by Dwain Hebda
As 2020 dawned, Little Rock-based Methodist Family Health began its 121st year serving children and families in Arkansas. But within the current regulatory climate, the longstanding nonprofit is finding its work every bit as challenging as at any point in its history.
Methodist Family Health operates group homes for foster children from one end of the state to the other and there’s never a shortage of kids in the system to fill those beds. But a new federal law, The Family First Prevention Services Act signed in 2018, will potentially put pressure on organizations like Methodist Family Health. The law introduces reforms that aim to keep more children with their families and avoid the trauma of foster care, channeling funding accordingly.
Kelli Reep, director of communications, says while no one would dispute the value of a child in crisis remaining with a loving and responsible family member, too often the reality of these situations is very different.
“The state of Arkansas saw that this was a problem, splitting kids up and backlogs of cases,” she says. “They said OK, we’re going to provide some guidelines and goals and then Family First comes in and does largely the same thing. The goal is to keep siblings together and keep children with people they know.”
“When there are such placements for children go to, we absolutely want them to go there. But there just aren’t enough foster care homes out there that can take on the number of foster care children. I’d go so far as to say there will always be a need for an organization such as ours to serve children in crisis.”
According to FamilyFirstAct.org, there are about half a million children in foster care in the United States, a total that has steadily risen since 2012. The site suggests the increase is in part fueled by the nation’s opioid addiction and overdoses.
Arkansas, on the other hand, has continued to make strides in reducing the number of children in the foster care system, to about 6,000 at any given time. Still, Reep notes, that’s 6,000 minors who require quality and compassionate care and supervision.
“The children that come to us, there aren’t any other placement for them, that’s why they’re in our home,” Reep says. “It could be because of a certain type of treatment they’re needing, some trauma they’ve experienced or simply because there’s no family member available.”
Reep says as the state’s efforts to comply with the Family First Prevention Act continue, organizations like Methodist Family Health are also adjusting the safety net of services they provide in order to accommodate the youngsters who inevitably fall through the cracks.
“In 2020, Methodist Family Health has one family-style group home in Fayetteville, which is where groups of siblings in the custody of the Division of Child and Family Services can remain together,” she says.
“The other therapeutic group homes Methodist Family Health operates are qualified residential treatment programs (QRTP) for children in the custody of the Division of Child and Family Services. Our QRTP homes are located in Heber Springs, Helena-West Helena, Little Rock, Magnolia, Searcy and Springdale. These homes are boys only or girls only and not co-ed like the family-style group home.”
The Family First legislation also establishes new requirements for placement of children in residential treatment programs and improves quality and oversight of services, according to FamilyFirstAct.org. Those guidelines allow federal reimbursement for care in certain residential treatment programs for children with emotional and behavioral disturbances requiring special treatment.
Reep saysdepending on how this portion of the law is implemented, it could potentially have a radical impact on Methodist Family Health’s array of mental health services offered to children and young people. The organization supports services ranging from school-based and outpatient counseling to QRTP homes and psychiatric residential treatment centers. It also operates Methodist Behavioral Hospital in Maumelle, providing acute and subacute treatment to children and youth.
“We are the only continuum of care like ours for children in the state,” Reep says. “We’re licensed for children as young as three up to the age 17. We have had patients as young as four years old.”
“We have something at Methodist called Infant Mental Health which looks at what kind of trauma a baby has gone through and what kind of lingering effects does that trauma have. Even if they’re too young to remember it at the time it’s happening, it’s something that can present itself later.”
Methodist Family Health was founded in 1899 by the Methodist Church in Little Rock as Arkansas Methodist Orphanage. For the first portion of its history the organization operated in the classic orphanage model serving children whose parents had died or abandoned them. Pastors of local churches referred children to the home from within their communities.
During World War II, the model changed from warehousing orphans to the foster care model where homes were actively sought to take in the young wards. The organization’s focus on mental health and behavioral services, which today also includes selected services for adults, began in earnest in the early 2000s. Last year, the nonprofit organization served just under 6,000 children and families across all services.