Eight years ago, KTHV Channel 11 anchor Dawn Scott stood outside the Little Rock Zoo, her nerves getting the best of her. She ran down the long list of important interviews she’d conducted in her career — presidents, governors, first ladies — but couldn’t figure out why this one, in particular, put her on edge.
As she anxiously watched her subject approach from the parking lot, Scott breathed in the springtime air and put on a smile. Then the little girl walked up to the reporter, threw her arms around her and said, “You’re going to help me find a family, aren’t you?”
And Scott was hooked.
It all started with a simple connection — someone at KTHV knew someone at the Arkansas Department of Human Services and found out the department was in crisis mode. There simply weren’t enough foster homes to accommodate the amount of children coming into the state’s care, leaving a number of kids sleeping on the floors of DHS offices.
The station decided to partner with DHS to spread the word by airing regular segments interviewing children who were up for adoption in hopes of not only finding homes for the kids, but issuing a call to action for those potentially able to foster.
The Emmy-winning “A Place to Call Home” segments feature Scott talking with a child while taking part in fun activities to make the setting more comfortable and informal, like playing with penguins at the zoo or savoring scoops of ice cream. Seeing kids in their elements, laughing or telling their stories, has done wonders to help viewers connect with these kids in need of love and safety. Seven years later, Scott has interviewed close to 250 children as part of the segment and roughly 60 percent of them have now been adopted.
But what began as just another assignment to cross the news desk has since become an integral part of not only Scott’s career at KTHV, but Scott herself.
“It’s in the fabric of my skin at this point,” she says. “It’s such an intimate connection between DHS and my station and me, we couldn’t imagine not doing it now. It goes above and beyond all of our jobs.”
Over the years, Scott eventually crossed paths with the Centers for Youth and Families, a nonprofit dedicated to building healthy children, families and communities through emotional and social wellness. In fact, most of the children she worked with had benefited from CFYF services at some point.
While her own knowledge of the foster and adoption system was growing, Scott knew little at first of what CFYF offered, other than they worked with foster kids. She quickly learned that the nonprofit — the oldest in the state, in fact — provided specialized services such as outpatient and residential care, family therapy and Arkansas’ only human trafficking treatment center, something that, according to CEO Melissa Dawson, sets the organization apart from others in its field.
“The Centers operates the state’s sole comprehensive residential treatment center focused on human trafficking,” Dawson says, noting CFYF helped close to 30 trafficking victims in 2018. “Over the last several years, Centers has worked with state representatives, law enforcement, community organizations and local schools to improve awareness about this growing problem, making policy recommendations and helping communities learn about warning signs and how to identify at-risk youth.”
With so many facets to CFYF (and an admittedly vague name), it can be easy to focus on the child component and lose the scope of the family, something Dawson says happens often.
“While Centers takes a holistic approach that treats the entire family, not just the child, some are unaware that our full continuum of care includes services specifically for adults,” she says. “From prevention to treatment, we are able to provide comprehensive care for individuals of all ages.”
Those adult-specific services include everything from parenting classes and home-visiting programs for at-risk mothers to trauma-informed counseling and substance abuse treatment.
The Evolve Gala
April 6, 6 p.m.
Statehouse Convention Center
The service at the center of CFYF’s annual Evolve Gala this year is the therapeutic foster care program. Targeting children with significant emotional, behavioral, social and medical needs, this program features intensive, out-of-home care by foster parents with specialized training. It combines traditional foster care and residential treatment center methods through nurture and structure for kids who would otherwise face placement in institutional settings.
As a member of the CFYF board of trustees and a veteran emcee of Evolve, Scott is now on the flip side of the nonprofit as its 2019 Hero of Hope, a recognition given to a community leader who goes above and beyond the call of duty for disadvantaged children in Arkansas. And while she admits accepting the honor is way out of her comfort zone, she only hopes this will further spread knowledge of the ever-present need for foster homes.
“There are amazing groups in central Arkansas like Centers and Project Zero doing this work, but we’re obviously not raising money on the scale that the Heart Association or Susan G. Komen is,” Scott says. “I’m only one little person. We’re all just doing our part in some capacity, but I’m humbled that the work we’re doing just further benefits the kids. That is my greatest hope.”
And it appears the needle is moving. The number of foster parents across the state has gone up, DHS has new systems in place to help connect families and the topic is seemingly less taboo than it was even a few years ago, but there is still much work to be done.
According to the annual Arkansas DHS Statistical Report, 2018 saw a 12 percent decrease in number of children in foster care over the previous year — great news by all accounts — but still listed 4,482 in foster care at the end of the state fiscal year. Fortunately, the percentage of siblings in the state’s care who were placed together rose more than 10 percent over the last four years, now at 82 percent.
Unfortunately, however, the report cites these promising numbers alongside more harrowing statistics like the more than 35,800 reports of child maltreatment, 34 of which included a child fatality.
“Centers is helping kids who come in having experienced incredible trauma like abuse or neglect or poverty or parental drug use,” Scott says. “These kids don’t even understand the scope of their emotions, and Centers helps stabilize them during that critical time. They’re doing incredible, thankless work that not a lot of people can stomach, and it’s just so, so necessary.”
CFYF completes a crucial piece of the puzzle for children who need healing. For Scott, however, as a divorced mother of two, the path to finding her role in all this has been narrow, but true.
“I’m not in a place where I can foster or adopt or write a big, fat check, and honestly I feel almost guilty admitting that to these organizations, but they helped me understand that my place is to do what I do. That’s how I can help.”
Throughout those 200-plus interviews, Scott has come face to face with a lot of unsavory realities surrounding these children, as well as some of her own preconceived notions. She’s seen sweet, personable kids age out of the system before ever getting that call, and she’s seen kids with difficult disadvantages get adopted right after their segment airs.
But along with a more determined drive to be present in the moment with her own kids, the biggest change Scott has seen in her own reflection is a sturdy shift of priorities in her career.
“When I started working in my 20s, it was all about stories and fun and my career, and now it’s completely about how I can use this medium to help,” she says. “I find the older I get, if there’s a component of service, it drives me to work harder. Sure, the scoop feels good, but if it’s not helping people it’s much harder work.”
When Scott looks back on that day at the zoo, she remembers how all of her nerves melted away in that little girl’s embrace. She remembers saying a silent prayer, asking simply to be used to share the girl’s story. Now, every time that voice of worry creeps in, planting fear that a segment won’t be good enough or the details might fall through the cracks, she reminds herself of her role as simply a conduit for the greater good organizations like CFYF are on the front lines for.
“I think the lesson for me is to remember that I’m just an instrument, a voice to be used, and to constantly take myself out of it,” Scott says. “As a reporter, of course I want my work to be good and to have an impact and to do right by the people whose story I’m telling, but this has really taught me to allow myself to be guided and the rest will fall into place.”