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Gov. Asa Hutchinson said last week that he will work to address shortcomings in the state's child welfare system — including committing $8 million in state dollars to hire more caseworkers to lower their workload — that were identified by a consultant who studied the Division of Children and Family Services of the state Department of Human Services. Hutchinson commissioned the study, by Paul Vincent, director of an Alabama nonprofit, after the Arkansas Times reported on state Rep. Justin Harris' moving his two adopted children into the home of a sex abuser and identified various problems in the agency that oversees the state's foster care and adoption services.
Among the findings in Vincent's report — many previously reported in the Arkansas Times — are that state caseworkers have an average caseload of 29, compared to 15 nationally. "That is a strain on the caseworkers, it leads to increased turnover, it leads to bad morale, it leads to bad decisions and bad performance," Hutchinson said at a press conference last Thursday to announce the report's findings. "So, our objective is to reduce the caseload for those caseworkers in the field." He said the state will work to reduce the caseload to 20 over the next three years.
Hutchinson also cited a section that said that in the past four months, 22 children had to sleep at their local DHS office because there was no foster home available to accept them.
"Whenever you look at the fact that there's been an increase in the need for placement over the last two months from 3,800 in need of placement to over 4,300," Hutchinson said, "that illustrates the challenge we face." He added the finding that 55 percent of the state's placements for protective services are outside the county where the child resides.
Vincent's report found that the percentage of children that DCFS places with relatives — only 14 percent — is far below that of neighboring states.
According to the report, in the second quarter of 2015, Arkansas gained 122 foster families but lost 138. Foster beds are so few that Arkansas is 13th in the nation in placing children in non-family settings, including group homes and mental and behavioral health care facilities. The report also notes that only 16 percent of children who've been in foster care in Arkansas for at least two years or longer have been in stable situations, placed with two or fewer families.
Vincent's report also recommends that the state spend more money on its mental/behavioral health services. However, the governor said the state would turn to its "faith-based partners" to help address the "challenge of placement of those in need of protective services and foster care" and would seek other "private partners" to "make sure our children are not spending the night in a DHS office."
The legislature decided to give substantial income tax cuts in the last session to high-wealth persons; Hutchinson has called a summit in August to ask faith-based groups to fill in the gaps in the state's social services because the state lacks the resources to meet all needs.
Vincent's report makes passing reference to successful class-action suits against Oklahoma and New Jersey over their child welfare systems — states that have a far better case-to-caseworker ratio than does Arkansas.
The report also discusses in detail the widespread sense of tension and mistrust between DCFS workers and their extra-departmental counterparts, particularly in the Administrative Office of the Courts, which runs the attorney ad litem program that assigns lawyers to represent foster children. Vincent recommends that the DCFS-AOC relationship be strengthened.
The Times reported in its July 9 cover story on the crisis in the children's welfare system in Sebastian County that poor DCFS-AOC relations were a significant issue there, where one ad litem said DCFS attorneys routinely impede communication between DCFS caseworkers and ad litems; caseworkers say they fear ad litems are out to "get them in trouble"; and there are rumors of a DCFS "blackball list" of ad litems who have embarrassed the department in court.
The report makes nine other key recommendations other than the three-year plan to reduce caseloads and repairing the DCFS-AOC relationships. It calls for the state to:
• Designate a staff member in the governor's office to coordinate interagency planning and system collaboration for Children, Youth and Family Services.
• Build DCFS capacity to partner with stakeholders.
• Address the shortage of placements.
• Create a DCFS county-central office task force to address local administrative flexibility.
• Expedite the process for filling DCFS vacancies.
• Develop and implement a "Principle-Based DCFS Model of Practice."
• Strengthen DCFS assessment and family engagement skills.
• Expand the availability of intensive home and community-based mental health services.
Positives in Vincent's report: Child maltreatment has declined. But fatalities are the third highest in the U.S. It also reports that the prescribing of antipsychotic drugs to children is down and the adoption rate is up.
Funding for part of this reporting was provided by people who donated to a crowdfunding campaign on ioby.com and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
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