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Making the Season Bright for the Kids in Our Care

The foster children who visited the state capitol were here for a Christmas celebration. They didn’t realize it, but they symbolize what’s at stake in the way we manage our child-welfare and foster-care system.

The children gathered in the old State Supreme Court chambers, where legislators, who had donated dozens of presents, and other volunteers threw a traditional Christmas party complete with a tree and adults in Santa hats.

It was a happy moment for these children who don’t often experience the holiday happiness that so many of us take for granted. These children are among the 4,400 Arkansas foster children without a permanent home. That is a decrease from a peak of more than 5,000 three years ago. We are heading in the right direction.

When I became governor, the state of our child welfare and foster care system was abysmal, according to a consultant’s study. The report was a heart-rending judgment on our inadequacy. Our leadership took the report to heart, and we moved with a sense of urgency to fix it.

The well-being of hundreds of our children was at stake.

I was especially alarmed to learn that caseworkers sometimes had to choose between bringing foster children to their homes, leaving them at a division office, or pleading with foster parents to make room for one more child.

We have made great improvement in that area. The average load for caseworkers has dropped from an average of 26 cases down to 19.

Our goal, of course, is to bring the number of children in foster care to zero. But until then, we want to place the children into a safe, home-like environment. Currently, more than 80 percent of the children in foster care are living in family-like settings.

The statistics we keep are critical to tracking our performance and improving the delivery of our services. But one thing we can’t really mark on a graph is the compassion of Arkansans. That’s what I saw at the state capitol on Tuesday as the foster children, and some older youth who are in our juvenile justice system, were able to forget about their hardships for a moment and enjoy the kindness of people they’ve never met.

For an afternoon, at least, they were having the kind of Christmas we would like for all our children to enjoy. And yes, I was one of the adults wearing a Santa hat.

Have a Merry Christmas! 

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