When Ashley and John Herring of Heber Springs, Ark., decided to become foster parents in 2009, they were told there were just four foster homes in Cleburne County. Children taken into state custody in this rural county in the Ozark foothills were often sent to homes or short-term placements in other communities, sometimes hours away.
For kids, being abruptly separated from school and other community supports only compounded the inherent trauma of family removal. For overburdened staff at the local office of the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS), out-of-county placements entailed lost time and bureaucratic headaches.
Yet DCFS workers had little choice: There simply weren’t enough placement options in Cleburne County (population 25,970) to keep up with the number of children coming into care.
Today, the county has 23 open foster homes, a five-fold increase since 2009.
“On average, in our county right now, there are about 33 kids in care,” Ashley Herring said. “I have three right now, and some other families will have three, so we meet our need. We don’t get ahead, [but] we haven’t been in a situation in a while where we’ve just been terribly behind, and have to send, send, send out of county … We would get very upset if a kid has to leave our county.”
The vast majority of Cleburne’s new foster homes have been recruited into Arkansas’ network not by a statewide campaign, but by The CALL, a Christian nonprofit that takes no state funding.
The CALL moved into Cleburne County in 2009, and has expanded its operation across the state since. Herring, who is a nurse, and her husband, a family practice doctor, have opened their home to 42 foster children over the past six years. In addition to the couple’s five biological children, they have adopted one former foster child and are in the process of adopting two more. Herring now serves as The CALL’s volunteer county coordinator.
The organization recruits potential foster parents, trains them, guides them through the state’s certification process and provides ongoing assistance once the kids begin arriving. It has become the source of 40 percent of all foster homes in Arkansas, according to DCFS, and “CALL families” have also adopted hundreds of children in the DCFS system.
All of this is done without any public money — state, federal or local. The CALL’s $1.7 million budget comes from individual donations, churches, businesses, foundations and other private sources.
That also gives The CALL greater operational freedom than most child welfare providers. It means the faith-based organization is allowed to limit its recruitment and training only to those Christian households that meet its criteria. The CALL does not work with cohabiting couples, same-sex couples or couples who follow other faiths or who are nonreligious, instead referring such families to DCFS directly.
“We really don’t have any families in our county who are not CALL families, because even if they went through the state [training process] for some other reason, they end up just being a part of us and supporting and being supported by us — as long as, you know, they agree with the Apostle’s Creed,” Herring said.
National advocates have expressed concern that LGBT youth may face bias and discrimination within state foster care systems. Ellen Kahn, the director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Children, Youth & Families Program, indicated by email that she was not familiar with The CALL specifically.
However, she wrote, “based on what is publicly known about The CALL, we would certainly have concerns about whether their families are safe placements for LGBTQ youth.”
Making The CALL
The CALL was founded in 2007 by a group of church leaders and child advocates in Pulaski County, which is home to the state’s capital and most populous city, Little Rock. It now operates in 44 of Arkansas’ 75 counties, with an additional 10 county outposts planned for 2018.
DCFS needs the help: It has seen a record surge in the past two years, with 5,079 children in care as of early November. That’s down slightly from a high of 5,200 last year but still represents a 38 percent increase since 2012.
In a 2016 report, DCFS itself bluntly stated that “the system is in crisis,” an assessment echoed by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who has pushed for more aggressive foster parent recruitment.
Hornby Zeller Associates, an outside contractor hired by the state to assess its foster care surge, found in 2016 that the state might be removing more kids than necessary. “The increase in foster care is due largely to two factors: DCFS removing more children [from their homes] immediately upon investigation and the courts ordering removals against the recommendations of the agency,” the consultant firm stated in its report.
Whatever the cause of the increase, DCFS has come to consider The CALL an indispensable partner. In 2008, DCFS Deputy Director Beki Dunagan was working as a supervisor in Lonoke County, the second site The CALL targeted after its founding.
