The state suffers a severe shortage of foster parents everywhere but Northwest Arkansas, a recent study showed. Having just enough, however, doesn't guarantee a home for all the children who need one.
"You have to ask yourself every time, 'Is this a good fit?'" said Jeddi Thompson, interim manager for the state Division of Children and Family Services in Northwest Arkansas. "Not every family is trained to handle a special needs child. Not every family would be appropriate to take in someone who would suddenly be the oldest boy in the family. Not every child is going to do well in every home, and not every family is going to do well with any child." Having "enough" beds is no guarantee you will have enough of whatever kind you need that day, she said.
Arkansas had two foster home beds for every three children who needed them July 1, according to a recent review of the state by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group of Montgomery, Ala.
The Family Services Division divides the state into 10 areas. Thompson oversees area 1, which consists of Benton, Washington, Carroll and Madison counties. Area 1 had 1.01 beds per child for its 417 foster children on July 1. The next closest area has 0.86 beds per child in need. Four of the 10 areas do not come up to the state average of two beds for every three.
The most severe shortage suffered by the Family Services Division is in caseworkers, according to the Alabama group's study. The state had an average of 29 foster children per caseworker overseeing them, almost twice the national average of 15. Gov. Asa Hutchinson promised immediate action on that issue, at an estimated cost of $8 million and plans for more if the Legislature approves.
The shortage of foster parents compounds the division's problems, the study found. The already overworked staff members "spend an inordinate amount of time driving children to distant placements, visiting them and in some cases, taking them to visits with family members."
The study found Northwest Arkansas lagged in the number of investigations of child abuse and neglect that were thoroughly completed to state standards. This was mainly because caseworkers in the region have an even higher caseload than the Arkansas average, according to Kate Luck.
Luck is spokeswoman for the state Human Services Department, which oversees Family Services. For the same reason, the number of in-home visits by caseworkers in this area trails the state average, she said.
TOO MUCH MIGHT BE ENOUGH
The need to match a foster child with a suitable family is the leading reason 41.2 percent of foster children from Northwest Arkansas didn't go to a foster home in the same county, Thompson said.
Another factor is the nature of this community. Moving from Rogers in Benton County to Springdale in Washington County, for instance, isn't as disruptive to a child as a move to more distantly separated communities within a county.
"I'm changing someone's life every time we place a foster child," Thompson said. "Not just the life of the child is changed, but the lives of the people taking that child in -- that family including their children."
"I hated summer as a foster program supervisor," Thompson said. "Kids are out of school and people take vacations. And foster parents have a right to go on vacation. You want them to go and take their foster kids with them. You want that family and those kids to have that, and you don't what your foster families to burn out. But those are the days when you're likely to have a child spend the night in the office because there's no one to take him in."
Foster parents are volunteers. Their reimbursements are only meant to cover expenses. Asked why this region is more successful than others in finding people willing to do that, Thompson replied: "The Call."
Laura Kellams, regional director for the nonprofit Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, also brought up "The Call" when asked the same question. Paul Vincent, director of the Child Welfare Policy Group, also mentioned "The Call" as "very successful in the areas where it operates" in a telephone interview from Montgomery.
ANSWERING THE CALL
"The Call" is a nonprofit, faith-based organization started in central Arkansas in 2007. Its goal is to get churches and all the Christian faithful involved in helping foster children -- directly and indirectly by helping families who provide foster care. It has affiliates in 34 Arkansas counties and plans to expand into two more by the end of the year.
"Northwest Arkansas doesn't do that much better than the other parts of the state in recruiting foster families. The difference is retention," said Ann Meythaler, Benton County coordinator for The Call. The Meythaler family took in their first foster children in 2008, she said.
"We felt very alone. There wasn't anyone to tell us what it's like the first time you take a kid to court, or anything like that. I started looking for something like that and found The Call."
"It is unbelievable how much difference it makes when a local church hosts a 'Foster Parents Night Out' just so foster parents can have a date night," Meythaler said.
Foster parents face restrictions on, for instance, who they can leave foster children with. Just finding a babysitter can be a daunting challenge, she said. Being able to meet and talk to other foster parents who've successfully managed the same challenges is invaluable, but so is being able to call on others for more day-to-day help, she said.
