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Big ideas for families in need

For improving the state's child welfare system.


Invest in high-ability, low-income students to close the excellence gap
By Lisa Parks

Allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates and related court documents
By Westley Ashley

Let's end child abuse
By Teresa Kramer and Chad Sievers

Pair foster families with biological families in a mentoring program
By Georgia Mjartan

Leverage Arkansas's data-gathering industry to expand the state's foster parent network
By Jordan King

Examine Arkansas's priorities regarding family preservation
By Kathryn Joyce

Devolve greater responsibility for child welfare to the local level
By Pat Page

Establish foster care resource centers
By Ozark Guidance staff

To preserve families struggling with substance abuse, develop a new type of specialty court
By Lisa Parks

Lisa Parks
  • Lisa Parks

Arkansas needs to implement family treatment courts as a part of its "specialty courts" system. Our state is doing a great job of developing drug courts and veterans treatment courts, but we must streamline a relationship between the treatment courts and the child welfare courts so that families can address substance abuse problems in a way that maintains the family structure.

Foster care is sometimes necessary. We have many, many foster families that care deeply for our children in need and are doing their very best to provide safe and loving homes. However, I believe that the most important step in reducing the burden on the foster care system is to avoid using it whenever possible. We have become desensitized to the idea that it is OK to take kids away from their families, and we must do a better job of leaving kids in their homes whenever possible.

Parental substance abuse problems are the primary reason children are removed from their homes and placed in the foster care system. Often, parental rights are terminated and the child ends up being adopted. Although child welfare statutes require that the state do its best to keep a child in his or her home and with family, they are often ignored. Instead, removal and foster care placement come first — and then, if we figure out that the child shouldn't have been removed, we try to fix it later. That is backward thinking and detrimental to many children.

With the current success rate of specialty courts in dealing with addiction, we have a golden opportunity to salvage families and to keep or return kids to their sober and drug-free parents.

Lisa Parks is an attorney with the Washington County Public Defender's Office who is currently assigned to Washington and Madison counties' drug court/veterans treatment court programs.

Allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates and related court documents
By Westley Ashley

Westley Ashley
  • Westley Ashley

In Arkansas, like many other states, an adopted person's birth certificate is amended to list his or her adoptive parents and remove his or her biological parents. Additionally, all court records and documents related to the adoption are sealed. This effectively prevents an adult adoptee in Arkansas from learning anything about his or her background not provided in documentation given to the adoptive parents when the adoption was finalized.

From a very young age, I knew I was adopted. My parents felt it was important to be honest with me about that fact, but at the same time, it was obvious. My parents are African Americans; they have darker skin tones and their hair is kinkier than my own. I am a multiracial American whose features lend to being interpreted as native to many different parts of the world: Cuba, Iran, Ecuador and even China.

After months of discussing "the search" with my mother as a teenager, I was given the only documentation she had regarding my biological parents. Arkansas law requires an agency or person involved in adoption proceedings to compile this information. My adoptive mother's records contained a narrative from my teenage biological mother explaining she was unaware she was pregnant until the last few days before she went into labor. It also explained her family's composition — one military father, one stay-at-home mom, a little sister, all Catholic and white. The only information pertaining to my biological father is extremely limited — he wore glasses, he did not smoke or do drugs and he was described as "black/Hispanic."

Growing up, I would often get lost in the mirror wondering where my brown eyes came from or whose ears also had that funny crimp in the corner. I have become comfortable with the label of "multiracial" only in recent years. My own lack of biological history has left me feeling untethered at times, and I've struggled with the concept of identity as an adult. I am uncomfortable around new people because I fear I will be asked the question I dread the most: "What are you?" This uneasiness is partly due to just how entitled strangers can feel and partly because I'm unable to answer my own questions about my origins. 

I'd suggest altering Arkansas's laws regarding the presumption of absolute secrecy in adoption, thereby granting adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates and/or court documents related to their adoption. Changes in this area of law would not only help with the adoptee's journey of identity development, but would also impact early identification and treatment of hereditary health problems. Although I cannot speak for all adoptees, I believe this to be a human rights issue.

Opponents to opening access to such records assert that it would unfairly rescind promises of anonymity made to women who surrendered children for adoption in the past. However, this misses the point; an adoptee's right to information is not a right to a relationship. Tennessee has modified its laws to provide all adult adoptees access to these original records while also providing biological parents the option to veto any contact being sought by the adult adoptee. Violation of the veto results in a misdemeanor offense.

