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Foster parents in Arkansas are as likely to be recruited by the state as by Christian organizations, according to information from the agency that oversees foster care.

Organizations such as The Call, by recruiting parents like Sarah and Brad Bradshaw of Little Rock, have been a key part of the state's efforts to manage a watershed moment in the foster care system. The system saw growth in numbers of children outpace places to take them in.

The Bradshaws first opened their home to foster children about three years ago. Sarah Bradshaw -- who said her original plan was to adopt a child -- changed course after attending a meeting by The Call.

She made the decision at a time when the number of foster children was holding steady but the number of families to take them in was in a slight decline.

But after the Bradshaws signed up, the need for more foster families hit crisis level when the population of children needing temporary homes spiked to an all-time high of more than 5,000.

At first, the Little Rock family opened its home to a foster child while leaving a spot ready for an adoptive child. Then, as the bed meant for the adoptive child sat empty, the family decided to take in a second foster child.

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That child had a sibling who was going to be placed in a different home. Expecting to be separated, the children told each other to be brave. Instead, the Bradshaws bought a bunk bed for the pair.

Now, the Bradshaws care for eight children. Five are foster children.

"I mean these kids are just like every other kid that you meet," Sarah Bradshaw said. "They're the kid at the grocery store. They're the kid sitting next to your kid in school. They're the kid sometimes sitting on the pew in your church. They're no different than any other kid and they should be afforded the same love and value and worth and care that any other child should be given."

She spoke during an interview last week at an event held by The Call at Two Rivers Bridge Park. The bridge there was lighted in blue in honor of National Foster Care Month.

The number of foster children in Arkansas began increasing at the beginning of 2015, going past 4,000. The number surged past 5,000 between July and September 2016.

The surge in foster children outpaced efforts to recruit new foster beds. In late September, there were 1,671 more foster children than spots in homes.

Since then, state data show the total number of children in the system has stabilized. The total has held between 5,100 and 5,200 children since October.

And an increasing number of foster homes have come online. There are now 1,283 more foster children than spots in homes -- a 23 percent improvement since September.

Christian organizations now recruit about half of new foster families for the state. In April, state data show the state recruited 44 foster families, The Call recruited 36 and Christians 4 Kids recruited 14.

Mischa Martin, who became head of the Division of Children and Family Services in April 2016, has praised the organizations in multiple interviews.

"It's all about wanting to serve -- not only the children -- but serve the families in the community," she said Friday. "Foster care is supposed to be a short-term intervention to reunite families."

Martin, who is in charge of the foster program, said she wants every child in a family-like setting. There are options for the state besides foster homes -- such as temporary family placement, residential treatment centers or emergency shelters.

Outside volunteer groups are a key way for the department to get closer to that goal. Martin said that setup is unusual. Many other states extensively contract with companies to recruit foster families.

State officials have increasingly emphasized partnerships with organizations such as The Call and the role they play filling a critical need.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson held a Restore Hope Summit in August 2015 aimed at engaging business and faith leaders across Arkansas in caring for children who are in the state foster care system and for individuals who are re-entering society from prison. He personally thanked The Call at the time.

Phyllis Bell, the governor's child-welfare adviser, said a new Restore Hope Summit will be held this year at Saint Mark Baptist Church in Little Rock on Sept. 7-8.

The Call is funded by donations. Martin noted that division employees raised $21,000 in donations for The Call and two similar groups, Immerse Arkansas and Project Zero, at the May 6 Walk for the Waiting last week. Walk for the Waiting, held at War Memorial Stadium, raised money for Christian groups trying to help foster children who need homes and to help those transitioning out of the system.

Another state effort is retaining foster families. Martin said she's traveled across the state to attend foster family summits and listened to problems that foster parents have.

Staff members have taken customer-service training. A comprehensive Web portal has been set up with personalized information for every parent -- such as the cellphones of caseworkers and supervisors. Martin also advocated for Act 329 of 2017 by Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, which allows foster parents greater access to information about the children they take in.

Lauri Currier, executive director of The Call, said retaining foster parents is key to helping the total number increase.

Also necessary are organizations like hers to serve as a bridge between churches -- which want to serve the needy -- and the government to recruit new foster parents.

The organization -- which is 10 years old -- now operates in 44 counties. Currier said part of the organization's pitch is highlighting the needs in local communities and what residents can do to help.

"We might not all be called to sponsor and adopt, but we're all called to do something," Currier said. She tells prospective families: "We want you to come to an information meeting and hear what you can do to impact the life of a child in foster care."

She pointed to James 1:27 as one of many passages in the Bible guiding the organization: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."

Both Martin and Currier said foster families are especially needed in and around Sebastian County. That area of the state accounts for about one out of four foster children in the state. Only one in three children in that area is placed in his home county.

Currier said children who are moved outside of their home counties have to change schools and are constantly in the car for court appearances and family visitation.

It's also a strain on caseworkers, who can spend hours driving children back and forth.

"They need to be spending more time figuring out how to transition those kids back into their families," Currier said. "They need to spend more time with their parent or parent. Since they're not in close proximity, that just makes it more difficult."

For the Bradshaws, who went to one of of The Call's meetings and became foster parents as a result, faith was key to their decision.

And it's been key to their persistence.

"Foster care is hard. It's hard. It's the hardest thing I think that we have ever done. It has challenged our parenting technique. It has challenged our marriage at times. It's challenged our relationships with our biological children," Sarah Bradshaw said.

"But the joys that come with that -- I know it's a cliche -- so outweigh the hardship when you do see kids do well and thrive and succeed and go beyond the benchmarks that otherwise they could have never passed. There's great fulfillment in that.

"I don't want to candy-coat it and make it seem like it's all frolicking in a field of daisies. It's not. But when you see families reunited and brought back together and you see the system and the state work in such a manner that it strengthens these families, it's affirmation that it can work."

A Section on 05/15/2017

Print Headline: Groups' goal: Filling foster-care shortage

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