ORONO, Maine — Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and local foster parents gathered Thursday at Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine on Main Street to encourage more families to open their homes to children in need.

Over the years, Maine has seen an increase in the number of children needing placement, largely because of the drug crisis facing the state.

More than 60 percent of the children coming into protective custody are there because of parental substance abuse as a risk factor, according to state officials. In addition, more than 1,000 drug-affected babies are born every year.

“The opiate and heroin epidemic facing Maine and the rest of our nation is destroying the fabric of our families and communities,” Mayhew said.

“We have an obligation to support these children and provide them with a safe and stable home. Unfortunately, the number of children in need is far outpacing the number of families willing and able to help,” she said. “We are asking for the public to step forward and provide the care these children need.”

The department continues to invest in community prevention services to detect high-risk cases and reduce the number of children in foster care. Despite some success, additional support is needed. The Office of Child and Family Services, or OCFS, has seen the number of children under the age of 5 in state custody nearly double over the last 10 years.

In 2015, 870 children entered state custody. This year, OCFS estimates 580 foster homes will be needed to care for these children.

Fortunately, a majority of these children will be placed with relatives or families already licensed to be foster parents. However, the state will need approximately 66 new foster families to step forward to care for these children.

The biggest need is for foster parents interested in supporting family reunification efforts and caring for sibling groups of three or more, teens and children with special health needs.

There are 1,943 Maine children in foster care. Children must be placed in suitable foster homes in appropriate locations to ensure a child’s life is disrupted as little as possible. This is an integral part of OCFS’s work.

The process of applying for a foster parenting license begins with an informational meeting. These are held on a regular basis in each of OCFS’s district offices.

At the meeting, prospective foster parents learn about the typical needs of children needing a foster home. Those interested must submit an application to DHHS, provide three references, consent to a criminal background check for which there is a minimal fee, allow for a fire and safety inspection of their home and undergo a home study that identifies the strengths and needs of the applicant’s home.