To facilitate the same goal, Arkansas law provides two avenues for adoptees, but neither provides real opportunity for success. First, adoptees can rely on a voluntary registry that is largely unknown to the public. The state created Arkansas's Mutual Consent Voluntary Adoption Registry to allow identifying information to be shared when both the adoptee and a biological relative consented to such an act. The other option provided is the use of the court system, but the appellate courts have shown little interest in this issue.

Going the route of the courts, adult adoptees seeking access to information about their origins must meet a judicial standard that has not been clearly defined by Arkansas case law. To gain access, adoptees must show "good cause," but it is at the discretion of the court to determine what exactly "good cause" means for each case. Therefore, the adult adoptee cannot appropriately prepare to meet this shifting standard.

The two legal avenues provided to Arkansas's adoptees place a burden on them that must be overcome before they are granted access to information most individuals take for granted. Why continue to presume that all biological parents prefer secrecy regarding an adoption that occurred 18 or more years ago? Why continue to place all the administrative hurdles and burdens on the adult adoptee, who was simply a passive participant in a legal proceeding?

Westley Ashley was born and raised in Arkansas and lives in Little Rock with his wife, son and two dogs. He received a B.A. in anthropology from Texas A&M University in 2004 and a law degree from the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law in 2015. In April 2015, his paper "Reconsidering the Presumption: A Proposal to Provide Arkansas's Adult Adoptees Open Access to Their Original Birth Records" was published in the Arkansas Journal of Social Change and Public Service. 

Let's end child abuse
By Teresa Kramer and Chad Sievers

Teresa Kramer and Chad Sievers
  • Teresa Kramer and Chad Sievers

Arkansas's child abuse rate is substantially higher (14.6 per 1,000) than the national average (9.1 per 1,000). We propose to establish a Child Trauma Innovation Center in Arkansas to fundamentally change the way we develop and implement preventative policies and programs and clinical practices for children who have been abused.

It is self-evident why child abuse is unacceptable on a human level, but child maltreatment also takes a toll on larger society. It is estimated that each new case of child abuse costs the United States economy approximately $1.8 million over the course of that individual's lifetime, due to trauma's effect on physical and mental health, educational achievement, substance abuse, work performance and other quality-of-life indicators. In 2014, there were 10,370 new cases of child abuse reported in Arkansas. Each has the potential both to dramatically change one child's life and to significantly impact the overall social fabric of our state for years to come.

Changing these statistics requires working more collaboratively and creatively with industry, the arts, educational institutions, health care professionals and others. A Child Trauma Innovation Center would bring together the best minds and brightest innovators from our state and nation to disrupt the cycle of abuse that occurs generationally across racial, socioeconomic, ethnic and religious communities. We're inspired by the entrepreneurial work of the Arkansas Innovation Hub in North Little Rock and believe that same creativity can be applied to social issues such as child abuse. Indeed, there are models nationally for doing this, including the Center for Social Innovation in Massachusetts and Minnesota's Social Innovation Lab.

We want to discover answers to questions such as these: How might the business community design and implement campaigns to educate employees about child abuse and its effects? How do we encourage educational institutions, from pre-K to college, to advocate for inclusion of information about child abuse and resiliency skills into curricula, from health education to history? How can we engage communities through social media and other online networks to adopt "not-in-my-neighborhood" initiatives?

Effectively treating victims of abuse is especially crucial. We know that not all therapy is created equal and that some treatments are more effective than others. However, Medicaid and other third-party payers typically do not base their reimbursement rates to mental health providers on whether they have received training in evidence-based practices. How can we encourage mental health providers to use evidence-based mental health treatments for children who experience trauma, perhaps through enhanced reimbursement rates?

To answer such questions, the Child Trauma Innovation Center would fund novel pilot studies across the state with rigorous outcomes measurements, leading eventually to more wide-scale programs. With a proactive, innovative approach, we can derail the upward trend in child maltreatment rates and dramatically improve the health indices of Arkansas.

Teresa Kramer is a professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Psychiatric Research Institute and director of the Arkansas Building Effective Services for Trauma (ARBEST) program. Chad Sievers is the project coordinator for the ARBEST program.

Pair foster families with biological families in a mentoring program
By Georgia Mjartan

Georgia Mjartan
  • Georgia Mjartan

Foster families are sometimes referred to as resource families, since our job as foster parents is to be a resource to the child or children in our care. But what if we could be a resource not only to the children, but also to their biological parents?

