Photography by Beth Hall and Janet Warlick
The Facts of the Matter[pullquote]Above Photo: Becky Shaffer (left) and Cassandra Webb at Saving Grace of Northwest Arkansas. Photograph by Beth Hall.[/pullquote] [dropcap]Caring[/dropcap] for the most vulnerable members of our society, namely children, is a challenging task. The Children’s Bureau, an office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, “partners with federal, state, tribal and local agencies to improve the overall health and well-being of our nation’s children and families.”
The organization charged with overseeing the care of Arkansas’ children is the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS). DCFS administers and supervises all child welfare services, including child abuse and neglect prevention and protective, foster care and adoptive programs. At the end of fiscal year 2013, this agency was responsible for the care of 3,930 foster children. The children, most of whom were 2-to-5 years old, were removed from their homes due to neglect, parental substance abuse, incarceration of or illness of one or both parents, physical and sexual abuse, inadequate housing or abandonment.*
According to a recent report by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF), half of all children who enter foster care are younger than 6 and a significant number of the children exit foster care within a week or month.** DCFS reported that 923 of youth in foster care were 14 or older in fiscal year 2013. A second report from AACF found that “once a child turns 12, the likelihood that they will stay in foster care until they age out …” — or turn 18 — “… begins to increase with age.” *** What happens to these children?
More than Statistics
DCFS is actively addressing this question. The agency provides Transitional Youth Services programs for youth in its custody. When a foster child turns 14, he is provided the opportunity to take an active role in planning his future through a “Transitional Plan.”
“Youth may choose to leave foster care at 18; however, they do have the option of remaining in state care until they turn 21 for extended foster care,” said Kandis Romes, a Transitional Youth Services program specialist with DCFS. To participate in extended foster care, youth must pursue a two- or four-year degree, enroll in a vocational education program or work for at least 80 hours per month.
“There are two programs available to these youth: Chaffee Foster Care Independence Program and ETV, Educational Training Voucher,” Romes said.
It’s under these programs that youth learn life skills; are able to participate in local youth advisory board meetings; get tutoring and assistance with completing college and federal student aid applications; and more.
Romes said, “The ETV program provides youth participating in the transitional services scholarships for tuition, books and other associated expenses up to $5,000 per year as long as they maintain a 2.0 GPA, and until they turn 23. The Chaffee Grant can help cover tuition costs exceeding $5,000.”
While these programs address the educational and practical needs of young adults who age out of foster care, they do not provide full sustenance for the soul. There a number of nonprofit organizations funded through grants and private donations that address the emotional and familial needs of these youth.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Eric and Kara Gilmore were exposed to the problems of orphans as a young couple. Kara Gilmore learned of the need for more foster families and of the increasing number of children waiting to be adopted while studying to become a social worker.
A photograph of a child awaiting a home— a 17-year-old boy smiling and holding a note about the type of family he was looking for — cinched it for them. “It was then that we asked, ‘What happens to kids who aren’t adopted?’” Eric Gilmore said. So, at 24 and 22 years of age respectively, the couple became house parents to a group of teens in foster care. “It was a challenge, but we loved it and everything about it: the kids, the roles we played in their lives, the ups and downs and getting to see some of them succeed.”
They also witnessed others struggling to survive. “There was one 14-year-old girl we fostered for four months, but she ran away. We’ve kept up with her. Between the ages of 12 and 18, she had about 50 different placements — it was so hard to watch,” he said. “And the day after she turned 18, she left foster care. She was bipolar. She was given one day of medication, her bag of clothes and a bus ticket to Fort Smith, Ark., where she planned to live with an aunt and uncle.”
This arrangement didn’t work out. Gilmore said the young girl experienced a traumatic childhood followed by six more years of trauma. She now has two children who are part of the foster care system and that she’s been homeless off and on.
He added that while this young lady’s circumstances were extreme, many aspects of her life were not uncommon.
“DCFS offers supportive services to youth who turn 18, but it’s an at-will program and so many opt not to stay in foster care, though they should. Many of them wind up ‘couch surfing,’” he said.
Thus, the Gilmores felt compelled to take action. “We couldn’t pretend we hadn’t seen this. Someone has to do something, we told God. He said, ‘Well, maybe you need to something.’ We thought, ‘Well, what about the church?’ And He reminded us that we are the church,” Gilmore said.
In 2008, they started developing a program and raising funds. Two years later, in August 2010, they opened the first Immerse Arkansas (IA) youth home, providing shelter and assistance for six older children. They chose the name Immerse because, “Youth in foster care grow up, often, cut off from the rest of the community, in isolation. We create a pathway. We try to immerse them into the community,” Gilmore said.