Lauri Currier, state director of The Call, agreed providing a support network for foster parents is as much the group's mission as finding more foster parents.
"Sometimes a foster parent just needs somebody to mow the lawn," she said.
"The best example I can give of the importance of the support group happened in Baxter County," Currier said. "We had a foster child whose natural family was ready to bring him back home. They were ready, but the house wasn't. It had some wiring problem and state inspectors couldn't allow the child to go back. Well, the local congregation included some electricians. They got the problem fixed.
"To be a foster parent is a hard thing to ask. We know that," Currier said. But anyone can play a supporting role, she said. "We are not all called to foster or adopt, but we are all called to care."
Kellams said one of the most valuable services The Call provides in Northwest Arkansas is training for foster parents on Saturdays and Sundays. This training takes days, and most state offices that offer it are only open on weekdays, making such training difficult to get to. The Call provides space for the training on days when most prospective foster parents are able to attend.
OTHER FACTORS IN NWA
Northwest Arkansas offers more services than most of the rest of Arkansas, such as mental health counselling and advice, said Courtney Palfreeman of Springdale. She met her adopted son, Chris, when he was a foster child with another family. Services such these are vital to foster parents, she said.
"Nothing you've ever done prepares you for the day you have to go to court with a child to have his birth mother's paternal rights severed," Palfreeman said. She read the report by the Child Welfare group and said its call for more mental health services around the state was spot-on.
"At some point, you are going to wake up and go, 'Oh my God, what have I done to my family?'" Palfreeman said of taking in a foster child. "You're going to need to talk to someone who's seen this sort of situation before, because you never have."
The Palfreemans have three other children, all born into the household.
Foster children would still be home if they weren't abused and neglected there, Palfreeman said. That gives those children concerns that should be addressed in appropriate ways, ways most parents aren't familiar with. There are anxieties that can only be soothed if you know how, she said.
"Every night at first, Chris would ask me what was going to be for breakfast," she said. "I'd tell him whatever he wanted, but he'd want to know before he went to sleep. When I asked someone about it, I realized that he grew up in a house where he had a good chance of not having any breakfast the next morning. It reassured him to know what it was going to be."
In foster cases, siblings can be scattered far and wide. Chris has five biological siblings, and the family maintains touch with all of them, Palfreeman said. The Palfreemans are glad to do it, but it requires some travel, she said.
It's true that the greater availability of all types of health-related services and family-oriented activities in Northwest Arkansas is an advantage, Thompson said. It makes foster parenting easier.
Another factor is the constant in-migration of younger families of child-rearing age to the economically thriving region, she said. That influx also helps diversify the families in the region. That makes finding a variety of different homes for children with different needs much easier than in some parts of the state, she said.
Piney Ridge treatment center in Fayetteville and other residential programs for youth is something most other parts of the state don't have, either.
One area in which the concentrated population here is a disadvantage is in the number of caseworkers per foster child, state figures show. The average caseworker in Washington County oversaw 33 children as of March 31, state records show. This compares to an average of 29 statewide -- an average called much too high by the policy group study. The national average is 15.
Hutchinson commissioned the Alabama group's study after news reports Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, had sent two foster children he adopted to live with an employee at his day care center, Eric Cameron Francis of Bella Vista. Francis sexually abused the older girl and later pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual assault. He is now serving a 40-year prison sentence.
Thompson, Kellams and Vincent, who authored the study, all agreed the single step that would do the most to relieve the foster parent shortage would be to make it easier for relatives of children in need to become foster parents. Training and monitoring would be required, but the definition of "relative" should include responsible adults who have formed close bonds with a child in need, they said.
Arkansas' rate of allowing relatives to care for their child kin is very low, the study found.
"There are some reasons why that's so that are complex," Vincent said. "There are other reasons that are not complex that, frankly, I don't understand why they're still a problem."
Hutchinson will host a faith-based summit Aug. 25-26 at the Little Rock Marriott in downtown. The gathering of religious leaders from around the state will address both foster care issues and attempts to provide opportunities to adults with criminal records to reduce the prison population.
NW News on 08/23/2015
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