Long-term foster care tends to be a painful and confusing experience for children. The goal is always to find a permanent situation, whether children are returned to their biological families or adopted into a new home. As foster parents, the question guiding all of our decisions should be, "How can I make this child's life better?" One way to do this, when appropriate, would be to mentor the child's biological family.

At present, involvement between foster parents and a child's biological family is often discouraged. When a person decides to foster or adopt through the state Division of Child and Family Services, they are given a choice of three check boxes on a form: foster care, adoption or provisional foster care (an option for family members seeking to foster a relative). There used to be a fourth option, foster-to-adopt. That choice was removed, I understand, because of concerns that foster parents hoping to adopt the children in their care were working against the goal of reunification with the biological family. I envision a wider selection of choices for engagement, including the option to be a foster-mentor family. Everyone — DCFS caseworkers, foster parents, biological parents and, most importantly, children — would benefit from a greater breadth of options available for the complex and life-changing relationships that this system brokers.

At first, foster-mentor families would look just like regular foster parents. A child or children in need of care would be placed in their home. But as the case progressed, if caseworkers, ad litem attorneys and judges deemed the biological family to be good candidates, the foster parents would be asked if they would be willing to also serve as mentors to the biological family members trying to reunify with their children. Foster families would mentor through both words and actions —modeling better, healthier child-raising strategies for biological parents.

THE MJARTANS: (from left) foster daughter London, who returned to the care of her father; Georgia, Dominik and daughter Melody in November 2014.
  • THE MJARTANS: (from left) foster daughter London, who returned to the care of her father; Georgia, Dominik and daughter Melody in November 2014.

When my husband and I took our own journey as foster parents mentoring the biological father of the little girl in our care, we learned we could be part of something beautiful and selfless. We would have loved to have adopted this child. Instead, we helped someone become a father worthy of the bright and shining star who is his daughter — not because it's what we wanted for ourselves, but because it was what was best for our child.

As executive director of Our House, I have been inspired by the life-changing power of positive, mentoring relationships. I have seen complete transformations occur in the lives of people whom society has written off. I have seen people with histories of addiction, crime and homelessness become clean, stay sober, get jobs, save money and provide for themselves and their children. Accountability is key, and DCFS currently provides that: Biological parents often are required to submit to drug tests, attend mental health counseling and take parenting classes as part of the mandated plan to get their children out of foster care. We provide these kinds of services at Our House, too, and I know their value firsthand. But I am also convinced that rules and brokered services are not enough.

I can only imagine the tremendous worry that a parent feels when his child is taken from him. What a powerful and grace-giving experience it must be for that same parent to receive love, kindness, encouragement and practical support from the same people who are serving as the temporary parents to their children. If we had a formal foster-mentoring program, maybe we could take a situation that is painful for everyone and make it a little better. We could use the resources of foster parents to help biological families become better equipped to raise their children. Most importantly, we could show the children in our care that our love for them extends to their biological families as well, thus helping to integrate and lessen the pain of a disjointed childhood.

Georgia Mjartan is the executive director of Our House.

Leverage Arkansas's data-gathering industry to expand the state's foster parent network
By Jordan King

Jordan King
  • Jordan King

Ergonomic desk chairs, towering file cabinets and manila folders brimming with paperwork don't sound like the furnishings of a child's bedroom, but for 22 foster children who bunked down in state Division of Children and Family Services offices in early 2015, it simply had to do. These makeshift accommodations were the result of a drastic foster home shortage in our state. A report on the DCFS released this summer revealed that there are only 0.66 foster beds per child in Arkansas. Efforts to ramp up recruitment of new foster families have been mixed.

The solution to this shortage may reside in the servers of Arkansas's data-gathering companies, which specialize in gathering consumer insights on an increasingly granular level. Acxiom, for instance, is able to categorize individual households into 70 demographic groups and 21 life-stage groups through its Personicx product. These kinds of tools are commonly used by marketers to offer targeted online advertisements, but they also could be used to identify and reach out to the strongest foster family candidates in each Arkansas county. This strategy would allow DCFS to focus its recruitment efforts and ultimately alleviate a shortage that currently leaves kids sleeping in office buildings.

Jordan King is a managing editor at Inuvo and a recent graduate of the Venture Center's pre-accelerator business program.