“Being in the field, in the weeds, I know what it is like,” Dunagan said. “You remove children, and sometimes you might be in that office for seven hours trying to find a placement. Then you might end up with that child in an emergency shelter or a placement just for the night, and you start all over the next day.”
After The CALL took off, she said, “it was like day and night. … Within an hour, we’d have children placed.” When Lonoke County DCFS told the upstart nonprofit that it needed help providing snacks to kids visiting their parents after school at the DCFS office, The CALL mustered resources to do just that. “I can’t even articulate to you the support I felt in Lonoke,” Dunagan said.
Lauri Currier began working with the original Pulaski County chapter in 2008. In 2011, the growing number of county affiliates were organized into a statewide, 501(c)3 nonprofit at the behest of DCFS, and Currier was hired as its executive director.
DCFS wanted The CALL to include “a central hub to create best practices, to do training … so there was consistency in how we were operating at the local level,” she said.
Currier, who has been a teacher, a marketing director and a small business owner, said she was drawn to The CALL after “a self-discovery Bible study” led her to conclude her life’s purpose was to “positively affect the lives of the fatherless.” Currier’s own family history played a role: When she was an 18-year-old college freshman, her father revealed to her that he was adopted.
“My dad was brought into foster care in 1939, with four siblings,” she said. “He had a younger sister and three older brothers, and they got split up and never got back together until much later in their lives, when they were in their 40s and 50s. There was such a stigma about adoption that my grandmother’s wish — my father’s adoptive mother — was that he not tell anyone until after she passed. … That is why I do the work that I do.”
Between Church and State
Currier said the key to The CALL’s recruitment success is building relationships within each church it works with. The group partners with about 700 of the estimated 5,000 churches in the state, Currier said.
“We identify generally someone in that church who is a layperson — somebody that’s passionate about kids in foster care,” she said. “Maybe it’s a foster parent or adoptive parent or someone who was a foster child when they were young. We train that person to kind of be our representative in the church.”
The representative will then connect any member of the congregation who expresses an interest in foster care to The CALL.
Recruitment is only the first step. The foster care certification process “can be very daunting in that there a lot of requirements, a lot of hoops you’re having to jump through,” Currier said. “We’re walking alongside [the family] and helping them stay on track.” At the same time, “we want to make sure that we’re appropriately vetting families, and we do that according to what DCFS’ standards are.”
Potential foster parents in Arkansas have often complained of lost paperwork and endless delays, so The CALL’s assistance can make a major difference. In 2015, a review of DCFS commissioned by the governor and conducted by consultant Paul Vincent of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group found the overstretched agency was having trouble moving new foster parents through the certification process.
“Difficulty in securing staff and other barriers … resulted in a large backlog of prospective foster parent inquires, applications and background clearances that the system couldn’t respond to in a timely manner,” Vincent wrote at the time. (DCFS said later that it resolved the backlog issues.)
Ashley Herring, in Cleburne County, said local DCFS employees were dedicated and diligent — and also “the most overworked people I’ve ever seen.” That’s why Herring maintains her own tracking system to keep up with potential foster families as they move through the process.
Herring said her local DCFS resource worker told her she manages 83 cases spread over four counties. (Resource workers are responsible for opening and closing foster homes; they are distinct from caseworkers, who manage individual child welfare cases.)
“If I only counted on her to walk my families through, you can imagine which files would be on the bottom,” Herring said. “I go meet with her once a month. We sit down together and I say ‘This family, right there — where are they? Have they had their fingerprints? Have they done this, or this?’”
Perhaps the most visible advantage of being a “CALL family” is a compressed training schedule. Arkansas statute requires foster families to undergo a specific 30-hour training model called Foster/Adopt PRIDE, which DCFS provides through a nonprofit contractor. PRIDE classes take place each Saturday over a two-month period in just five sites throughout the state, meaning families in remote areas may have to drive hours to attend.
In contrast, The CALL’s training is delivered locally and compresses the PRIDE curriculum into two weekends. “We knew there are awesome Christian families that would be available to do something like this, but they’re busy families,” Currier said. So, The CALL obtained permission from DCFS to create an adapted version of PRIDE.
