A place to stay

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 101 views 

Hundreds of abused or neglected children in Arkansas can’t find immediate shelter when the state steps in.

Children sleep in caseworkers’ offices when there is no room in foster homes or shelters. They are sent out of their home counties, far away from their families, because there are no places to keep them.

“There are simply not enough good, safe places to put kids,” said Stephanie Smith, regional director for the National Child Protection Training Center. “We have a huge shortage in care.”

Nearly half of the children taken into state custody in Northwest Arkansas are sent out of their home counties of Carroll, Madison, Washington and Benton counties. In Carroll County, where there are about seven foster homes, about 84 percent of children must be housed outside the county, said Ann Meythaler, coordinator for Children of Arkansas Loved for a Lifetime.

The Call, as Meythaler’s organization is called, is a provisional, nonprofit organization that works with foster families and the state to increase and maintain foster homes.

“It’s heartbreaking — just the amount of need,” Meythaler said.

Foster homes get about a dozen calls a week from officials looking for a safe place to put children, but with too few homes, most of the time, foster families must say “no.”

“The one thing that always broke my heart every single day is the number of phone calls you have to say ‘no’ to,” Meythaler explained.

The total number of children under age 5 and in foster care increased 96% between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2011, according to an Arkansas Department of Human Services report released last year. In fiscal 2011, about 4,126 children entered foster care, and the state had about 7,933 children in foster care.

A state spokesman for the agency did not immediately respond to questions.

According to the state, during the last quarter of 2011, there were 1,660 active foster homes. Meanwhile, the number of children found to be abused or neglected rose to 8,573 in fiscal 2011 from 7,831 the year before.

Most children end up going to a relative’s home, but the number of children who need care is outpacing recruitment of new foster homes. Last year, state officials recruited 531 homes, which was above the department’s goal, but during that same time, 528 homes closed, according to a state report.

In Northwest Arkansas, there are 132 foster homes for 359 children, Meythaler said. She knew of one baby in Northwest Arkansas for which no one could find a foster home.

The problem spans beyond finding foster homes, officials said.

With only about 13 shelters in the state, state officials often have trouble placing kids in emergency care.

Last year, the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter, an emergency, temporary shelter, turned away 388 children because it had no room, spokesman Greg Russell said. The shelter is at capacity 99 percent of the time, he said. Despite an expansion to 48 beds last year, the Highfill facility often can’t keep up with demand.

Neither can nonprofit organizations that provide treatment services.

At the Economic Opportunity Agency Children’s House — a day center that provides therapy and educational development for children 18 months to 5 years old — children often wait about 8 months to get in, said Brenda Zedlitz, director of children’s services for EOA of Washington County.

Including infants waiting to become old enough for the center, the Springdale center maintains a waiting list of about 100 children who need services and are waiting for other children to graduate into kindergarten. Currently, 25 children who are old enough to be kept at the center are on a waiting list, Zedlitz said.

The problems officials see while fighting child abuse aren’t new, Smith said, but it’s difficult to see whether organizations are winning that fight, she said. The public has started recognizing child abuse more and reporting it, but foster homes and state caseworkers burn out quickly. It’s not unusual to have 50 percent turnover among caseworkers who are overwhelmed by the number of cases they must handle, she said.

“We’re a long way from fixing [child abuse],” Smith said. “Everybody is working as hard as we can with the resources we have.”

Still, some efforts to provide more services are underway.

In Newton County, which has no shelter and just two foster homes, Lindsey Graham recently turned in paperwork to become a nonprofit organization and start a children’s shelter called Love Is Here.

In its report, the state said it had made progress in foster home recruitment, in part, thanks to The Call. In Northwest Arkansas, the organization is opening about 49 new foster homes.

Across town, Children’s House plans to open an infant wing to take younger children this year, spokeswoman Julie Olsen said.

Officials from shelters and service organizations said stopping child abuse won’t be easy, and the problem isn’t likely to go away soon.  Zedlitz said the state must provide treatment for entire families to actually prevent and stop child abuse — that includes teaching parents coping mechanisms to deal with their own abuse and addressing drug and alcohol addiction.

“It can’t be just build more foster homes, build more shelters — you have to address the roots of the problem,” Zedlitz said. “Until then, we need more places like Children’s House and more shelters.”