What would you do if a stranger walked into your home, handed you a trash bag, told you to gather a few precious belongings, and then took you away? Would you be terrified? Angry? Confused?
Imagine this happening to thousands of children in our area – an infant, a child, a teenager. Today there are more than 570 children waiting to be adopted in Sebastian and Crawford County, and there are less than 100 homes that are open to care for these children.
I was invited to attend the Second Annual Journey Home Awareness Event this morning, hosted by The CALL of Crawford/Sebastian Counties. During the Journey Home event, members of The CALL led us down the long road that children take through foster care.
While we could never truly experience the fear and frustration that thousands of children in Arkansas endure every year, we were able to partially see the journey through a child’s eyes. When I asked The CALL’s County Coordinator, Meg Scott, where we were headed, she just shook her head and replied, “I can’t tell you that. The children never know where they are headed next either; they are anxious and confused, and they’ve just had their world ripped apart.”
Similar to last year’s tour, we began our journey at a Fort Smith motel. As we all shuffled in, the stench immediately overcame us. There were roaches, fleas, dirt, and dog food on the mattress. The floors were stained with animal feces and littered with dog food as well, and the bathroom was covered in human feces, mold, hair, and more dirt.
A Fort Smith Deputy informed the group that this is the kind of environments these children are often pulled from. Seeing that room, and knowing that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds more just like it (or worse) was quite a rude awakening, but the worst had yet to come.
Our next stop was at the Children’s Emergency Shelter. We were greeted with smiles from the staff and stepped into a warm, loving environment – quite the contrast from what we had just seen.
The Children’s Emergency Shelter is a safe place for children ages 6-17 who have been removed from their home. At the shelter, they have clean clothes, food, and fun activities to participate in. Though the children typically only stay for up to 45 days, the staff tries extremely hard to give them the attention, care, and emotional support that they need during this difficult time. After the children leave the shelter, they are sent to foster homes, long-term shelters, behavioral health facilities, or extended familial homes.
The courthouse was our next destination, where we learned how the “system” works and what happens during a case. Parents are given approximately one year to rectify their living situation, with requirements such as parenting classes, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, full-time employment, stable housing, and more. These requirements are often difficult for parents to meet, and they are usually overwhelmed with the amount of information given to them – this is where CASA steps in.
CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteers are appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children, to make sure they don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. They meet with the parents and help them understand the requirements that need to be met for the courts, and they visit the child frequently to make sure the child’s needs are met. CASA is always in need of volunteers, as there are over 500 cases in Sebastian/Crawford Counties to handle with just over 50 volunteers to help.
Our last stop was at STEPS, Inc. STEPS provides families with the resources they need to raise children in a non-violent, healthy, and positive environment. A large part of what STEPS provides is a place for families to visit their children that have been placed in foster care. Children in foster care are given visits with their families weekly and were having to meet in DHS hallways and file rooms with no toys to play with or chairs to sit on, prior to STEPS being founded in 2009. STEPS’ first initiative was to provide space for
visitations to take place in safe, child-friendly, and nurturing environments.
As I listened to Susan Hooks, founder of STEPS, talk about how all she wanted was a safe place for these children, I realized I wasn’t the only person in the room wiping the tears from my eyes. One of the foster parents spoke next, and she explained what a joy it was to have and help children in her home.
The passion and dedication behind these organizations, the many people behind-the-scenes who have devoted their lives to making these children’s lives better, and the foster parents who have opened their homes have all made a huge difference in our area – but it’s not enough. They all need help, and they are urging you to give up some of your time and/or money to help the cause.
Clicking on the links below will take you to the organizations’ websites, where you will find information on how to help.
It’s not their fault – every day, 12 children will be taken from their home and placed in foster care due to abuse or neglect. There are not enough homes available to take in these children. Answer the CALL and open your home.