“We’d have a weekend of training which would start on Saturday morning at 9 o’clock and go until 7 in the evening,” Currier said. “Then, on Sunday, they’d show up at 1 and stay till 7. And then we skip a weekend, and then they’d come back for that marathon again.”
In 2010, the independent consultant Hornby Zeller Associates performed a study at the request of DCFS that compared the experience of CALL-recruited families to DCFS-recruited families. Hornby Zeller found a strong preference for The CALL’s expedited training schedule and also found that CALL families “averaged roughly 37 days between their home study date and approval date. Meanwhile, DCFS recruited families waited nearly twice as long (73 days) between their home study date and approval date.”
Evidence suggests The CALL has reached families that DCFS could not recruit on its own. A 2013 paper authored by Michael Howell-Moroney, a researcher at the University of Memphis, found that 36 percent of CALL families said they probably would not have become foster or adoptive parents if it had not been for the nonprofit. Hornby Zeller similarly found that “several CALL-recruited parents stated that they would not have fostered if not for the Christian environment promoted by The CALL.”
Questions of Equity
Arkansas is an overwhelmingly Christian state, with 79 percent of adults identifying as such in a Pew Research Center poll. The number is likely higher in many rural counties.
For non-Christians and unmarried potential foster parents, The CALL is simply not an option. Any prospective family is asked to provide a letter of reference from their congregation, and must sign a statement of faith, which Currier described as an adaptation of the Apostle’s Creed.
“There’s no unkindness involved in that decision. It’s just who we are as an organization,” said Currier. “We will always kindly refer those families [to DCFS] … for them to be able to become foster and adoptive families.”
The desire by some faith-based groups to limit their recruitment to Christian couples has become a hot-button political issue. Several states, including Texas, Virginia, Mississippi and Michigan, have passed laws that exempt faith-based providers from working with same-sex foster and adoptive parents.
But those laws relate to organizations that receive funding from state child welfare agencies. The CALL does not receive a single government dollar for supplying nearly half of Arkansas’ foster homes.
“We would hope that the Arkansas [Division] of Children and Family Services is doing its due diligence to insure a safe placement for all children and youth in foster care,” said Ellen Kahn, of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “Not all families will be suitable for supporting an LGBTQ child.”
Asked whether The CALL’s limited focus on certain types of families creates challenges for DCFS, Dunagan noted that the onus for recruitment ultimately lies with the agency.
“It takes a village … and The CALL is just one part, although it’s a major part, of our village,” she said. “I will tell you that I think in years past we did not do a very good job of engaging other training partners or having specific targeted recruitment.”
Dunagan said DCFS has ramped up its own foster care outreach in communities across the state, thanks in part to a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“I do think we do need to do some additional work with LGBT,” Dunagan acknowledged. DCFS is making efforts to recruit more same-sex couples interested in becoming foster parents, she said.
Amy Webb, a spokesperson for DCFS, wrote in an email that the agency does not necessarily avoid placing youth who identify as LGBT with CALL-recruited families. It does take into account the preferences of the child and the foster parents, she said, so as to ensure stable placements.
“We may have youth who prefer not to be in a home with a same-sex couple or who would prefer a same-sex couple home because that is what they are used to. … Or we may have great foster parents who honestly say they don’t know how best to support LGBT youth and asked that they not be placed in their home.”
Currier said the state-mandated training curriculum delivered by The CALL “addresses the topic of appropriate interactions with LGBT children and youth in foster care.”
Asked whether The CALL avoids proselytizing to LGBT foster children, Currier replied that “DCFS provides policies and guidelines regarding respecting the beliefs of children and youth in foster care. The families recruited by The CALL follow these policies and guidelines. These families simply live out their Christian faith on a daily basis as an example of a way of living.”
Benjamin Hardy is a freelance journalist based in Little Rock, Ark.