Kathryn Joyce
  • Kathryn Joyce

Examine Arkansas's priorities regarding family preservation
By Kathryn Joyce

In a year in which many big questions have been raised about Arkansas's Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) — from the story of Rep. Justin Harris rehoming his adopted daughters to the agency's ongoing foster care placement crisis — it's time to have a discussion broader than just licensing more foster homes and take a hard look at the role of family preservation.

Throughout the history of modern child welfare work, there's been an ongoing push and pull between two priorities: keeping children safe and keeping families together. Since the first widespread child placement initiative in the U.S. — the "Orphan Train" movement, which in the 1800s shipped hundreds of thousands of children from East Coast slums to families on the expanding American frontier — there's been debate about whether abused and neglected children are best served by uplifting their families or removing them from troubled situations. During the New Deal era, policy shifted from placing children in new families to providing material support to poor single mothers. Historians frequently say that child abuse was "rediscovered" in the 1960s, when a pediatrician coined the term "Battered Child Syndrome," which helped lead to the establishment of mandatory child abuse reporting laws.

But as the population of children in foster care skyrocketed over the next decade, the family preservation movement arose as a corrective, arguing that the one-size solution of removing children from dysfunctional families ignored the root cause: poverty. Family preservation advocates argue that children too often end up in foster care because their parents' lack of resources is confused with neglect; that kids, generally speaking, fare best within their own families; and that many families could solve their problems and keep their children safe if they received the right kind of help, whether financial assistance or intensive caseworker interventions.

This pendulum never really stops swinging. Today, when a high-profile tragedy like a child death occurs, family preservation advocates are sometimes blamed for seeking to keep families together at all costs. But one of the most outspoken family preservation groups, the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR), argues that many of the problems in distressed child protective services agencies are linked. When there are too many children in foster care overall, they say, there are neither enough foster homes to care for them, nor caseworkers with adequate time to identify the children who are truly in danger.

NCCPR acknowledges that some children must be removed from families that are severely abusive. In many other cases, they argue, the trauma of being placed in foster care is quantifiably worse than what children would face if they were left in their homes. NCCPR points to two large-scale studies finding that foster children fare worse on outcomes like teen pregnancy, arrests and employment instability than children who stayed in families with comparable problems. As NCCPR's executive director Richard Wexler puts it, "You're not going to recruit your way out of this problem. ... The only way to fix foster care is to have less of it."

Family preservation has never received a fair hearing in Arkansas, according to Janice Chaparro, an Arkansas native and social work professor. In 1994, Chaparro accepted a position with DCFS as its first assistant director of family preservation. At the time, the agency was still adjusting to the systemic changes proposed the year before by the settlement of Angela R. v. Bill Clinton, a classaction lawsuit that overhauled Arkansas's foster care system. Over the three years she worked with DCFS, Chaparro held trainings for agency staff, juvenile courts and other child welfare stakeholders, hoping to introduce some principles of the family preservation movement that had taken hold in other states. She took groups on study trips to Seattle and Detroit, where child protection agencies had successfully implemented family preservation models. But in Arkansas, she said, family preservation was "almost universally rejected" from the start, thanks to a DCFS culture that was wary of trusting families with decision-making.

Simply trying to keep more children with their families won't address all the challenges that DCFS is grappling with. There will always be some families that are too abusive or unfit to safely care for their children. And the mixed evidence regarding the effectiveness of intensive family preservation services suggests that's not the solution for all families. But the larger questions of the movement — whether simply increasing the number of foster homes or caseworkers will solve DCFS's problem absent a deeper look at why so many children are coming into care, and whether removing them from their families is the best way to help — bear more consideration.

Kathryn Joyce is a journalist in New York City whose work has appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, the Atlantic, the New York Times, Slate and elsewhere. In 2015, she began covering Arkansas's child welfare system for the Arkansas Times. She is the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

Devolve greater responsibility for child welfare to the local level
Pat Page
  • Pat Page

By Pat Page

It is time to formally place more responsibility and accountability at the local level for services to neglected and abused children and their families, and those at risk of abuse and neglect.

I served as director of the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services from 2006 to 2008, so I know there are many good people involved in the statewide system, both inside DCFS (e.g., workers, supervisors, administrators) and outside the agency (e.g., advocates, legislators and other state leaders). But the system has never been as good as it needs to be. I don't think it will be until communities and neighborhoods reassume some ownership of the problem and the solution.