The organization’s mission is to “prepare older and former foster youth for adulthood by connecting them to existing resources and sustainable networks of support.”
Gilmore said those first months were rocky. “We thought we were prepared, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know.” In 2011, a variety of people — donors and volunteers — “began to step up,” and soon they had a “good, solid staff” in place.
Today, IA has five homes — in which one resident assistant and three or more youth, most often girls, live — and can provide housing for up to 20 kids and services for up to 25 as, Gilmore said, not everyone needs housing.
He said the typical IA client hasn’t acclimated to normal life as they’ve not had a typical youth experience, so the program is tailored to each resident’s individual needs. “We listen to their stories and very often wonder how they’ve made it this far. They’ve done so with a lot of willpower and by learning coping and survival skills. We help them formulate a plan that includes teaching them life skills, setting educational goals and dealing with family issues.
“What we’re really try to do is create an environment that is conducive to change. We challenge them to do things they didn’t thing they could,” he said.
Sometimes IA residents, as is the case with many foster children, never reconcile or reunite with their families.
Others are fortunate. “One of the first young men who came to us — it was an October — found his mother and by Christmas was living with her. He found out that she’d been sober for six years and had been looking for him.”
In other cases, Gilmore said, the parents become dependent upon the youth. Becky Shaffer, co-founder of Saving Grace of Northwest Arkansas, spoke about this.
“Poverty has its own culture, its own set of rules. If a relative allows you to sleep on his couch or helps you in some way, you’re obligated to him. There are so many strings attached. When you live in poverty, it’s not OK to do better than the generation before you,” Shaffer said.
She said she sees this from time to time at Saving Grace. “The girls do well, get a job and a paycheck — they earn $100, and you’d think it was $1 million — and the family comes out of the woodwork looking for the girls to pay them back.”
Others experience heartbreak and bounce back. “One of our residents was in foster care for 10 years. At 18, she found her biological father. She lived with him in an abandoned building … he abused her sexually. She escaped this situation and came to Immerse,” she said.
“While some of our residents celebrate big accomplishments, like getting their GEDs or being admitted in college,” Gilmore continued, “we also celebrate what others may see as small things. Sometimes we celebrate a client who has met with her mentor five days a week, another client who cleans her room for several days. This young lady, at one point, we couldn’t get her out of bed. So when, she did get up, we celebrated that victory. Today, she’s gotten her GED, is working, has lots of mentors, is thinking about college and is a productive part of society. That’s worth celebrating as well.”
The first phase youth enter at IA is called “Prepare”; they live in shared housing, learn life skills and how to take responsibility for their actions, as well as how to establish healthy relationships and participate in societal activities, such as voting. Next is the “Connect” phase, in which former residents live in an apartment under a lease co-signed by Immerse. Finally, they enter the “Succeed” phase, and Immerse comes off the lease agreement.
Gilmore said, “Immerse is a safe place to fail without the consequences being an end to your opportunities. We help them put the pieces back together and try, again and again, until they succeed.”
Giving Youth a Second Chance
Second Chance Youth Ranch (SCYR) in Benton, Ark., is a faith-based, family care center. The ranch was established in December 2005 and is the vision of Perry Black, a former youth pastor, who feels that “it’s not enough to change geography, you have to change the heart of man.” The exteriors of the nonprofit’s main campus buildings mimic those of an old western town, while the interiors are quite modern. The facility has four bunkhouses, in which seven-to-eight children live with house parents, a husband-and-wife team, who act as their mothers and fathers.
Rachel Hubbard, who serves as SCYR’s director of operations, said the children who come to the ranch do so through foster care and the court system. SCYR offers a full range of therapeutic services through three case managers and two licensed therapists, as well as other professionals. The children participate in individual therapy and, with their families, group therapy.
Life in the bunkhouses is structured like many other households. Holidays and birthdays are celebrated. The families sell crafts and do other things to raise funds for family vacations.
“We do all we can to make sure the kids have a normal childhood experience,” Hubbard said. “Of course, our preference is that the children are reunited with their families — we work hard to get them back — or are adopted,” she said.
“We also have a second campus in Bryant for our girls who are 16 and older. Here, they learn independent living skills. We help them get their driving licenses and get jobs. We also require them to save 75 percent of their income with the end goal of purchasing a vehicle — debt-free.”
Already, six SCYR youth have purchased cars.
Youth are also taught parenting and life skills, including cooking. “In fact, each of them has to cook one meal per week for the entire house. We also teach basic household and car maintenance,” Hubbard said. “Our goal is to help them become successful adults.”
