By Sydne Tursky for the Arkansas News Network
(Part 2 of 2)
The state’s foster care population ballooned to record numbers in recent years, peaking at 5,196 in February 2017. Since then, it has trended downward. As of Dec. 31, 2018, there were 4,332 Arkansas children in care. That is still on par with summer 2015, when Cecile Blucker, then the director of DCFS, characterized the foster care situation as “a crisis” in an interview with the Arkansas Times.
DCFS officials are quick to point out improvements. More foster children are living in family environments rather than group homes, and the number of children waiting to be adopted has decreased by hundreds.
Arkansas has invested significant new resources in the foster care system. Over the past two years, the DCFS budget has increased by about $23 million, funding 187 new staff positions and allowing the agency to provide raises for underpaid staff. Governor Hutchinson has proposed another $1.25 million increase for fiscal year 2020. The average caseload for caseworkers has decreased from 29 to 21 in the past year, Harper said.
“We’re really excited,” Harper said. “We’ve really been working a lot over this past year on prevention efforts and to offer more services and supports for those in-home cases that we have.” DCFS caseworkers work with foster children, but they also support and educate families who are at risk of losing their children to the state.
But the positive changes do not hide the fact that DCFS is still stretched to capacity, and the system’s strain shows most clearly in the lives of its teenage wards.
Lucy Wilson, 20, also entered the foster system when she was 17. (She agreed to speak under a pseudonym due to privacy concerns.)
“Sometimes it feels like nobody’s on your side, nobody has your back,” Wilson said. “The first day I was taken, nobody took me aside, nobody cared … The placements I’ve been to, I’ve maybe found five good people overall, people who want to help you and better you.”
Wilson was taken into foster care with three younger siblings because their biological parents were abusive. She lived in one foster home and two group homes and was eventually separated from all her siblings in care.
DCFS has made substantial improvements in keeping siblings together. In 2012, just 65 percent of foster children were placed with one of their siblings, and only 46 percent were placed with all of their siblings, according to a DCFS performance report from 2013. As of Sept. 30, 2018, over 80 percent of foster children were placed with one of their siblings, while 68 percent were placed with all of their siblings.
Yet hundreds of children are still separated from their siblings in care. Caseworkers are often unable to find foster parents who have the space or willingness to accept sibling groups, so children may be placed wherever there are available beds. There is often little effort made to reunite siblings once they are separated, according to the DCFS 2017 Progress and Services Report.
Wilson and her younger brother initially lived with a foster family with two sons adopted from foster care. The boys had behavioral issues and would often fight. The environment was hard for Wilson to handle because of the abuse she’d suffered in the past.
Wilson said she was sexually assaulted by one of the adopted boys in her foster home. She told her foster mom, but she refused to do anything about it. When Wilson told her attorney from DCFS, the foster mom kicked Wilson and her brother out in 15 minutes, saying only, “Pack your shit and get out.”
The DCFS Policy & Procedure Manual states that an investigation must be opened following any allegations of abuse against a foster child. Wilson recalls being interviewed about the assault once by someone who was not her caseworker, but she said they never followed up with her after the initial questioning.
She was sent to a Helena-West Helena group home next, without her brother. The home was technically for teens with behavioral problems; Wilson didn’t have any, but DCFS had nowhere else to put her. When she transferred schools, she lost all the honors credits she had worked so hard to attain.
On average, children in Arkansas foster care are moved about six times for every three years in care, according to the recent DCFS quarterly performance report. Teenagers are often moved even more frequently.
Carson said she works with one foster youth who has moved 20 times in the past year. When teens move so much, they often find it difficult to progress academically because course requirements and availability vary from school to school. Additionally, education records do not always follow students when they move, Carson said.
At the Helena-West Helena group home, Wilson had more trouble than just lost school credit. She had to abide by strict rules. There were limits on how much food she ate, she said, and she wasn’t allowed to participate in after-school programs. Evenings featured only dinner, chores and then hanging out alone in her room, which had alarms on the doors and windows.
Wilson’s last foster placement was at Maggie House, a family-style group home in which children of similar ages are grouped together into family units. Each family unit is headed up by a married couple who serve as the group’s foster parents and live at the facility, providing an atmosphere that more closely resembles that of a typical family.
Wilson’s experience at Maggie House was a vast improvement over her previous group home, she said. She was even able to graduate early from high school.
Once Kendra Owens (featured in Part 1 of this series on SWARK Today at link: https://swark.today/?p=6605) and Wilson turned 18, they had a choice. They could leave foster care and begin their adult lives or they could enter “extended foster care” until they were 21. That would allow them to receive money for room and board, car insurance and higher education or vocational training. Young adults in extended foster care can live with a foster family or in an independent living facility.
Owens knew she couldn’t stay, even though it meant leaving her younger sister.
“She told me later on, a few years ago, that when … I left, she couldn’t protect herself,” Owens said. Both of her younger siblings “blame me for leaving them,” she said.
But Owens was concerned her mental health issues would worsen if she stayed. “I wanted out,” she said.
Owens’ perspective isn’t unique. By the time they turn 18, many foster youths are frustrated and done with the system and everyone in it, Harper said. She acknowledged that bad experiences in the system and caseworkers who may fail to tell foster youths their options deter youths from staying.
“We have a lot of turnover among caseworkers, and some don’t even know what information to share,” Harper said. “Some [foster youth] who are hard to handle are not necessarily encouraged to stay; this is definitely not DCFS policy, but it does happen.”
Teens who enter extended care are still required to be “in compliance,” meaning they must follow DCFS rules, Carson said. They must be working, furthering their education or going through a treatment program.
Wilson chose to go to extended foster care. She had no family or other support, so staying in the state’s custody made the most sense to her. She lives at GetReal24, an independent living facility in Fort Smith designed for young adults like her.
The program provides sponsor families and mentors; while she’s had a few awkward experiences with sponsor families, GetReal24 has been a positive and supportive environment overall, she said. Besides, she spends hardly any time at home – between attending college full time and working 40 hours a week as a babysitter and Waitr delivery driver, she’s lucky to squeeze in any time with her siblings and her dog. Wilson studies organizational leadership at UA – Fort Smith and is about two years from graduation.
Wilson spends a lot of time worrying about her siblings. Her youngest sister is in a foster home in Van Buren. Her other sister is at a mental health care facility in Fort Smith, and Wilson gets to visit her once a week.
Her brother was in a home in southern Arkansas — the four-hour drive meant she almost never got to see him — but he turned 18 and moved into GetReal24 last year, so now they can celebrate holidays and even make Walmart runs together.
Both women would like to be foster parents one day. Owens says she wants to make sure other kids don’t go through what she did. Wilson is saving up every bit of money she can so that she can foster her own siblings when she turns 21 in July.
For now, they are both trying to be the best versions of themselves and overcome the trauma they experienced before and during their time in foster care.
“I need to be stable, in my own house, and I guess more healed than I am,” Owens said. “I can’t care for people that are as broken as I am. That’s just going to be a cause for disaster, because most of the time I am a walking disaster.”
Editor’s Note: The Arkansas Nonprofit News network is an independent, nonpartisan news project in Little Rock dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.