The best Christ­mas ever

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - STEVE BRAWNER Steve Brawner is a syn­di­cated colum­nist in Arkansas and for­mer manag­ing ed­i­tor of The Sa­line Courier. Email him at brawn­er­[email protected] Fol­low him on Twit­ter @steve­brawner.

It’s Dec. 10, and a gray­haired man in a red hat and a suit – a busi­ness one – is help­ing de­liver gifts at the State Capi­tol.

That would be Gov. Asa Hutchin­son, who briefly donned a Santa hat at the an­nual Christ­mas at the Capi­tol event, where leg­is­la­tors, lob­by­ists and others con­nected to state gov­ern­ment bring gifts for foster kids around the state.

The event, cre­ated five years ago by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-moun­tain View, brought sev­eral foster kids who are el­i­gi­ble for adop­tion to the Capi­tol. One lit­tle girl ex­cit­edly de­clared it the “best Christ­mas ever.”

Also present was Mischa Martin, di­rec­tor of the Di­vi­sion of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices, the agency in charge of foster chil­dren.

Ear­lier this year, the di­vi­sion re­leased a re­port, “Fam­ily First Fits Us.” It de­tails some of its suc­cesses since 2016, when the sys­tem was be­set with too many kids served by not enough case­work­ers. Its re­port that year was ti­tled “Mov­ing Be­yond Cri­sis,” which is what it has done.

•The num­ber of foster chil­dren has fallen from 5,196 in late 2016 to 4,270 the day of the Christ­mas party.

•The per­cent­age of chil­dren placed in fam­ily-like set­tings, which re­search has shown is bet­ter for them than group homes, has in­creased from 77.6% to

86.9%. That’s thanks to the work of Martin’s di­vi­sion and or­ga­ni­za­tions like The CALL, a Chris­tian­based group that re­cruits and trains foster and adop­tive par­ents.

•The caseload per fam­ily ser­vice worker has dropped from 28 to 19. Over the past two-and-a-half years, the agency has been bud­geted 187 new po­si­tions.

The foster care sys­tem may be the hard­est role state gov­ern­ment plays. Martin’s agency must de­cide when to sep­a­rate chil­dren from their fam­i­lies due to abuse, ne­glect and/or parental drug use. Then it must find a safe place for those kids to stay. Then it must try to re­ha­bil­i­tate the par­ents. Then it must de­cide if and when the bi­o­log­i­cal home is safe for the chil­dren to re­turn. Then it must mon­i­tor that home and, if nec­es­sary, re­move the kids again and find an adop­tive home.

For Martin, it can be a con­sum­ing job, but she said she is as pas­sion­ate today as she was when she be­came Di­vi­sion of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices di­rec­tor four years ago af­ter serv­ing as a DCFS at­tor­ney seven years pre­vi­ously.

“Ev­ery kid still mat­ters to me,” she said. “Ev­ery, ev­ery kid. I just, the thing is I feel called to do this work, and that call­ing is re­ally strong, and if that ever goes away, it’s time for me to move on.”

My in­ter­view with Martin was more like a con­ver­sa­tion, be­cause I’m not ob­jec­tive about this sub­ject. About this time last year, we had three beau­ti­ful sis­ters un­der three years old in our home for about 10 days on two dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions. On Dec. 20, we gath­ered around the Christ­mas tree with them and opened gifts. We ended up rais­ing two of them in our home for three months from March un­til June. The baby was the sweet­est lit­tle thing, but when she was hun­gry, she would let the world know.

Even­tu­ally they were re­turned to their bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents – who were not pre­pared to take them back. The chil­dren have since been re­moved again and sep­a­rated into two other foster homes. We think about them and pray for them a lot.

They and the state’s 4,300 other foster chil­dren are de­pen­dent on Martin’s agency. While it has moved be­yond cri­sis, it’s not a per­fect sys­tem. Kids get bounced around and some­times age out of foster care with­out a sta­ble fam­ily. For them, the road ahead is of­ten hard.

But when the sys­tem works, a child gets a per­ma­nent home and a for­ever fam­ily – a new one or their old one, once it’s able to ful­fill its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and pur­pose. They get a bed they can call their own. They get broth­ers and sis­ters. They can stay in the same school and keep their same friends. They get a much bet­ter start on their fu­ture.

I hope this hap­pens soon for those three lit­tle girls who gath­ered around our tree last year. I hope it hap­pens for the lit­tle girl get­ting gifts at the Capi­tol Dec.

10.

In fact, I wish it would hap­pen for all of them this week. For them, it re­ally would be the best Christ­mas ever.

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