Residents may remain at SCYR until they turn 21 and are required to have a job and to attend college, a technical college or undergo vocational training. Thus far, SCYR has served 350 children; the average stay is 335 days per resident.
For instance, “Dee,” 19, has been at SCYR for a year now. She came to the ranch from foster care, where she’d been for four years. Dee’s life was stable until her parents divorced when she was 12. She chose to live with her father as he offered a more stable living situation and the two shared a deeper connection; however, he was diagnosed with lung cancer just one year later. He died the next year, and, at 14, Dee returned to her mother’s home. Her mother is sick, however, and unable to care for her properly.
“So, four months later, we made the hard decision that I should go into foster care,” Dee said. “It was even harder because my dad died just a few days after Christmas. It was difficult to explain my circumstances to DHS [Arkansas Department of Human Services].”
Dee’s family lived in Morrilton, but DHS was unable to find a local placement for her initially. So she lived in a foster home in Conway. Two years later, she was placed in a foster home closer to her extended family.
Dee, who is very shy, said that while she was content in those placements, they were not family settings, something she really likes about SCYR. While in the second home in Morrilton, she utilized the services offered by DCFS’s Transitional Youth Services. She got her diploma and began working. Due to circumstances beyond her control, though, she had to find something else. “I wanted to be in a program that would allow me to further my independence,” she said. SCYR allows her to do this.
“At first, coming to Second Chance was a bit overwhelming, but the family is nice. And other facilities didn’t emphasize spirituality, which is something I like. Second Chance didn’t allow me any leeway — I had to step up and step up quickly,” she said.
Dee proudly talks about her job and the accomplishments she’s achieved since she came to SCYR. “I have a job, and in 10½ months, I became a manager. I didn’t have a savings account before. I had to learn to trust others with my money,” she said, laughing. She admits that initially she checked the balance a lot. “I had to learn to budget and save, which wasn’t too hard since I’ve always been pretty disciplined with money. I don’t splurge a lot, except on shoes.”
Dee said she also had to learn to pay bills on time and to care for herself. She’s one of the six who have purchased cars, debt-free.
She speaks with her mother almost daily, and holds no grudge against her. “She is ill and cannot care for me. This was the best thing for me.”
Dee is enrolled at Pulaski Technical College and plans to transfer to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to study criminal justice. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree, she intends to establish her career and eventually adopt children from the foster care system. “I want to give them the love I never had. Not all foster kids get to grow up in a setting as good as this one.”
It’s all about saving Grace
Becky Shaffer knows firsthand the challenges many foster children face when they age out of the system. Her own mother lost custody of her when Shaffer was only 12. She was fortunate, though; she had only two placements over the next seven years. Still, when she turned 18 and graduated from high school, her foster family, according to Shaffer, basically said, “We’ve enjoyed taking care of you. You’ve graduated, and we wish you the best of luck.”
“I enrolled in college because I needed a place to live. Then, in September, I found out the dorms would close at Christmas,” she said. “By Christmas I’d gotten married, and I was pregnant. Ultimately, it worked out, but it was tough.”
Shaffer, like so many foster children, lacked basic life skills. “I didn’t know how to pump gas, how to write a check … nothing. I have to give it to Kent [her husband]. It was much more than he’d signed up for.”
Sadly, Shaffer said, “The people I’d called Mom and Dad [her foster parents], we never really became attached. They wanted to be parents for me, but they did not want to be grandparents. I was devastated. I had to grieve the loss of them and not having grandparents for my children.”
As one might expect, Shaffer struggled with motherhood at first. It’s very difficult to mother if you’ve not been mothered. “My expectations for myself were astronomical. Everything I knew about family I’d gleaned from ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ I constantly punished myself, but I was — and I am — a good mother,” she said proudly.
With mentoring and guidance, Shaffer’s confidence, along with her and Kent’s desire to help foster children, grew. And help they did. They became foster parents in their 20s and served as such for a total of 17 years.
In 2006, while they were rearing eight children — five of them foster children — Shaffer said God “planted” the idea for a residential program called Saving Grace in their hearts. In 2008, the couple moved to northwest Arkansas, and from there things began to move quickly.
One morning the next year, she and Kent, who Shaffer said is a realist, were having coffee after the kids went to school, and he urged her to pursue a career rather than simply work in retail. She reminded him of their dream of starting Saving Grace; however, they didn’t have the means to make this worthy dream a reality.
