For several hours on Tuesday, pairs of shoes represented every foster child in Sebastian and Crawford counties to anyone driving through Fort Smith.
Workers with the Department of Human Services, Arkansas Family Alliance and others placed hundreds of pairs of children's shoes on the northwest corner of Rogers Avenue and Free Ferry Road at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The shoes sat on the corner until 5 p.m. Tuesday under a banner that read, "Walk A Mile In My Shoes."
"I feel like our community as a whole wants to do something about the whole child welfare crisis, but just doesn’t know how deep the need is," Family Alliance Executive Director Matt Whitson said of the display. "If they know the need, then they will rally around that need to support families and children in crisis."
Melanie Cleveland, Department of Child and Family Services Director of Arkansas Area 2, which includes Sebastian and Crawford counties, said there were approximately 650 Sebastian County children and 140 Crawford County children in the Arkansas foster care system as of Tuesday. Cleveland said the number dropped from more than 900 foster children in Sebastian County nine months ago, and that those in Sebastian County need to know that families need their support.
"We don’t want children taken away from their families, but we do want our partners, through any means possible, to support them with our churches, with CASA, with the Hamilton House, with the Harbor House," she said. "All of our partners come together and understand that it’s all of our children.”
Cleveland said each pair of shoes in the display was "a representation of a specific child," in the foster care system in Sebastian and Crawford counties.
"If you’ll look at the shoes, you’ll see that many of them are all different sizes, because our children come from all different walks of life," she said. “Some of these shoes are worn, like our children, some of these shoes are old, like our children who are growing up in foster care without permanent families."
Matt Whitson said the number of shoes in Tuesday's display "is not anywhere close" to the number of children in Arkansas, Area 2 or even Sebastian and Crawford counties who have been abused that no one knows about.
"Child abuse has no age boundary or societal boundary," Cleveland said.
In light of these realities, Matt Whitson said businesses, churches and other organizations in Sebastian and Crawford counties need to band together to combat child abuse. He said such organizations can address child abuse and neglect on the front end, which will prevent behavior that will put children in foster care.
Such organizations should also help children who are already in foster care, Matt Whitson said.
"(If) we work together on this common situation, this common problem, I think that it will decrease the number of kids in care because we will see the need of the biological family and help meet that need so we can keep those kids in their homes, or open up homes for those kids who need to come out," he said.
The conversation around the local foster care situation extends to the foster children's peers as well, according to some in attendance. Becca Whitson, Matt Whitson's husband and Family Alliance executive director, said she specifically brought her sons, who are home-schooled, to the event so they could appreciate the scale of the problem.
"They see the individual child, but I really wanted them to see it on a larger scale. In our community, I feel like we often see the large scale, and it’s often really paralyzing to see the numbers," she said. "When you see these pairs of shoes and you see each one as an individual child, it becomes a very different situation.”
Becca Whitson said her sons, who are 13 and 11, can make a positive difference in Sebastian County's foster care situation as well. She said this involves reaching out to children who suddenly move into their circle because they are in a new foster home.
"You don’t have to be an adult to make a difference, and we want them to know that," she said.
Cleveland said she encourages everyone in Sebastian and Crawford counties to find a way to help the foster care and child abuse situation in the area. She said people who are old enough should consider becoming foster parents to children.
"If you can’t be a foster parent, consider supporting services that are around here with your time and your money in order to support these children and these families," she said. "That’s the only way we’re going to get to the end of child abuse.”