Posted on February 1, 2019
Federal shift in funding causes closure
By Madeleine Leroux
In a few weeks, the Agape House Children’s Home in El Dorado will be empty.
A federal bill signed into law last year caused a shift in funding that is having an impact on every group home across the country. In Union County, staff at the Agape House are working with state officials to try to find homes for five children who are currently being cared for at the local home. Executive Director Melinda Gatheright said the children need to be placed in new homes by March 17, when Agape will officially close its doors.
“It feels like a death in the family,” Gatheright said with tears in her eyes as she talked about how the situation developed.
The local Agape House Children’s Home opened in October 2015 and, thanks to the generosity of the community as Gatheright noted, it was able to serve as a loving home for 32 area foster children at its campus, where sibling groups could remain together in small homes with house parents.
So why close the doors?
In order to operate, Agape House relies heavily on federal funds, which are going to be restricted in the future with passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which was placed within a bipartisan spending bill that President Donald Trump signed into law in February 2018.
According to reporting done for Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, the act represents the most extensive overhaul of foster care in nearly four decades and puts more of an emphasis on keeping families together and preventative services. It also puts limits on placing children in what’s called institutional settings, such as group homes. Previously, there were no limits to federal funding going toward group homes; the new law puts a cap on payments. The federal government will only pay for two weeks of group home care per child, with some exceptions.
It specifies that funding coming from Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, which was formerly used to reimburse states for costs of group foster care, will be shifted to services designed to prevent a child from entering foster care.
The focus on prevention, Gatheright said, is not something anyone would oppose. The law, she said, has many good provisions, such as focusing on assistance for families of children who are deemed foster care candidates and providing up to 12 months of mental health services, substance abuse treatment and in-home parenting training.
But the impact of it on organizations like Agape House are the unintended consequences, she said. The law does not distinguish between large group homes and small, family-style homes, like what Agape House provides.
“We are based on a family model,” she said, noting that each home has house parents whose sole job is to be there for the children. “Our kids live in the most traditional family setting that we can make for them … that’s the difference.”
In announcing the closure, Agape House officials noted the new requirements put on states in order to receive federal funding for foster children, and that the law only allows for placement of children in private family foster homes effective Oct. 1, 2019.
“Agape House has already felt the effects of the Act with the reduced placements of children in their home as the state readies itself for the implementation deadline,” a release from the organization stated.
States can apply for a two-year delay in implementation of the group home provisions of the law, but the state would not get any federal funding for preventative services during that time period.
Gatheright credited state officials with working hard to try to find a way to mitigate the damage to smaller group homes, but with the Oct. 1 deadline quickly approaching and what Gatheright called no clear indication that a workable solution would be found, the organization had to make a decision.
“From day one of the enactment of the FFPSA, we have continued to work together with our county and state DCFS leaders to try to find a way for Agape House to continue its current ministry,” Gatheright said. “While both the state and our ministry have proposed many ideas, none have materialized into a solid option for us to remain open and meet the federal requirements thereby eliminating the opportunity for future placement of foster children with us. We applaud the state’s efforts to find a niche in the FFPSA for us and ministries like ours to survive and continue to make such an important difference in children’s lives.”
She said it’s possible the state will be able to establish a separate licensing for small, family-style group homes that the federal government would consider a viable exception to the new law’s requirements. But Agape House can’t afford to sit and wait for that to happen.
For now, Agape House staff are focusing on trying to find placements for the five children currently in their care. Gatheright said the children have grown up in El Dorado and they’d like to find a way to place them with local families so the children can stay in the communities they know.
“We’re hoping that people in this community will step up and foster these kids,” Gatheright said. “Many of them have been with us for quite some time and they’re really invested in our community.”
But with the closure of the home, Gatheright said she hopes the community will step up for more than just the five they currently house. There are many foster children who need care in Union County, she said, and some local children have had to be put in care outside of the area because of a lack of foster homes.
According to state data, as of the 2017 fiscal year, there were more than 130 foster children in Union County, the majority of whom were in foster care for at least seven months.
“We ask for prayer and support for (community) partners and encourage anyone who might have considered fostering privately in their home to pray for direction,” Gatheright said. “There will be more private foster homes needed than ever before.”
She pointed to local organizations such as The CALL in Union County and the South Arkansas Children’s Coalition, which oversees the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, all of which serve local foster children in need.
For those who want to help, Gatheright advised first researching the Family First Prevention Services Act to understand fully what it means and what organizations are still able to help area foster children. She encouraged people to reach out to their congressional representatives to discuss the unintended impact, but mostly she encouraged people to step up to serve foster children in the area, whether it’s by donating to an organization, volunteering as an advocate or becoming a private foster home.
The organization also is looking at what to do with its existing campus. Gatheright said she and the Agape House Board of Directors are hopeful they can find a community organization or nonprofit that can use it to continue to serve area children.
“This community has a huge heart for taking care of its most vulnerable members who are children,” she said. “We will be looking for ways to continue the momentum our donors have built and advance it forward to others who continue to serve children and families.”
Gatheright isn’t sure what her next step will be, though she’s sure it will have something to do with foster care. She said right now, she’s more focused on the immediate needs of the children who are still in the care of Agape House.
Gatheright’s clear about how much it hurts her to see Agape House close its doors, but she emphasized that the issue is much larger than just one organization in Union County.
“We’re talking about a sweeping piece of legislation that’s going to affect thousands of kids,” Gatheright said. “I think that we are eliminating a valuable tool in the care of foster kids in our nation. And the kids, obviously, will suffer for that.”
Madeleine Leroux can be reached at 870-862-6611 or email@example.com.