This morning, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced a call to action for faith-based leaders to discuss solutions to two seemingly disparate issues facing the state: the shortage of foster homes for children in Department of Human Services custody, and the lack of services for former prison inmates reentering society. The “Restore Hope Summit” will be held on August 25 and 26 at the Marriott Hotel in Little Rock. Those interested in attending can register online here.
The governor characterized the foster care situation as “a crisis in this state.” Currently, there are 4,400 children in DHS custody who need foster placements, but Arkansas has only 2,500 approved foster beds statewide.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson continued, some 6,000 inmates from the Arkansas Department of Corrections reenter society every year with little or no support. “The unemployment rate for ex-offenders is 47 percent,” he said, “and the recidivism rate is over 40 percent.” Although the legislature (at Hutchinson’s request) funded some 500 beds for a new residential reentry program this last legislative session, that number “is insufficient to meet the need of those 6,000 who are reentering society,” the governor said.
“When you look at the resources of the state, the capacity of the state, you can’t get the job done … simply as a state government. We need to enlist partners to accomplish this mission. … We need to enlist the help of the faith community, the nonprofit community.”
An editorial note here: Well, OK, but the essential limiting factor on “the capacity of the state” is Hutchinson and his Republican Party, which is determined to circumscribe the state’s fiscal resources with tax cuts that accrue primarily to the well-to-do. That’s not to say that many nongovernmental organizations (religious and otherwise) aren’t capable of doing excellent work, but is the state’s inability to “get the job done” a matter of “can’t”? Or “won’t”?
Public-private partnerships with religious organizations in these two areas of policy is nothing new. Prison ministries have long been a part of the ADC landscape. To meet its needs, DHS already relies on The CALL, a Christian nonprofit that recruits and trains prospective foster parents. For better or worse, religious organizations are already integrated into both agencies’ operations.
“What we want to do at the summit is inspire greater engagement of our faith community,” the governor said. “We want them to identify any obstacles from a governmental standpoint — what are the regulatory burdens? What can we do better as a state government to enhance their engagement? … And, we want to set objectives in terms of reentry beds [and foster homes].”
Both topics, by the way, are of intense interest to us at the The Arkansas Times. In the weeks ahead, we’ll be taking a close look at mass incarceration in Arkansas and the heavy toll of overaggressive sentencing policies, especially on communities of color. And, Kathryn Joyce’s cover story in this week’s paper (which will be out tomorrow) is the first major piece in our crowdfunded investigative project into child welfare issues throughout the state. Kathryn focuses on foster care in Sebastian County, where children in DHS custody outnumber available beds by a stunning 3-to-1 ratio.
Hutchinson said that some 5,000 places of worship will receive a “save the date” for the August conference. The governor said the event will be funded with private dollars, although he acknowledged that there “is a public component to it.” He emphasized the inclusive nature of the steering committee he’s formed to head the effort, which appeared with him at his announcement today. “The state should not endorse any particular religion,” he said.
The membership of the committee ranges from Steve Copley, the Methodist minister who heads Interfaith Arkansas and led the successful campaign for a modest minimum wage rise last year, to Family Council head Jerry Cox, a leading voice on the anti-gay reactionary right. Other members include Little Rock’s Rabbi Kalman Winnick, Tom Navin of Catholic Charities, Paul Chapman of Fellowship Bible Church, Imam Johnny Hasan of the Islamic Center of Little Rock, several statewide pastors involved in prison ministries, and Lauri Currier, executive director of The CALL. Representatives from DHS, ADC and the Arkansas Parole Board are also on the committee.