“Not everyone can be a foster parent, but everyone can help a foster child.”
Fort Smith citizen Susan Hooks shares these words from the office of Safety Training Education Prevention Services (or STEPS, Inc.) on Garrison Avenue. She and husband Mark co-founded the organization in 2010.
Hooks and STEPS are part of a growing movement in the Fort Smith region to address the issues facing abused or neglected children in the Sebastian County foster care system.
In April, “Step Up, Speak Out: A Rally to End Child Abuse” was held on the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) campus.
Participants, such as Father John Maxwell, manager of pastoral services at St. Edward Mercy Medical Center, encouraged community involvement with foster care as a way to help children cope with abuse and the added pressures of a rough home life.
The Hooks, though not foster parents themselves, had already found a way to help.
Using resources from Hooks & Associates Automated Test Systems, their family business, as well as community donations, they created STEPS, a non-profit organization designed to enhance family visitations; provide parenting, life and job skill classes to at-risk parents; and assist the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) in-kind with storage and other services.
Hooks has volunteered her time for more than a decade to DCFS and the foster care system, but has only operated the STEPS facility for the last two years.
On what led her and Mark to start the organization, Hooks said, “We asked ourselves, what can we do to help? From there, we learned children do better when they regularly visit with their family.”
DCFS numbers show between 550 and 600 children in the Sebastian County foster care system at any time. Of those, approximately 67% are transported to other counties, some to Little Rock and beyond, due to available home shortages.
“They just go from emergency shelter to foster home to foster home, which is emotionally damaging to them. It leads to behavioral issues because there’s no sense of security,” Hooks said.
Once per week, these children are transported to Sebastian County for a “one-to-two-hour visit” before going back to their out-of-county foster homes.
“It’s exhausting for the children,” Hooks said, adding that some reside “in counties past Little Rock, a one-to-two-hour drive, one-way.”
IMPROVING THE VISITS
Several weeks ago, STEPS began assisting in supervised visitations at its 6,000-square foot facility. The move makes the organization the only location in Fort Smith to help DCFS manage its caseload of more than 300 weekly visits between children in foster care and their parents.
Hooks said she became motivated to participate in supervised visitations after visiting DCFS offices and discovering “only two visitation rooms.”
Hooks continued: “The state those rooms were in haunted me. There was nothing on the walls. No toys, books, or puzzles. The furniture was torn and dirty. So that’s where we started.”
From there, Hooks added, STEPS helped DCFS revitalize agency visitation rooms, so “it wasn’t just families staring at the walls.”
Hooks refers to STEPS’ move into supervised visits as its “grand opening.”
The organization hosts “between 15 and 20 visits per week” in five rooms, which are furnished with toys, games, books and puzzles.
Painted wall murals and colorful pinups reflect the personalities of each age, from Noah’s Ark depictions for small children to snowboarders for the older crowd.
“The whole family needs help,” said Hooks, who added, “giving them a place to visit in a safe environment” is the goal of STEPS.
In addition to the family business and community donations, STEPS is funded through the Purple Patch Thrift Store on Towson Avenue, which takes “donations of everything,” according to Hooks.
“If we have a family in need of a bed or a sofa, we do what we can to give that to them,” Hooks said, noting the Purple Patch also takes clothes, toys, “anything a family might need.” One hundred percent of sales from Purple Patch, which operates from a rent-free storefront owned by the Hooks, goes to funding the organization.
Private monetary donations are accepted directly or through the STEPS website. Hooks notes that “funding is always a concern” and “the only other supervised visitation program was in Bentonville, which closed recently due to lack of funding.”
STEPS will need more resources to move beyond the 15-20-visit weekly schedule. The site, according to Hooks, is designed for eight hours of operation, six days per week. Each visit lasts “between one and two hours.”
Using conservative numbers, STEPS could conceivably run 120 visits per week, greatly assisting DCFS in its caseload and, according to Hooks, “working toward the reunification and strengthening of the family.”
“Reunification is always the goal. We’ve found children love their parents unconditionally. They just want Mom and Dad to behave and not be angry and enjoy spending time with them. And what we’ve found so far is parents are grateful to see their children in a safe and dignified environment,” Hooks said.