Why is it so hard to have an excellent child welfare system? Part of it has to do with the nature of child welfare, which must strike a balance between the protection of children and the rights of parents. This is not easy on any level — executive, legislative, administrative or on the front lines of caseworkers in the field. Another part of the "why" is the fact that families and communities have changed over the past few decades. Our society has transitioned from smaller towns and neighborhoods with a more stable sense of community to larger, more transient, impersonal cities and neighborhoods in which people often do not know each other or feel any obligation to help or support one another.

At one time, communities — particularly the faith community — assumed greater responsibility for child welfare. But with the identification of child abuse as a major social problem, federal and state authorities became more involved. Local communities and counties often were happy to let "the state" assume ownership of the problem. Yet as communities have relinquished responsibility, we have seen more instances of child abuse, more children entering foster care and more children aging out of the system without a family (and therefore more likely to end up in prison, homeless, addicted to drugs and so on).

Of course, there are still many people at the local level who invest much time, energy and passion in child welfare, from foster parents themselves to Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers. Some parts of Arkansas have local child death review committees and multidisciplinary teams that coordinate responses to child abuse. Since 2008, the Christian community has become more involved in foster and adoptive parent recruitment, training and support through The CALL (Children of Arkansas Loved for a Lifetime).

It is time to formalize local community involvement. We need to give people concrete ways to get involved, easy-to-use data and appropriate training. We need to let them determine local solutions — by county or by community or by neighborhood. We should let communities determine how best to prevent child abuse locally, how best to recruit foster and adoptive parents, and how best to support and partner with families involved in the system or at risk of involvement.

At the state level, we need better mechanisms to listen to families and local partners. State legislators and administrators should structure services based on formalized input and feedback from involved constituents. Higher education (such as schools of social work) should also be involved, including in evaluation of different approaches. What works best for different types of families? A Center for Excellence in Child Welfare Practice could be developed involving DCFS, higher education and the local entities involved in serving children and families.

After spending 35 years of my career in child welfare, I have the utmost respect for professionals in this field. I believe, however, that they do not and should not have the sole responsibility for these children and families, and that they can never do it all by themselves. I believe we need more funding for child welfare services, but more tax dollars will not solve the problem in itself.

People must say, "Wait — these are OUR children, OUR families. They deserve better services than they are getting. They deserve protection and help and support. As taxpayers and citizens of the state, we demand better services for our money. But we are not content to just demand more from the state agency — we want to be part of the solution. We are willing to put our time and resources and energy into helping serve these children and families. We will hold the state agency AND our community accountable for what happens to them."

Pat Page worked in child welfare for 35 years, serving as director of the Division of Children and Family Services from 2006 to 2008.  She serves on the state board of The CALL and served on the planning committee for Gov. Asa Hutchinson's Restore Hope Summit, which aimed to involve the faith community in increased foster parent recruitment and prison re-entry programs.

Establish foster care resource centers
By Ozark Guidance staff

Recently, the governor and the faith-based community have taken positive steps to improve outcomes for foster youth in Arkansas. Yet the system remains in crisis. Not only do we need more foster homes in our state, we also need more community support to assist with the overwhelming burdens that can prevent potential foster families from signing up or cause existing families to burn out within a few years or less. Many business and industry groups are willing to help, but communities need a central liaison or agency to coordinate such efforts.

Our vision is the creation of a neutral place, a center, perhaps ran by a nonprofit friends or advocates group, where all of the players in the community would be able to collaborate for the benefit of our foster children. This center would serve as a resource for foster parents and kids and would create a space for public agencies, nonprofits, health providers, businesses and others to organize a coordinated plan to address specific problems.

The foster care resource center would provide training and support to businesses or individuals offering assistance. Local businesses would partner with the center to offer items foster parents and children need, or discounts for services from auto mechanic work to child care to club memberships. The center might challenge businesses, churches and civic organizations to sponsor children and families throughout their foster care experience.

Additional supports provided through local foster care resource programs could potentially improve recruitment and retention of foster parents. This would also reduce the number of times a child moves from one foster home to another. (We know that the average foster child changes homes six times while in the system; some are moved from home to home even more often.) By working together, communities can make foster parenting a much more manageable lifestyle, therefore allowing more foster youth to experience the stability of staying within their foster home, their schools and their communities.

Ozark Guidance is a private nonprofit mental health center in Northwest Arkansas.

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