Foster care system overwhelmed, children aging out
JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - In the United States, there are tens of thousands of children waiting to be adopted. In Arkansas alone, 1,414 children are waiting for a forever home, according to the charity organization Together We Rise. However, when it comes to children needing a temporary foster home, the number more than triples. In Region 8, the problem is getting worse.
At 21 years old, Chance Wilson knows what it's like to be independent, and he's known for quite some time.
"At 6 years old, I knew how to make everything in the kitchen cabinet," Chance said. "I paid a light bill once. It was great."
His story is similar to many other children who were placed in the foster care system. At a young age, instead of being a kid, he was playing parent to his four younger siblings.
Chance explained that the people who should have been raising them weren't.
"My mother was a drug addict and my stepdad was kind of violent," Chance said.
Chance said he was first placed in the foster care system at 6 years old. He spent a few years in a foster home while his parents went through counseling to overcome their issues.
"Then I got to go back home," Chance said. "But, two years later I went back."
Then his mom relapsed and he went back into the system.
"I stayed ever since til I aged out," Chance said.
During his two stints in the system, Chance said he bounced around the state. Sometimes he was lucky enough to have foster parents.
"Some foster homes, you can only stay at for a certain amount of time before you have to go to another one. I remember one year, they tried to do that and there was not a foster home for any boys in the state," Chance said.
A few times, the lack of available foster parents in the state landed him in a group home.
"As much as I like other people, when you're in a group home with 30-40 other guys, it can be stressful," Chance said.
Chance said the thing to keep in mind when it comes to foster children is that they didn't choose the situation for themselves.
"It starts with the parents," Chance said. "It's not the kid's fault. It never is. Some kids feel that way."
Mid-South Health Clinic Coordinator Gary Taber said over the years, the need for foster homes has gotten progressively worse. Most cases can be traced back to substance abuse.
"There was about a 10-year period where numbers were stable. It's only been the last 3 or 4 years that we've seen this sharp increase." Taber said.
Taber, who serves on the board of directors for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), said referrals to put a child in foster care often come from state police agencies, but not always.
"Even the schools themselves have become referral sources through the court," Taber said.
In five years, according to the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System and the Arkansas Department of Human Services, the number of children in foster care in Arkansas climbed from 3,732 to 5,178.
"With children coming into care at such an alarming rate and nowhere to go on the other side of that, it creates a lot of difficulty for our DHS offices, our case workers, and obviously for the children involved," Taber said.
Chance said during his time in foster care, he and the children he met experienced the problems that come with an overloaded system.
"Every foster kid that you talk to will say 'my case worker couldn't come talk to me because, this, this and this,'" Chance said.
When it comes to fixing the problem, Chance and Taber both explained that you can't just treat the main issue.
For example, underlying issues often lead to drug abuse and if you simply treat one facet of the problem, it will never be solved.
"I've met lots of different kids and heard lots of different stories over the years," Chance said. "A lot of it is, they'll fix the one problem and leave everything else unattended and when those problems come up, it will start to cycle again."
Taber believes everyone needs to start working together before they can start moving forward.
"Getting the court system to team up and partner with your mental health facilities, getting your mental health facilities to pool their resources so everyone has access to care," Taber said. "You don't have to wait until somebody has referred you to the foster care or the legal system. We have programs here and we also know a lot of agencies here locally that offer supportive services."
However, Taber said while treating the parent, you must also focus attention on the child, especially if there's a chance they will age out of the system.
"They haven't necessarily got any support set up to combat this problem from reoccurring for themselves as they age into adulthood," Taber said. "It's very scary to think about when you look at the generational gaps that we have at this point."
Thankfully for Chance, he's adjusted pretty well. He joined the National Guard in March and works as a security guard.
But for the thousands still in foster care and until the problem is solved, Chance asks that you give foster children just that, a chance.
"That's all you can really ask for," he said.
Taber admitted that the goal of getting agencies to work together to combat the problem is still in its infancy.
Until the problem starts to get better, there are ways you can help Arkansas foster children during a difficult time in their lives.
If you're interested in becoming a foster parent, visit Arkansas Creating Connections for Children. The website also gives information on how you can adopt or simply volunteer.
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