CHARLESTON — Dedication of Maggie House, a new 33-bed residential home for children in state custody, was topped off Tuesday with the announcement of a $1.6 million donation to build another similar facility in Fort Smith next year.

CHARLESTON — Dedication of Maggie House, a new 33-bed residential home for children in state custody, was topped off Tuesday with the announcement of a $1.6 million donation to build another similar facility in Fort Smith next year.

Sebastian County has more children in state custody due to parental neglect or abuse than any Arkansas county, and the seven-county Area 2 in the Arkansas River valley has more than any area in the state, according to the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

"It’s a crisis of the greatest proportion," said Bob Moody, executive administrator of Family Ministries, Arkansas Division. "It would take another 16 Maggie Houses to fill the need."

The creation of Maggie House, a former nursing home next to First Free Will Baptist Church in Charleston, was a collective effort of hundreds in the region. Many of them came together Tuesday for the dedication and ribbon cutting with the Charleston Chamber of Commerce. In March 2014, Fred Schaffer offered to give the former Greenhurst Nursing Center to Free Will Baptist Church. Family Ministries, based in Greeneville, Tenn., has cared for at-risk children since 1939 and also has a foster care home in Little Rock.

The Maggie House was named in honor of Maggie Schaffer, Fred Schaffer’s mother and the original owner of Greenhurst Nursing Home.

‘A Child Is A Child’

There are currently 590 children from Sebastian County in state custody, but only 185 beds at 90 of the county’s foster homes. In Area 2, which includes the seven-county region, there are 945 foster children, and 183 foster homes with 403 beds. To accommodate the highest demand in the state, the region’s foster children are sent to other areas of the state.

Maggie House will help alleviate the pressure on DHS and the state’s foster parents to transport Area 2 foster children from the ends of the state’s four corners to Area 2 for mandatory weekly sibling visits, Moody said. Volunteer options exist for people who want to help the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services.

Cecile Blucker, director of the Division of Children and Family Services, reminded several hundred people gathered Tuesday that children in foster care just "want to be children" and are "double traumatized" when separated from siblings.

"One of the things I want you to remember is … a child is a child," Blucker said. "When they came into the foster care system, they’re still a child. But often times their identity changes. They become ‘that foster child,’ and they’re looked upon totally different. And nothing changes, but something that their parents did or did not do. … The children just want to be children."

On any given day, there are about 4,600 children in DHS custody, Blucker added. Another 7,500 children are being served by DHS in the child’s home, but they have not been removed.

"That’s a pretty staggering number," Blucker said.

Communities that have "rallied" around the need for foster homes like Maggie House are needed more, Blucker said, because the child welfare system alone can not meet the demand.

Challenges and Progress

With Gov. Asa Hutchinson at his side, Free Will Baptist Family Ministries President and CEO Frank Woods of Greeneville announced that the Cliff and Opal Young family of Myrtle, Mo., is donating $1.6 million to build another residential home for children in foster care next year. Plans are currently to locate it at Chaffee Crossing, Woods said, to further assist the need in Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Scott, Sebastian and Yell counties.

Hutchinson also said the government alone can not meet the demand for foster care homes in Arkansas and commended Free Will Baptist Family Ministries, other faith-based groups and nonprofit organizations for their work. Hutchinson said after his Restore Hope Summit in August, which attracted more than 500 church and nonprofit leaders, the state has increased its number of foster homes by 109 and increased the number of available beds for children by 232.

"We as a state need to do better for our children," Hutchinson said. "As a result (of the summit), we not only see the challenge but the progress that has been made."

In November, Hutchinson added, there have been more than 50 foster family homes opened, which brings the statewide total to 1,385.

The Division of Children and Family Services has made several procedural improvements and has expanded its statewide partnerships, Hutchinson said in a news release Tuesday.

"DCFS has successfully eliminated the backlog of more than 1,200 foster parent inquiries. This is a good start, but there is still more to be done," Hutchinson stated.

There are 1,150 sibling groups in state custody, Blucker said, ranging in age from 2 to 9. Some sibling groups have up to 10 brothers and sisters. Some of those siblings have been separated for up to four years.

Sibling groups in Area 2 are being given a high priority at Maggie House, which has four "cottages," or wings, with eight "residential techs" and six pairs of "house parents." Two of the "cottages" open this month, and the other two open in January.

The Maggie House project has cost about $900,000, with the 15,000-square-foot building donated and valued at $240,000, Moody said. Maggie House was rebuilt from a shell starting in August after extensive interior demolition. About $500,000 of the funds needed to build Maggie House has been raised so far, Moody said.