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Arkansas’s overloaded foster care system 

Part one of Children in Crisis: An Arkansas Times Special Investigation.

REUNITED: The state foster system often kept Ivy Brake (right) apart from friends and family*. - RACHEL PUTMAN
  • Rachel Putman
  • REUNITED: The state foster system often kept Ivy Brake (right) apart from friends and family*.

In 2007, a 10-year-old girl from Fort Smith named Ivy Brake became the responsibility of the state. Her mother, Ivy recalled, was loving, sweet and unstable. She struggled with substance abuse and chronic health issues for most of Ivy's childhood. She periodically got clean — once for a year — until, when Ivy was 10, an old boyfriend returned, and her mother started using again. Ivy and her 12-year-old sister, Kristin, left to stay with a relative, but soon after they arrived, the police showed up, asking questions about their life at home.

The police, Kristin said, were going to wait for the girls' grandmother to come take them from the relative's house, but the Arkansas Department of Human Services' Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) got there first. They took the sisters to the Fort Smith Emergency Shelter, a short-term residential facility for children awaiting placement with a foster family. A juvenile court then held a probable cause hearing to determine whether the children should remain in DCFS custody. According to Kristin, DCFS first advocated for adopting out the girls and terminating their mother's parental rights, but a local judge, Mark Hewett, overruled DCFS, arguing that their mother should be given another chance if she could sober up.

Relatives told Ivy that her grandmother, who lived nearby, and an aunt in Texas both tried to get custody of the sisters but were told that they didn't have sufficient space and that "that wasn't what was best for our lives." Instead, Ivy began a long chain of placements in foster homes and group residential facilities: to local families in Fort Smith and nearby in Cedarville, Greenwood and West Fork, but also, when the placements didn't work out, to homes as far as Fordyce, Monticello and Texarkana. Often the girls were placed in separate homes — a common necessity when DCFS can't find families willing to take in siblings.

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Ivy and Kristin saw their mother occasionally the first year, then didn't for many months, after she failed repeated drug screenings. About a year after the girls came into DCFS custody, their mother went on methadone, got sober and rented a two-bedroom apartment that DCFS had told her she needed to regain custody, only to have DCFS then say she needed a three-bedroom apartment, Kristin said. When she failed to find one after a few months, the court declared her an unfit mother, and her parental rights were terminated. Although she was working with a lawyer to appeal, DCFS scheduled a last visit between her and her daughters. Ivy was in the bathroom when the visit ended and didn't get to say goodbye; their mother unexpectedly died several weeks later, the result of a bad interaction of prescription and over-the-counter medications*.

Ivy can't remember how many placements she's had in total — maybe 15 — but knows she's attended 19 schools throughout her life. (Frequent placements are common in DCFS. Last year, only 18 percent of children who had been in foster care for more than two years had lived in two or fewer homes.) Often she was moved without warning, and frequently didn't see Kristin for long stretches when DCFS couldn't facilitate visitation. Some of the foster parents were kind, she said, and others less so; one of the foster homes was closed for being abusive, Kristin said. "But nothing I've ever been to ... ever felt like home," Ivy said.

Until this spring, when she turned 18, Ivy was among the thousands of children in Arkansas's foster care system, which in the past year has swelled to encompass more than 4,400 children, an all-time state high.

"That's the most children that this agency has had in foster care," said DCFS Director Cecile Blucker. "We've got more children in the system than the state has the capacity to serve. ... We're just maxed."

But the statewide increase is worse in Sebastian County, where Ivy came into custody and which for years has been undergoing a quiet crisis in foster placements. As of mid-May, the county had 583 foster children, including a net gain of 63 children since last year. That's exactly the same number as in Pulaski County, despite the fact that Sebastian County has less than a third of the population. On a per-capita basis, it translates to far and away the highest rate of children in care in Arkansas, and children in Sebastian County remain in care longer than anywhere else in the state.

At its most obvious, the problem is that there simply aren't enough places for Sebastian County kids to go. With just 59 foster homes providing 124 beds — a fifth of what's needed — Sebastian County has one of most limited pools of foster homes in the state, behind 59 other counties. Few counties in the state do have enough foster beds to go around, but the state's average bed-to-child ratio is nearly three times higher than in Sebastian County. Pulaski County, at .74 beds per child, is almost four times better equipped to meet its equivalent need. As a result, more than two-thirds of Sebastian foster children are sent out of the county at least once, often hours away from friends and family.

Because of the high numbers, caseloads for Sebastian's DCFS staff — currently averaging 28 cases per worker, usually accounting for dozens of children — are more than double the department's target of 15 children per caseworker (an ideal that few counties can meet). Staff members sometimes spend 10 hours a day driving children across the state, to and from their far-flung placements, and caseworkers frequently fail to meet the mandates of case plans, such as providing consistent services to families or visitation with their children. The turnover rate is so high that a caseworker who stays longer than a year is considered a veteran. One former staffer said it took two years after being hired for her to receive entry training, because every new employee is thrust immediately into the department's ongoing state of triage.

