An older guy with white hair brought gifts to children at the Arkansas Capitol Thursday, but his title wasn’t Santa – it was “governor.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his wife, Susan, were among those at the Old Supreme Courtroom bringing gifts for the state’s foster children. The event, Christmas in the Capitol, was organized for the second consecutive year by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View. Along with the Hutchinsons, gift givers included legislators, employees of the executive and judicial branches, employees of state agencies, and others.
Irvin manages a clinic where her husband is a doctor who provides initial physicals to children removed from their homes – a process she called “heartbreaking.” She said policymakers can use the Capitol to publicize the needs of foster children.
“They are in the custody of the state of Arkansas, so it’s our responsibility, I think, to ensure that they have a good Christmas,” she said.
The gifts will be distributed to some of the 5,200 children in foster care as well as children in lockup units in Alexander and elsewhere, Irvin said. She said she raised $500 in one day from people who said they didn’t have time to bring gifts to the event.
Lauri Currier, executive director of The CALL in Arkansas, a Christian organization that recruits foster and adoptive families, said the level of statewide awareness about the foster care issue has increased significantly in the last year and a half.
“Even though the numbers of children in foster care seem to be going up, I think now we have the attention of people who can really impact what’s happening in the child welfare system,” she said.
The number of children involved in foster care has spiked from 3,806 in 2015 to 5,209 as of Sept. 28, 2016. The primary issue is a reduction in children leaving the system. Officials have pointed to a number of factors for the increased population, including a lack of caseworkers resulting in caseloads of 28 children when the national standard is 15.
Hutchinson’s proposed budget includes funding to hire 228 staff members over three years, including 102 employees this year. That includes 60 caseworkers. Hutchinson said the state must consider a “comprehensive approach” to addressing the issue that could involve some of the recommendations of a task force on criminal justice reform. Asked if the state is too aggressive about putting kids in foster care, Hutchinson said the state doesn’t do a good enough job placing children with relatives.
Hutchinson said that when he was a child, his mother took in a foster child for a short time.
“Back then it was very unofficial, but it was a family in need, a child needed care, we brought them in, and I remember having them over at Christmas,” he said. “So my mom reaching out and helping children in need made an impression on me, but now it is personal here, it’s personal as governor just because I see the need.”