JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - You may never see their faces. Abused or neglected children taken from their parents. Parents sometimes caught up in drugs or trouble with the law.
They're placed into foster care and many are put up for adoption. They are precious children caught up in a system that's supposed to help them... But is it?
Tonight, after a month long investigation into Arkansas' adoption system, we ask the question: are we doing all we can for these kids?
Her life revolves around children. As an elementary teacher in West Memphis, and as a mother of three at home. Rachelle Mize and her husband Bryan, a full-time pastor of a Marion Church, feel blessed in life.
For several years now, they've felt led to adopt.
So when they saw this advertisement about three sisters needing a permanent home, they quickly applied.
Rachelle Mize, "You would think that if you're calling saying I'm going to open my home. I would love to give these children a place to call their own. That they would be very receptive of you calling but they're not. They're not. It's just kind of like you're bothering them."
And complaints like this are commonplace against the state's adoption system, according to the adoption coalition in Jonesboro.
Sharon Stallings, Jonesboro Adoption Coalition, "We started having people come to us telling us horrible stories about lost paperwork and being treated rudely. Being in the system for a long time. Not being able to see files for children up for adoption. So then we became concerned for the system."
Especially in light of this: In 2003, Arkansas was awarded a $2.5 million grant to find ways to promote awareness and encourage communities to get involved in helping to find permanent homes for foster children awaiting adoption.
The state promised to use part of the money for new technology like digital video cameras and training so that video clips of children could be put on the internet.
It's now 2008, the last year of the grant and there are no video clips of children on the state's adoption website. In fact, many of the photographs here haven't been updated in years.
In one photo, the girl looks to be 11 or 12 years old, but, scroll down and you find she was actually born in 1989. She could be 19 years old now and should have aged out of the system.
Part of that grant money is supposed to be used to establish adoption coalitions like the one in Jonesboro throughout the state. They're supposed to be all volunteer groups that work to recruit families and share ideas with other coalitions.
A 2007 report filed by Arkansas' Department of Children and family services says that an intranet website created by the state offers a "hub of communication between adoption coalitions."
When I asked for access to the site, the communications director for DHS Julie Munsell said it didn't exist, even though the report to the federal government said it did.
Munsell said, "The grant does not require 'a message board' for all coalitions, however funding provided by the grant has been used to support the individual needs of each coalition."
Yet, that does not change the fact that Arkansas' 2007 report shows such a intranet website was created by grant staff three years prior.
Sharon Stallings, Jonesboro Adoption Coalition, "On average in Arkansas, children stay in foster care 30 months after they have had parental rights terminated. That is what is really a travesty. These children should be placed as soon as possible in pre-adoptive homes, so they could be bonding with the people that are going to adopt them."
Sharon Stallings is one of several volunteers from the community pushing for change. A CASA volunteer, she knows that kids are the ones who suffer when adults fail to do their jobs.
Stallings, "If they need to hold people accountable, we don't care. That's not our problem. We want the children out and we want their rights to be upheld."
And one of those rights, she feels, is to get children through the system faster.
That's why the local adoption coalition has worked to get pictures taken of children and teens up adoption and then placed on billboards, in magazines and on their own adoption coalition website.
Dia Sawyer, Jonesboro Adoption Coalition, "We just struggled all year long to get the names of the children because we didn't know their names, so we couldn't ask 'are there any?' and we ran into a big confidentiality issue that has since been remedied."
Some changes are on the horizon.
Mickey Wilson, "I'm in the process of combining this the resource unit and the adoption unit."
As of February 1, Mickey Wilson was named the new manager for nine counties in Northeast Arkansas. Like many others, it's short-staffed and struggling to keep up.
Wilson, "You know the ideal caseload is 15 families working with 15 families. Currently there are some caseworkers in our area that may have 30 cases. Thirty families they're dealing with."
Wilson realizes she's inherited many problems.
She says, "We have the highest number of open case in the state. Most of it substance abuse."
She adds over 700 cases are open involving foster care, protective services and supportive services in her 9 county area. When I asked the Department of Human Services in Little Rock why our numbers were so high, they said those numbers were wrong and Wilson was mistaken.
But, I found her to be most in touch with problems in the adoption system.
Wilson, "There are probably a lot of instances where children could have been moved into adoptive placements in the past where they haven't been."
So where does that leave families like the Mizes?
On this, their second attempt at adoption, they feel smarter when it comes to the process but every bit as frustrated.
Rachelle Mize, "We want to keep them together. And if they get separated because of the process. We will be infuriated. I told my husband 'we're going to Oprah!"
Rachelle and her husband are so upset with the process that they videotaped one of the in-home consultations they had with a state caseworker.
Adoption Red Tape - Investigative Report - Part 2
Many children tonight will go to sleep not knowing if they'll be sleeping in the same bed tomorrow night. In a nine-county area of Northeast Arkansas, there are 440 children in foster care right now. Craighead county children account for 152 of those. Many of these kids will not go back to their parents...but end up being put up for adoption.