"We're having a bad time over here," said Jo Ellen Carson, a former Democratic state representative who's also worked for many of the last 23 years as an attorney ad litem — part of the state's stable of court-appointed lawyers who represent foster children's interests in all Arkansas dependency-neglect cases. "Ask me: Have you had [foster] children lately staying in hotels? Children sleeping overnight at the DHS office in Sebastian County? Children who suffered more than 20 placements?" The answer to all three questions, Carson said, is yes.

"My understanding from people who've been here as long as I have," she continued, "is that this is the worst placement crisis that the state of Arkansas has ever seen."

***

On a rainy morning in early May, three white church vans pulled into a narrow alley at Fort Smith's Stonewall Jackson Inn, a dingy one-story motel on the outskirts of town. Twenty or so people, mostly white women in their 30s and 40s, filed out of the vans and into an open motel room where they stood in an uneasy perimeter around the bed — mattress ajar from its frame, stripped of bedding and speckled with what looked like blood. The floor was strewn with beer and mini liquor bottles, empty potato chip bags and cookie wrappers. The face of the AC unit had been removed and the air in the room was as dank and stale as you'd expect from a low-rent, long-term residential motel. Members of the crowd from the church vans held their arms close, trying not to touch the walls, instinctively scratching their skin.

In the far corner, a 63-year-old veteran juvenile division officer from the Fort Smith Police Department, Detective Kris Deason, waited until everyone arrived before launching in. Though the room was staged for the guests — a simulation of the neglectful homes from which children enter Arkansas's child welfare system — Deason repeated to all who asked, "It's reality." Noting the disgust of her audience, she added that it paled in comparison to what she's seen elsewhere over her nearly 28 years of investigating child abuse and neglect. When officers go out on child welfare checks in Fort Smith, she said, they regularly encounter homes far worse: floors that pulse with cockroaches, odors that drive you outside, houses where the only water supply is a hose and electricity comes via extension cord run from a neighboring building. They're homes, she explained, run by parents who only care about their next fix, who leave prescription medication out for toddlers to consume, who don't know who's fathered their children.

It's been a tough three decades on the job, Deason said. She later told me she's "pretty well fried" from the things she's seen — including a recent case involving a 2-year-old girl raped and murdered by her uncle — and it's made her cynical. Her description of the horror of that abuse case circled back to the filth of the motel room.

"This is where it all starts, when the cops are called and they need to check the welfare of the child," she told the group. "This is what we're looking at. You're going to have people who never should have been parents. This is why we need foster homes."

click to enlarge DEASON: The horrors of investigating child welfare cases have left the Fort Smith Police detective feeling "fried." - RACHEL PUTMAN
  • Rachel Putman
  • DEASON: The horrors of investigating child welfare cases have left the Fort Smith Police detective feeling "fried."

The staged hotel room was the start of a three-hour recruitment tour called "The Journey Home," organized by The CALL, a Christian nonprofit that enlists and trains foster families on behalf of DCFS. For the last three years, The CALL has hosted such tours: taking prospective foster parents "into custody" for an undisclosed itinerary — whisked from dirty home to emergency shelter, from court to visitation center — meant to evoke the dislocation and powerlessness that children feel when they enter the foster system. Aside from DCFS's internal recruitment efforts, The CALL's advocacy represents the main avenue through which Arkansas foster parents are enlisted and trained. And the stakes, explained The CALL's local county coordinator, Megan Scott, are high.

But Sebastian County's placement crisis isn't just that there aren't enough homes, or enough caseworkers, for the children. Although the county contains just 5 percent of the state's children, it represents 13 percent of the foster care population, for reasons that baffle even insiders.

"Why are there are more in Sebastian County than anywhere else?" asks Jack Moffett, director of the Fort Smith Emergency Shelter. "I honestly don't know. I'm not sure that anybody does."

He's heard some blame higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse in the area. Others point to Fort Smith's decline as a manufacturing center and the poverty left in the wake of multiple factory closings. Some creatively attribute it to geography: Fort Smith is a border town, the gateway to the West, and home to a population of transients crossing back and forth. Across the Oklahoma line, a local judge said, quality of life "drops off fast" in an impoverished region dotted with casinos and poultry farms. Carson said that local law enforcement once told her a similar theory: that Fort Smith's placement near the juncture of interstates and multiple U.S. highways may bring bad things, including a distribution network for meth cooked in rural labs.