“I went to work that day with a heavy heart because I really wanted to do this. Kent, tongue-in-cheek, asked God for a sign,” she said. “I shared my idea with my first customer that day. She’d started a children’s advocacy program, and she gave me a list of contacts, people who could help.” Later that day, the woman returned, surprising Shaffer with a large sign that read “Amazing Grace.” It was a true sign for the Shaffers, she felt.
“We knew no one here. We didn’t have the money to start a nonprofit. We didn’t even have the money to file the application for the 501(c)(3),” Shaffer said, incredulously.
But word of the couple’s mission spread. Someone anonymously paid the application fee. When she called the Jones Trust Center looking for office space, she shared her idea, and Betsy Reithemeyer, who at the time served as CEO of the trust, took her on a tour of the facility Saving Grace now occupies.
Reithemeyer, Shaffer said, was the first to buy into Saving Grace, and she introduced Shaffer to Susan Duke, former CEO of Wal-Mart, who became a mentor and friend. Duke encouraged their mission, giving them what Shaffer called “her seal of approval, as well as her unconditional love, kindness and outrageous love for the girls we serve. God just helped us meet the right people at the right time.”
On Feb. 6, 2009, just nine months after the couple had the idea to open a facility, Saving Grace of Northwest Arkansas (SGNWA) opened its doors. The facility is named after the song “Saving Grace” by the contemporary Christian band, Point of Grace. “This song perfectly describes what we are tying to do. Our goal is to help the girls grow, without feeling they’re being judged,” Shaffer said. “After all, it’s not our job to condemn.”
The young women who come to SGNWA are 18- to 24-years old, without a support system and in desperate need of help. According to Shaffer, they want to be independent — they are 18— yet due to negative circumstances or tragic events, such as a rape or sexual abuse or seeing their mothers being beaten, they’ve simply stopped maturing. She said it’s as if their brains stopped developing at that point in their lives, causing them to go into fight-or-flight mode. In its five years, SGNWA has served 65 girls.
Shaffer said the girls come with such deep wounds it’s impossible to rush the recovery process. Some don’t know how to read, and others have suffered severe childhood traumas. So, initially, the SGNWA staff simply focuses on participants’ “soul wounds,” providing counseling to instill courage, strength and discipline. Each girl also is assigned three lifetime mentors — women whose roles are like that of a mother, sister and grandmother — who form a family, something many girls have never had outside SGNWA. When the girls “graduate,” they move into an apartment, and the organization partners with them every step of the way.
Cassandra Webb, who Shaffer calls a “precious soul,” came to SGNWA about four months ago. She’s not the typical client as she’s 26 years old and has lived on her own. Nevertheless, Webb is quick to say that Saving Grace has been a much-needed safe haven for her.
Webb is among the 20,000 young people in the United States who age out of foster care each year.**** She entered foster care at 11 and, during her seven years in foster care, she lived in 17 homes.
“I lived in Oklahoma with my mother, grandmother and siblings. My mother was an alcoholic, and any time she got money she used it to buy alcohol. She didn’t feed me very much,” Webb said.
Her mother’s boyfriends sexually abused her and, to deal with the trauma, Webb simply acted like it didn’t happen. Sadly, the abuse isn’t why she was placed in foster care. Webb’s mother had outstanding warrants and decided to “go on the run.” She asked her young daughter if she’d like to go with her. “I was 11, and it seemed like an adventure. She even told me to pick out a new name.”
The two stopped at a gas station in Van Buren, Ark., en route to Florida, and Webb’s mother passed out, drunk.
“I found a quarter on the floor of the car and went inside to buy a package of crackers and sat inside to eat them because it was so hot in the car,” Webb recalled. “The people working at the station called [the authorities], and when they called my family to come pick me up, no one would.” Thus, she was placed in foster care.
“The foster parents in that first home were abusive, so it was shut down. Sometimes, I was moved because I was rebellious. I’d run away,” she said. “Another time, I lived with a lady who simply wanted someone to clean her house, even her own bedroom. Some of the homes were short-term homes. A few times I was told I would be adopted, and that didn’t happen — once I was told another girl needed more help. Even if I liked the foster home and the foster parents, sometimes I’d simply run away. I didn’t feel worthy of a good home.”
Webb said there were times when she’d run away in hope that the foster parents would ask her to come back, that they’d want her enough to ask her to come back. “That’s one message I’d like to get out to foster parents: Just because kids run, that doesn’t mean they don’t like you. They may simply want you to want them. It’s a test.”
It was during this tumultuous time in her life that she met Rita Young, a court appointed special advocate for children (CASA).
“I didn’t know what stability was. I had trouble figuring out life,” Webb said. “Rita, my CASA worker, who is still in my life, was the only stable person in my life. I was her first foster child. Whenever I spent time with her, it was as if I was family. I often spent time with her family.”
