Imagine not knowing at the end of each day whether you'll return to the place you've been living, or instead be shuttled off, with no explanation, to a new home.

Add in the possibility your new caregivers may not be loving, dedicated foster parents, but could instead expose you to further neglect or abuse, and you have an idea of what Lexington native Christopher Hagans experienced as a youngster in Kentucky's child welfare system.

"That mother and son bond being severed one time was hard. The second time it was easier. The third time it was even easier," recalled Hagans, now 21. "The sad thing is, the only reason it became easy is because I became more numb to my emotions."

Hagans shared his story Friday morning as part of a half-day forum on the federal Family First Prevention Services Act at the Murray State University-Paducah Regional Campus. The forum for the 17-county Lakes region featured a presentation on the details of Family First, as well as regional statistics regarding the child welfare system; a discussion on the role of the courts in the act; and a panel of regional stakeholders, including foster parents, service providers and others.

"Family First gives us an amazing opportunity," said Jessica Brown of the Department for Community Based Services. "What are we going to do about it?"

The bipartisan Family First Prevention Services Act was signed into law in February 2018. The act reforms federal child welfare financing streams to provide preventive services to families at risk of entering the child welfare system. It allows federal reimbursement for mental health services, substance abuse treatment and in-home parenting training, with the goal of preventing children from entering foster care, according to a bill summary that First Focus Campaign for Children released.

The act aims to improve outcomes for children already in care by creating incentives for states to reduce placement in congregate care settings. Eight million dollars will be appropriated for "competitive grants to support recruitment and retention of high quality foster families," the summary adds.

Hagans' story served to illustrate the importance of reunifying children with biological parents or, if that isn't safe or possible, placing them in permanent, safe family settings.

Hagans said his primary caregiver faced challenges as a single mother of three, but he believes she could have succeeded with better support. He recognized the need and importance of foster care in many situations, but added he doesn't believe removal from the home is a "one-size-fits-all" solution. In fact, he said, his removal exposed him to sexual and physical abuse he never experienced under the care of his birth mother.

"Foster care, … sometimes it does more harm than good," he said. "It takes a lot of time for children like me to heal up from that. We need more communication and teamwork, to do a lot better at that."

He said after the forum that while it's difficult to recount the details of his story, he hopes to speak up for the children who are, and will be, in the child welfare system.

"I'm really hoping that people will listen," he said. "All I want is to build a system for those kids not to suffer anymore, and those families not to suffer anymore, either."

There are three major areas of need when it comes to placing children in foster homes in the Lakes region, said Shawn Johnson, a recruiter for foster families.

First, the area needs more homes that accept sibling groups, as there is a need of about 35 percent that isn't being met, she said.

Secondly, more foster homes need to be willing to take in teenagers, Johnson said.

"They're funny, they're smart, and they've lived lives where you could probably learn something from them," she said. "Don't think about what could go wrong. Think about what could go right (in fostering a teen)."

Finally, it's important to recruit more black foster families. There are 143 African American children in the foster system in this region, but only 48 African American foster homes -- and children thrive best when placed with families that can connect them with their culture, she said.

Brown, of DCBS, also provided information on how many children are placed outside their region, several hours from their communities.

"These are our kids," she said. "If we are sending them away … how are they going to be successful, contributing adults to our community?"

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