Arkansas has improved its approach to the care of the state’s at-risk children, and today I’d like to talk about our success. The employees at the Department of Human Services and the Division of Youth Services have done excellent work in giving the youth in our care their best chance at turning their lives around.
The number of children in state foster care has dropped from more than 5,000 when I took office to 4,200. This is a 16 percent reduction. This is good news, but there is more. In the spring, the 92nd General Assembly passed a law to reform the juvenile justice system, and much of the training required to implement the new approach is under way.
We have closed two juvenile detention facilities, and the number of admissions to the state’s other five is declining.
Under my administration, we have stressed the need to provide educational opportunities for our children and teens who are in the detention system. Our system is meant to rehabilitate young people, not to punish them. But sometimes, the youth in our system had limited educational instruction, and they were falling behind in school. We have changed that through providing opportunities such as coursework through Virtual Arkansas, which is an online system of learning. I learned recently that two teenagers in one of our facilities were named student of the month in the Virtual Arkansas program.
In addition, we are trying to see that children in our care are in facilities that are as close to their home as possible. We are trying to create more homelike facilities, as well.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting some of our at-risk children as they opened gifts during a Christmas at the Capitol party. This program highlights the lengths to which many state employees and legislators go to make sure that children under our care have Christmas presents to open.
The Department of Human Services helps to select the children to invite to the party to represent all the children and teens in the state’s foster care system. This year, those attending including four who have been involved in the juvenile justice system. We tend to forget that many of the teens who are in the system are some of our brightest. One young woman at the party told me she scored a 30 on the ACT.
During that conversation, a young man who is at the facility admitted to me that he had missed a question on a civics test. The question was, who is the governor of Arkansas? The young woman who scored the 30 promptly let us know that she answered it correctly.
These students were bright and courtesy and full of hope. As we look forward to the New Year, let’s continue to give our young people hope and the tools they need to succeed.