Friday, September 25, 2015

TOP STORY >> Speaker: Many ways to help foster kids

Leader staff writer

The state is in the midst of a foster care crisis, and — while the greatest need is for families to take in kids who have nowhere else to go — there are others ways to help, Michelle Hood told the Jacksonville Sertoma Club this week.

Hood is a community engagement specialist for Arkansas’ Creating Connections for Children (ARCCC) project. She’s with the state Department of Human Services’ Division of Children and Family Services.

Hood spoke at a combined meeting of the Jacksonville and North Little Rock Sertoma clubs held Wednesday afternoon at Southern Oaks Country Club in Jacksonville.

In Jacksonville, 122 kids are in the state’s care, but there are only 24 open and approved foster homes, she told them.

Foster families must pass background checks and complete 27 hours of training, but the state is working to condense that into 15 hours, Hood noted. Classes are offered during the day, at night and on weekends, but schedules vary by county.

There are 4,500 children in foster care across the site, and 628 in Pulaski County alone, she continued. The shortage in homes is widespread, i.e. there are 198 kids in the North Little Rock area but only 40 homes.

“We need to increase those (home) numbers,” Hood said.

The ARCCC project is a specialized recruitment effort to find foster families for youth ages 12 and older because they remain in the state’s care the longest and suffer from increased instability that leads to trauma, the specialist also explained.

Another goal is to have twice as many beds as kids so that there is a pool of homes to choose from, Hood said.

She then described how nearly all of the children in the foster care system experience three traumas. The first is being removed from their homes “because their parents are really all they know,” the second is being separated from their siblings, and the third is being “dropped off on the doorstep of people they don’t know.”

The No. 1 reason children enter the system in neglect cases is because their parent(s) are drug addicts, Hood added.

Aside from addressing the need for foster homes, especially those willing to spare kids a second trauma by accepting sibling groups, she pointed out people willing to help but not foster could do a number of things.

“We know that everyone is not willing to foster, (and) may not be eligible to foster,” Hood said.

Ways to help individually and as a group through a service project include:

• donating toiletries, food and other necessities because children often come into the system with nothing;

• helping offices with paperwork and other tasks;

• hosting birthdays and other celebrations for the children;

• mentoring them,

• helping transport them,

• staying with them if they require treatment at a hospital while a foster parent is at work,;

• sponsoring a family by providing for needs their foster children have,

• reaching out to people interested in fostering

• and raising awareness of the crisis.

Hood was asked what happens to kids when they turn 18 and may not be prepared to live on their own.

She said there is a transitional program that teaches life skills to those ages 14 and up, but foster children are encouraged to stay in the state’s care until they turn 21.

If they do, their college tuition is paid, they receive help with finding an apartment, and they are helped with their job search if they choose not to seek higher education, Hood explained.

A club member asked how long most children are in the system. Hood said the goal is to reunite them with their parents, but that court process typically takes a year or more.

Once a court case is settled, the child is returned or parental rights are terminated. If the latter occurs, that child can be adopted, she explained.

Another attendee asked what happens to kids who aren’t placed in foster homes. Hood said they live in group homes or emergency shelters in or outside their communities. “But children do best with families,” the specialist emphasized.

She said families can volunteer to temporarily foster children, i.e. on weekends only.

Hood said the state tries to place kids with family members, family friends, teachers or others who know them before placing them in an unfamiliar home. Workers also try to keep the children in their own communities, she said.

Hood began her presentation by saying Gov. Asa Hutchinson held a summit in August to address prison overcrowding and the foster-care crisis.

But she said she was disappointed in the turnout for the foster care discussion, especially because the prison reform talks drew a standing-room-only crowd.

“These children need a first chance,” Hood said.