Although Webb knew about the extended care plan offered through DCFS, she wasn’t interested. “And if you’re a troubled kid like me, no one pushes the plan. They just assume you’ll become a statistic.”
So she couch surfed for a while. “I wanted to be loved, so I surrounded myself with men. I looked for love from anyone, and because I lived a ‘street life,’ I got involved with drug dealers and was in a few abusive relationships. I got involved with marijuana and meth, and, at 19, I entered a drug treatment program. I got out when I was 20 and backslid a bit, but managed to pull myself together,” she explained.
At 22, Webb got married to a man she’d only known for about six months. He was different from the other men she’d dated: He’d never taken or used drugs, and he didn’t drink or smoke cigarettes. “I thought this was my chance to have a good life with a wonderful man.”
Just three weeks after their wedding, she and her husband were in a motorcycle accident. He suffered a serious head injury, was in a coma for six weeks and nearly died. Webb’s left leg required multiple surgeries, but she stayed by his side.
“When he woke up, he didn’t know who I was,” she indicated. “His mother knew I’d grown up in foster care and had no family for support …” — Webb was on crutches for two years following the accident — “… and she didn’t want to care for me and him, so she pushed him to get a divorce.”
For a time, she stayed with her husband’s aunt and uncle, eventually moving to Kansas, where she lived with her half-brother and two half-sisters — children her father had before Webb — as well as their stepmother and stepfather.
Webb’s ex-husband eventually regained his memory and contacted her, but “all he wanted was to have ‘inappropriate relations.’ I’d been through five surgeries. I had way too much to deal with,” she said.
At the beginning, everything seemed fine living with her extended family members, but Webb soon discovered they were drug abusers — several of them smoked pot, and one family member was “on meth,” she said.
“I tried to shrug it off, to ignore their drug use because they were blood relatives. I wanted a family so badly, and my half-siblings all had children. I had 15 nieces and nephews; we loved each other so much,” Webb said.
Because she couldn’t work, Webb began to take classes at a nearby college. Her siblings’ stepmother, however — in her alcohol-addicted haze — became jealous of Webb, convinced that she was sleeping with her husband, and began to turn the family against her.
“One of my half-sisters took me in, but she was addicted to meth. I couldn’t stay there. Thankfully, a professor helped me get an apartment on campus,” she said.
It was fall 2014. And Webb’s emotional plate wasn’t just full, but overflowing. “I had to deal with having all the surgeries, being divorced, more abandonment, [the post-traumatic stress disorder from being sexually abused] and losing everything I loved. I sat in my apartment all alone over Thanksgiving and Christmas.”[pullquote]“That’s one message I’d like to get out to foster parents: Just because kids run, that doesn’t mean they don’t like you. They may simply want you to want them. It’s a test.”[/pullquote]
There was one positive constant in her life: Young, who suggested Webb come back to Arkansas — not to live independently, but, rather, someplace where her issues could be addressed. So Webb wisely followed her advice and moved to northwest Arkansas to live with her great-grandmother and aunts. Young connected with Shaffer and Saving Grace, and Webb came to the program shortly thereafter. “It was just the grace of God that got me here,” Webb said.
“I’ve learned that I need to stabilize myself and not jump and act on impulse. I’ve learned to deal with my emotions and to be calm. Since I’ve been at Saving Grace, I’ve obtained a good job, maintained my good health, I’ve learned life skills and I do volunteer work. Being here has allowed me to gain a feeling of success in my life,” she said.
She also participates in equine therapy, which uses symbolism and exercises to teach her how to be in control of herself and the circumstances around her, as well as how to set boundaries.
Webb said, “If I’d not come to Saving Grace, I imagine I’d be homeless, living out of my car, using drugs again and using my looks to get me through life, which is something I witnessed in my mother.”
Soon, she will gain something else she’s desired: a family of new origin, as Young, who Webb calls “her happy place,” is adopting her.
Webb’s success can be summed up in the lyrics of “Saving Grace,” the song for which the Shaffers’ program is named: She ran from home one December day. Grace is lost and alone in a world as cold as stone. God is counting on us to reach her with His love. It’s all about saving Grace … all about living love.
*“SFY 2015-2019 Child and Family Services Five Year Plan,” Arkansas Department of Human Services, Division of Children and Family Services
**“Reducing The Number of Children Who Enter The Foster Care System,” Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, June 2014
***“Reducing a Child’s Time in Foster Care,” Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, September 2014
****Aging Out, Children’s Rights