this year — the highest number in recent years, according to new county data.

The jump follows increases system wide. The county is on pace to end 2016 with more than 21,400 child-protection reports, double the number from 2008. The number of children placed in foster care or in other out-of-home placements is up 65 percent since 2014.

And cases involving maltreatment are up 99 percent since 2009, amounting this year to nearly 2,900 cases.

"The numbers are sobering," said Lois Nilson, the county's program manager for foster care and adoption. "I've never seen the numbers like this in my career."

County leaders say they don't know exactly why child protection numbers are rising so drastically, but they speculate that increased media attention and public awareness may have resulted in more reports of suspected child abuse or neglect.

It's also likely due to state Department of Human Services changes that have broadened the guidelines for launching a child protection investigation.

County leaders believe the numbers should decrease over time as the county shifts to a new model under a proposed $26 million three-year plan.

But the most effective way to deal with growing adoption numbers is more families willing to adopt kids, said Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy county administrator of health and human services.

"We need more families in Minnesota and specifically in Hennepin County interested in adoption," she said. "And we need to make it easier for folks."

An overloaded system

More than 100 children have been adopted so far this year in Hennepin County, including 21 from Minneapolis and the west metro suburbs who will celebrate the finalizations of their adoptions Saturday. Eric and Elizabeth Holmberg of Columbia Heights are among the 13 adoptive families.

"I don't think they're used to having a permanent family," Eric Holmberg said of the boy and girl his family is adopting. "For them, a family is something that changes every year or so."

In 2009, 94 children were available for adoption, a number that grew to 339 this year.

Of those, more than 200 children remain. The increases run parallel to a yearly rise in the number of kids whose parents' rights were terminated.

"It's just an upward trajectory in the whole system," Nilson said.

Across Minnesota, 866 children are under state guardianship — 489 of whom are in need of adoptive families immediately. (Go to www.mnadopt.org for more details.) The state's numbers trended up in 2013, but have gone down slightly since then.

Some of the Hennepin County children whose adoption will be finalized Saturday have waited for this day for up to five years. "It will be pretty emotional for our family," Holmberg said.

He and his wife and their three children will celebrate their blended family when they sign off on the adoption of a 5-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother after two years of waiting.

"They know it's a big deal," he said. "They're excited about having the same last names."

After adopting a boy from Ethiopia, the couple said they wanted to adopt again only closer to home, given the high need in the Twin Cities.

"There's nothing wrong with these kids except that they're not babies, no one is adopting them," Holmberg said. "We want to make a difference and help these kids."

Adoption case workers have noticed the trend of more older children and teens up for adoption, Nilson said. Cases are taking longer to be resolved, she said.

Hennepin County's eight adoption case workers are stretched thin, with each handling about 60 cases rather than the ideal case load of 35. That's why Nilson hopes to add four or five case workers in the next three years, part of the requested increase of nearly 250 staffers in the reform plan.

"The whole system is overloaded," she said.

'Kids deserve a life'

Damari Jordan-Onchiri, 16, is personally aware of the issue. She waited six years to be adopted.

After bouncing among seven foster care families, including two failed adoptions, the teen struggled with depression.

Then Libby Onchiri entered her life and said she was there to stay.

"To have someone who wants to be in your life is amazing," Jordan-Onchiri said. "I felt like my mom saved my life."

Taking a minute between high school classes and musical practice, she vividly recalled the day of her adoption a year ago: The hour long wait, the full courtroom of family, the judge making it official as she cried and hugged her mom.

"It was a relief I was out of foster care," she said. "Kids deserve a life ... they need someone to give them a chance. In the end, it's definitely worth it."

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