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Special reports: Fresh news on 7 'Big Stories' of the past

Every Sunday, we bring you our best.

In April 2015, the Times-News launched its weekly “Big Story,” a major piece of enterprise journalism that requires weeks — sometimes months — to report, write, illustrate and edit. It’s often supported by rich multimedia or interactive content on Magicvalley.com/bigstory. And every “Big Story” offers readers something beyond the daily cycle of breaking news.

On some Sundays, we investigate access to public records, or uses of the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture, or gaps in school districts’ vetting of applicants with ethics problems. On others, we expose needs in south-central Idaho communities, such as senior hunger or sexual addiction.

Need help understanding the debate on public lands management or groundwater pumpers’ historic water deal? Some “Big Story” packages break down those current issues. Others step back and examine how big news of the past — such as a huge 2007 fire or the closure of J.R. Simplot Co.’s Heyburn potato plant — helped shape the Idaho of today.

We explore conflicts. We tell compelling human stories. We illuminate the big pictures that readers might miss while they focus on our communities’ incremental changes.

And sometimes, we just try to surprise. (We bet you didn’t expect our journalists to spend a full 24 hours chatting with diners at the Depot Grill.)

Today and next Sunday, we’re updating the issues we tackled in a handful of “Big Story” packages.

Then, keep expecting ambitious enterprise journalism. Every single week.

—Virginia Hutchins


Local
T-N series drives surge in foster parenting interest

TWIN FALLS — Recruiters have seen a surge of interest in foster parenting since the Times-News this spring published a three-part series on Idaho’s severe shortage of foster parents.

“It’s been hard to keep up with it all,” said Ellen Leavitt, who handles foster parent licensing for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Twin Falls office.

But it’s a good problem to have.

Health and Welfare this spring was desperate for more local foster parents. And despite the higher numbers of people going through training, south-central Idaho needs still more.

The Times-News project in April and May told the story of Idaho’s foster parenting shortage and other flaws in its child welfare system through the eyes of current and former foster parents and foster children. A February report by the state Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations illuminated the problems and proposed solutions, including doing a better job of retaining foster parents.

Severe shortage: Idaho foster parents quit almost as fast as they're recruited

While the need escalates, south-central Idaho suffers from a severe shortage of people who want to become foster parents, and they quit at nearly the same rate they are recruited. But it takes more than interest. Prospective foster parents must complete a months-long process to become licensed. They must face whatever problems the children bring from situations of abuse or neglect — burns, violent outbursts, distrust. And they often feel overwhelmed, asked to take on more and more children.

From March 2014 to March 2016, the number of Idaho foster homes dropped by 8 percent or 88 homes. Officials attribute that decline to foster parents’ frustrations with the system, life changes or successful adoption. And others who became foster parents to care for specific children dropped out after that need passed.

Since the OPE report came out, Idaho legislators approved two new social worker positions across the state, Leavitt said. One of them started July 1 here in south-central Idaho.

During a mid-April information session in Twin Falls for potential foster parents, 16 people showed up and Health and Welfare employees had to keep adding chairs to a meeting room.

“The most we’d ever seen was five,” said Marjean Hazen, child welfare supervisor for the agency’s Twin Falls office.

Health and Welfare’s training classes for potential new foster parents have also been full — even overcrowded. Health and Welfare added another Twin Falls class section to meet the demand.

A full class has 25 participants, Hazen said; now they’ve had as many as 30. That’s up significantly from before the newspaper series published.

“We were doing good to have 15 participants,” Hazen said.

Idaho must act fast to fix broken foster-care system

GOODING — Kelsey Peterson and her husband talked about fostering children even before they married in 2011. The young couple was finally licensed to foster in May 2015, allowed to take in two children between newborn and 3 years old.

The quality of potential foster parents is also excellent, Leavitt said, adding they come from many walks of life. Some thought about fostering for a while, Hazen said, but are now pursuing licenses after hearing there’s such a huge need. Others were interested in adopting but decided to open their homes to foster children.

In mid-July, Health and Welfare’s Twin Falls office was working on more home studies than usual — one of the final hurdles before a potential foster parent can gain a license and take in children.


Local
Valley House gets $65K gift for women's housing after T-N story

TWIN FALLS — Valley House Homeless Shelter’s project to create a shelter for single women got a big boost this year.

By late July the majority of the estimated $130,000 cost to renovate a derelict house across the street had been raised thanks to the nonprofit’s yearly dinner fundraiser and a $65,000 grant received after the Times-News ran a February story about the shelter’s work in the community.

Magic Valley’s only shelter for homeless families, Valley House last year helped more than 5,000 people, that February story reported. Primarily for women and families, it helps anyone who comes to the door. And they come or call around the clock.

Executive director Sharon Breshears in July declined to name the big donor but said it previously gave Valley House $5,000.

“They told us they saw the article,” Breshears said. “They wanted it to go toward the women’s transitional housing.”

Valley House directors named the future women’s shelter Sharon’s Place after Breshears, and they hope to complete it this year.

The need doesn’t end there. Next, Valley House plans to build new apartments for family transitional housing. Breshears estimates that project will cost $250,000 to $300,000.

“We want to continue as soon as possible on the second phase, the two five-plexes,” Breshears said. “We need partners for that. We would like to get that going as soon as possible.”