A group of churchgoers across the state took notice of the problem and, in 2007, launched a volunteer organization called the CALL, which stands for Children of Arkansas Loved for a Lifetime. Its staff encouraged pastors to talk more about foster care and adoption from the pulpit and began to offer training sessions for volunteers. Though the sessions were couched in religious teachings, they covered the same curriculum as the state. According to the Arkansan foster mothers I interviewed, they were also often more convenient and more welcoming to church members. All the training might be held over the course of a couple of weekends, instead of a few hours each week for several weeks, and it was offered in a greater variety of locations.
The number of kids in Arkansas’s foster-care system has hovered around 5,000 in the past couple of years. Meanwhile, the number of foster homes in the state that are certified and taking in kids has continued to grow. According to the Arkansas Times, it went from 1,601 in September 2016 to 1,821 a year later—a modest but crucial uptick that means the proportion of kids placed in family settings, as opposed to institutions, has increased. (The majority of children in foster care, though, live in institutional settings.)
The CALL, which operates in 44 of Arkansas’s 75 counties, is effectively a bridge between foster parents-to-be and the state bureaucracy. The organization says that it trains half of new foster families in the state and that families it has trained have cared for more than 10,000 children and provided permanent homes for 800.
The CALL’s offices operate as central locations for a county’s foster-care needs. Each one is made to feel homey, with brightly colored playrooms. County workers can bring children to the CALL if they’ve been removed from their homes in an emergency (which is less jarring than having a child wait in an office cubicle or a police station). Most have a “CALL mall,” a thrift shop where foster families can pick up (for free) any clothes, diapers, formula, or toiletries they need for their kids. The freezer is stocked with dinners for foster families, as well.
The CALL is emblematic of a turn, in many evangelical communities, from international adoption (usually of infants) to domestic adoption of kids of all ages from foster care. It is one of several organizations that have cropped up in the past decade with this focus. Project 1.27, an adoption and foster-parent-training program in Colorado, was the pioneer, and has helped to find a permanent home for hundreds of foster children eligible for adoption in the state. Other initiatives quickly followed, including Project Belong in Kansas, the 111 Project in Oklahoma (One Church, One Family, One Purpose), and Embrace Texas near Dallas.
Eric Gilmore was part of this wave. After college, he and his wife (who had trained to be a social worker) volunteered to be houseparents for teens aging out of the system. (Houseparents are typically married couples who care for three or four kids at a time in foster-agency-provided housing). One young woman told him she had been in 50 different placements from the ages of 12 to 18. “The day after her 18th birthday, she was given a bag of clothes, one night’s worth of bipolar medication, and a one-way ticket to some biological family members,” Gilmore remembers. Stories like these shook him, and he and his wife launched Immerse Arkansas in 2010 to help older teens who were unlikely to be adopted.