The question is: How long will it take for these children to find their "forever family?"
Three-year-old Ava-John and 2-and-a-half-year-old Vivian know they didn't come from their mother's belly. As they say. they came from her heart.
The Andersons fostered-to-adopt both girls. That means that they took the children into their home before their parental rights were terminated. Vivian arrived at their home 11-weeks-old. Ava-John ten-months-old. Early on in the process, the Andersons were given priceless advice.
"If you want to adopt, make some phone calls and show up up there and make yourself known...make it known what you're looking for," recalls Johna about advice given to her when she first inquired about adopting.
Manuevering your way around the state adoption system is not easy according to many who've been there. Take Stacy Prater and his wife, Wendy.
They filled out paperwork, turned it in and then were told the same paperwork had to be filled out again. "Even the IRS puts out a booklet to fill out your taxes. DHS doesn't do that to adopt or to foster-adopt a child," said Prater.
But all that hard work is paying off Sophia Faith. Yet paperwork appears to be an on-going problem with the state. The local Adoption Coalition logs numerous complaints about this. The state has plans to make some forms available on line to remedy the situation. They also recently restructured the adoptions unit to provide more direct oversight of adoptions.
Despite efforts by the Arkansas Department of Children and Family Services to reform the system, you have to wonder about this. An adoption specialist who name has come up time and time again as having misplaced paperwork of families wanting to adopt, is still employed here at our local office. She's still an adoption specialist, still working with families and yes, still responsible for filing paperwork.
"She's still an employee with the state," said Mickey Wilson, DCFS Area Manager for District 8. The adoption specialist seen in a photograph taken at an adoption picnic last year is Chris Kirkman. Kirkman denied an on-camera interview about the accusations made by families whose paperwork containing social security numbers went missing last year.
We did receive this statement from DHS: "Although we cannot disclose information regarding specific personnel actions, the department is actively taking corrective steps to ensure adoptive families in Area 8 receive the support they need in adopting children from state foster care."
"The number of children being placed in pre-adoptive homes has decreased greatly over the past five years," stated Sharon Stallings, a member of the Adoption Coalition in Jonesboro. In this report filed last year, it shows that the number of approved pre-adoptive homes in Arkansas has steadily gone up. But the number of children placed in such homes has not.
Stallings says the homes are available, but the children are not being placed due to disorganization. "When paperwork is not filed on-time and you show up at court, a decision can't be made," said Stallings. "The court date is set for another six months."
The state did show a spike in finalized adoptions last year: 104 and 102 as compared to 81 and 78 the previous quarters. But that's little solace for the Barr family. They're waiting for two of their childrens' adoptions to be finalized.
"With the state, there's so much red tape," said James Barr, a Jonesboro attorney seeking finalization of his two childrens' adoptions. The Barrs chose to foster to adopt 8-month-old Lilly and 21- month-old Brando.
"You could be looking at 18 months to years from when the kid comes into your house to when the adoption is final," said Barr.
And for one family... they feel time is running out. The Mizes saw this ad and started filling out what they thought was the necessary paperwork.
"It's so frustrating because we feel like we've filled everything out." said Rachelle Mize. Twice the Mizes have taken off from work for a in-home visit. One time the worker never showed... This time, Mrs. Mize decided to videotape the encounter. The caseworker gets down to business and soon tells the Mizes they've filled out the wrong paperwork.
"Well, how do I get the girls?" asks Rachelle with frustration evident in her voice. "They're out there to adopt. Do I need to move to Craighead County?"
"Go through adoptions," responds the DCFS caseworker
"But, you're telling me that I could go through that and still not..." Rachelle's voice trails off.
"No I'm telling you that if you open up as a foster home that there's no guarantee that those girls will be placed here, said the caseworker.
And this is a common ocurrance...miscommunication. Some families are told that it is faster to foster-to-adopt. The only thing is: the parental rights on these girls have been terminated... the clock is ticking for them. Chances are someone who has already filed paperwork "to adopt" will get them before the Mize's paperwork can clear the system. There are some definite problems that need to be worked out for the sake of these kids.
Also, an earlier report mentioned that the state received a 2.5 million dollar grant to promote adoptions. A DHS report says "that said an intranet website was set up by grant staff in 2004." Yet, such a site does not exist.
Since that time, DHS Communications Director Julie Munsell contacted us to say that "the grant does not require a message board for all coalitions--however funding provided by the grant has been used to support individuals needs of coalitions." Yet, that doesn't change the fact that the state reported having created such a website when it didn't do that.
Now back to the issue of adoption... there are many wonderful children, teenagers and babies awaiting adoption in the state. We don't want to discourage anyone from trying to adopt.
Rather, everyone needs to be informed as to what they will find in the process--so they can better navigate the system they'll encounter.
Email us your thoughts on the state's adoption process: email@example.com.