Fostering Hope for Arkansas's Children
CASA Stands Up For Kids in the State's Foster System
By Dwain Hebda, Photography by Inc. by Carper Creative Photography & Courtesy Kelton Family
Tammy Keech, advocate supervisor with Pulaski and Perry County Court Appointed Special Advocates, knows the story all too well , the one about foster care and courts and the system. It’s repetition personified, like the sing-song jingle a 4-year-old can’t get out of his head and drones for hours on end.
Hers is a quest both personal as well as professional, having adopted children herself and now spending her days battling for the rest of them. The purpose of life is to have a life of purpose she says, but given the matters at hand, it’s still not the kind of job you love every day.
“I admit, I get extremely frustrated seeing the same thing happen over and over and over again, and all these kids that are in the system,” she said. “But if you don’t step up and do something, then what’s going to happen? It’s only going to get worse. All I can say is you’ve got to be part of the solution, because if you’re not part of the solution you’re definitely part of the problem.”
For the past four-plus years, Keech’s part of the solution has been speaking up for children through the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, CASA, which pairs adult volunteers with kids in foster care to ensure they are being treated well and receiving what they need in terms of basic care and education, and that any special needs or issues are being handled appropriately. If these needs are not being met, the volunteer, called a CASA advocate, speaks up for the child to state officials, the authorities or in court, as the situation calls for.
“Our advocates devote anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a month, usually somewhere in the middle,” Keech said. “They go out into the homes, they make sure the children are receiving what they need. Basically they come to know the child like the back of their hand.”
Amy Kelton and her husband, Brian, are the happy ending every child without a family dreams about. And even they have to be careful what they say in certain situations.
“I think it’s fine to say we live in Little Rock,” Amy said, pleasantly. “I’d prefer not to print the kids’ names due to the history of abuse.”
“The kids” are the three children the Keltons have adopted. Two toddler sisters, ages 3 and 2, and a 3-year-old little boy from another household; all three cast into the same cosmic misfortune of being born to people ill-equipped to care for them, if they wanted them at all.
The Kelton couple and their two biological daughters, Olivia and Isabella, ages 14 and
10, have been involved with kids like this long enough that they don’t put much thought into “whys” anymore. A foster family long before becoming an adoptive one, they stopped pondering too deeply the tragic tides of fate and circumstance that brought so many children to their door.
Besides, after a while the details are often only distinguishable by degree. It wasn’t a question of if drugs were involved, but which parent was hooked or incarcerated; not if the sallow-faced 5-year-old arriving in the middle of the night had lived through abuse, but what variety. Truth be told, it never really affected what Amy and Brian were there to do anyway.
“I know a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, I’d love to do [fostering]. I love kids, but then I would be so sad when they leave,'” Amy said. “I’m kind of like, well, they need somebody to love them that much. They deserve that. They deserve for somebody to cry when they leave. It’s about them.”
So Amy and her family went on loving the little ones, went on crying when they left, too. And they always left, some the next morning, others staying just long enough to make the parting really hurt on their way to wherever and whatever.
Until one little boy didn’t. Leave, that is.
In three and half years of hugging shadows and kissing ghosts goodnight, Amy and Brian never thought what would happen if one stayed. Even now, they were sure every day would be the one the car would pull up and he’d be gone. But all the CASA advocate said when she’d drop in to check on him was, “Well, at least he’s got a home here.”
“It started planting that seed and the more I started thinking about it, I was like, ‘I’m momma to him,’” Amy said. “He never had visits or anything so if he leaves, then that’s loss that he wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
Anyone 21 or over with a clean criminal background and a commitment to the cause of children can become a CASA advocate, but not nearly enough do. Keech currently has the advocate manpower to serve about 150 cases out of the 900 foster children in Pulaski County at any given time. The number brings out disbelief even in her veteran voice.
“We believe that every abused or neglected child needs someone consistent in their life, and unfortunately, many times they don’t have that due to the workers changing over or foster parents requesting children be removed from their home due to behavior,” she said. “It’s necessary to have this one voice, this one person that’s a constant in their life.
“This is a critical time in our state, even in our county, because the child protection system is in crisis. We would love more people. We’re trying to build our pool of advocates every day.”
Back at the Kelton house, fostering has been put on hold due to the number of children living on premises, but life has been anything but slower as each of the adopteds wrestle with a slightly different demon in a slightly different way. The older girls are a big help and have taken their parents’ example to heart—one did a presentation to her class about foster care, and the other shows the same natural nurturing skills as her mom.
The most striking thing about the five patchwork Kelton kids, though, is how similar their parents’ prayers are for them.
“Do I worry differently for them? Yes and no,” Amy said. “There’s a lot of the same worries that we have, but at the same time, especially for our 3-year-old girl, I have concerns for her dating life and needing to feel accepted. I just want to make sure that she finds somebody that’s going to treat her right.
“Do I dream differently for them? I guess that part would probably be the same. Just that they find something that makes them happy so they can be successful and have their own families if they choose. They’re so much a part of us it’s hard to think of them as different or separate from one another.”
For More Information
CASA: arkansascasa.org; 501-682-9403
THE CALL, a faith-based organization that mobilizes foster/adoptive parents through churches: thecallinarkansas.org; 501-907-1048
ARKANSAS DEPT. OF HUMAN SERVICES, DIVISION OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES dhs.arkansas.gov/dcfs/ heartgallery; 888-736-2820
THE INSIDE SCOOP with AMY
Where were you born? Shreveport, Louisiana.
Where did you go to high school? Phoenix, Arizona.
Who is your role model? Hands down, other moms!
What is the hardest thing about being a parent? To remember to stop and enjoy the stages the kids are in and to "be present." Parenting is not a means to get from point A to point B. It is a journey. I need to remember this more.
What is the best thing about being a parent? I love seeing their individual personalities develop! The babies are hilarious with their toddler speech patterns, and trying to make us laugh. They really have become quite little characters! Bella has such a compassionate heart, and Liv is really expressive with music, art and dance.
What do you admire most about your husband? He is SUCH a great model for being a father to the fatherless. He has truly loved all the foster children we have had in our home, and is such a great daddy to them all.
What are three words that best describe you? Creative, nurturing, determined.
What are three things still on your bucket list? More traveling to new places, go rappelling, drive on old Route 66.
What do you do to relax? l love to lay by the pool in the summer, and sit by the fire pit with our friends in the cooler weather.
What is one good piece of advice you've picked up along the way? Be true to yourself. Don't be afraid to stand out.
What is one thing most people don't know about you? I have driven on the German Autobahn, and on country roads across Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. I love knowing that it is an experience not a lot of Americans have had.