LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A year ago, Governor Asa Hutchinson put the Division of Children and Family Services in the spotlight following an evaluation that found a system in need of a fix. Now we are working to see where DHS says it has made progress and which problems still persist.
At this time last year, nearly 700 fewer children were in foster care. At that point, those familiar with the foster care system described it as a statewide crisis.
“We Would Grieve Not Having Our Large Family”
“For as long as I’ve been with The Call, and that’s since 2008, we knew there was a crisis going on,” said Lauri Currier. “That crisis is we don’t have homes for the kids we have in foster care.”
Five years ago, Christina and Cory Jones decided to open their doors as foster parents in Texas.
“It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done for sure, the worthiest too,” she said. “We had six boys under the age of seven, so it was hard we don’t really remember that much “
When they moved to Arkansas, with their three adopted sons in tow, their role as foster parents re-ignited. Shortly after becoming certified, they were fostering two more children to help out here.
“You hear all kinds of stories of kids sleeping in offices, and shelters. It’s bad still – there are a lot of kids who need care,” she said.
“They’ve had to live with that need. Caseworkers consistently call. They struggle with a shortage of beds and caseloads that are double the national recommended levels. Turnover in the Child and Family Services Division hovers around 25 percent. Some speculate that for caseworkers, that percentage climbs closer to 50 percent.
“It seems like we hear a lot of stories having to turn away calls multiple times and reminding the caseworker, I’m full I can’t take anymore,” Cory Jones said.
The Difference of a Year
When Governor Hutchinson spotlighted the crisis last year, DHS had 400 family service workers. Average caseloads were at 29, and there was just half a bed for each kid in care.
“That is an unreasonable burden on our children,” Hutchinson said in a July 2015 press conference. “It’s a heart-rendering judgment on our inadequacy.”
Hutchinson’s comments came after Paul Vincent, a child welfare consultant, conducted an independent review of the DHS division following a re-homing scandal involving a state legislator. The report made nine recommendations for top-down changes, including a focus on placement, more funding for more caseworkers and better organization within the department.
Now, a year, later the numbers that shocked the governor’s conscience sit at much the same level, except there are nearly 5,200 kids in foster care instead of hovering around the mid-4,000 range.
“We are focused on the children. We are making decisions that are good for our kids and good for families,” said DCFS Director Mischa Martin who took the helm as the new division leader this spring.
DHS has doubled the number of kids being placed in homes with relatives. It has reorganized the placement subdivision that coordinates with caseworkers and other staff to find appropriate places for kids. The division, Martin said, has also expanded the number of family service workers it’s attempting to hire, but turnover has been a discouraging dilemma. There are currently 45 posted positions that are vacant and working to be filled.
“Even if we had some additional positions, we’re trying to think creatively how we retain staff…so we can increase the number of foster care workers,” she said. “But the data internally shows the efforts we have made are working and making a difference.”
“We’re pretty fortunate, we’ve only had two caseworkers the whole year we’ve had our foster kids.We have friends who have had three and four,” said Christina Jones. “When you talk to them about what they have to do, it’s crazy. I don’t know how they do it. They have families at home too, but they aren’t getting home until 8 o’clock at night. To expect them to be able to care for every child in their cases is insane.”
DHS said it is tackling the challenges outlined in the report’s nine recommendations. There have been weekly war room meetings where all divisions in DHS meet to outline the roles they can serve int he system aimed at protecting kids and keeping them in a safe environment. A push for more access to mental health has the Behavioral Health division coordinating with DCFS regularly as well as the Division for Developmental Disabilities.
“I would just ask our foster parents, communities and families to give us a chance,” Martin said. “Our staff is working hard with a difficult situation, but I believe my staff has a heart for this.”
Two Years to Go: Challenges on the Horizon
Martin said these are just the first steps to cracking the code to the DCFS crisis. Moving forward her staff’s ongoing focus is on customer service, to better communicate with foster families and the community about ongoing needs and answers to obstacles. The next big issue to take on in the legislature is the caseworker overload. With the governor’s office behind the reforms DCFS is attempting to make, Martin said she hopes the tide will turn.
There has been measurable progress with more potential and current foster families. The Call, a faith-based community partner, helps recruit foster families for Arkansas kids. According to Executive Director Lauri Currier where The Call once touted 250 families in the pipeline to become foster parents, that number currently sits at 420.
“That’s helped a little, but we still have these kids coming into care and not enough homes to put them in,” Currier said. “We still need more people to be involved. We still don’t have enough homes. But I do think the tables are beginning to turn.”
DCFS has also seen growth in therapeutic homes, those meant to offer expert care for children with more serious behavioral or developmental issues. There are currently 1,600 total foster homes in Arkansas. And according to Martin, there was a net increase of 93 homes in the last quarter, compared to a consistent downward trend for a long time.
“We are seeing changes, especially in placement,” Martin said. “That next pivotal step that I hope we can really focus on is prevention. We’re asking ourselves how can we wrap around biological families and give them the services they need to keep their kids in the home. Because we want the children to be in the best environment, and that’s with their parents as long as it’s safe and appropriate.”
Arkansas didn’t reach crisis status overnight, but even with the challenges, those on the inside have noticed a shift. They describe it as small improvements, slowly but surely.
“It’s hard for sure, frustrating for sure at times,” Jones said. “But there’s hope there this year when I”m not sure there was last year.”
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent in Arkansas, click here for more information on how to go through the process.
DHS can use volunteers to help outside of actually being a foster family. To learn more about those opportunities, click the link above or contact the Division of Child & Family Services.