But there is another factor to consider: the local child welfare system, from DCFS, to law enforcement, to the court system. When the Arkansas Times began looking at more systemic issues within the state's child protection infrastructure, a former DCFS attorney said to not think of the department as a monolith, but rather as 75 individual DCFS agencies, each with its own administration, department culture and interorganizational relationships. That can make for a system where policy decisions seem arbitrary from county to county, where "the only consistency is inconsistency," as one person familiar with DCFS explained. In Sebastian County, many stakeholders said it adds up to a culture of removing too many children from families that, elsewhere in Arkansas, could resolve their problems with in-home services and state support.

A former local DCFS worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said that for years she watched the agency remove children from their parents' homes for what struck her as grossly inadequate reasons — after their parents were arrested for shoplifting, minor drug charges or DUIs — and after various authorities, from DCFS to the police, refused to allow other relatives to take the children. The rates of child removal in Sebastian County are so high, she said, "even people who work for DCFS are nervous about their own children," fearful that if they fail to pay a parking ticket and end up with a warrant, their kids could be taken away.

"If you get an investigator to your house, almost anyone can lose their kids," said another former DCFS worker. Many of the problems that the system frames as neglect or child endangerment, both argued, are often the trappings of poverty instead.

That tracks with DCFS statistics. Although across Arkansas, 49 percent of children in care are removed because of neglect — whether drugs or the sort of disordered home represented on The CALL tour — in Sebastian County, Blucker said, an incredible 87 percent of children enter the system primarily for such reasons. Children in Sebastian County come into care more than twice as often than in the rest of Arkansas for either inadequate housing — including moving too frequently — or because parents have been incarcerated. And, reported a group of outside consultants in a 2011 review of the county, local authorities often refuse to let relatives take children — which would preclude their entering the foster system — due to suspicions that "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

Susan Hooks, co-founder and president of Fort Smith's STEPS Family Resource Center — a nonprofit that provides space for parents who've lost custody to visit with their children outside of DCFS offices — said that in the majority of cases she sees, families need support and training most of all.

"There's a small number of children that are in danger that need to be removed for their safety, but I think it's better in the majority of cases for the child to stay in the home and for parents to get the education they need. If they're not getting the child to school, let's find out why. If there are anger or substance abuse issues, let's get them into treatment," said Hooks, who added that local law enforcement also needs training to recognize what actually constitutes child endangerment. "Most people have the perception that kids in foster care have horrible parents. But we're seeing loving parents that don't always have the skills needed to be healthy parents."

click to enlarge SUSAN HOOKS: State takes too many kids away from parents who simply need support and training. - RACHEL PUTMAN
  • Rachel Putman
  • SUSAN HOOKS: State takes too many kids away from parents who simply need support and training.

There are evidenced-based reasons to change that pattern. Jennifer Ferguson, deputy director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said that the psychological damage caused by removing children from families that are merely neglectful, and not abusive, often outweighs the benefits. In June, her organization released the first report in a three-part series looking at ways for Arkansas to reduce the number of children brought into the foster system.

"There's a lot of national talk about how you don't want to bring children into care unless it's the last resort," Ferguson said. "The abused children probably need to be in the system, but for kids who are neglected, it's counterintuitive, because it's so traumatizing to bring kids into care."

***

After one of Ivy Brake's foster home placements ended abruptly — Ivy said because she complained to a caseworker about how she was being treated, and a foster mother retaliated by telling the caseworker that Ivy was out of control — she said her caseworker told her, " 'If you leave, you're going to a facility.' "

She did leave, thus beginning a tour of group homes around the state. Some group homes are merely residential — short- or long-term placements for foster children with nowhere else to go. Others are behavioral facilities for children sentenced there by juvenile courts for truancy, running away or violence. Still others are mental health institutions, for children with psychiatric needs. Ivy went to all three, bouncing between facilities in Fordyce, Monticello and Texarkana. It's questionable whether she ever qualified for behavioral or mental health admission. Although caseworkers promised Ivy that the group homes would be fun, she instead found herself in lock-down facilities, where she was compelled to follow strict rules designed for at-risk youth. She was often only allowed to bring a small amount of clothing and was sometimes required to dress with an open door in view of facility staff; at some homes she had to keep her hands folded behind her back while she walked, and staff refused to let her call her sister. In one of the mental health facilities, Ivy accumulated a string of psychiatric diagnoses — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficity disorder (ADD, major depression and bipolar disorder — for which she was prescribed eight pills daily, often leaving her feeling quiet and unlike herself.

"I was just alone. They'd move me to, like, Timbuktu and I wouldn't know anybody or have any family," she said. "I was just by myself, for a long time."

Ivy's story isn't unique. Former Sebastian County DCFS workers said foster kids from the county are constantly "sent to behavioral" — meaning to facilities like Mill Creek in Fordyce or Valley Behavioral outside Fort Smith — when they've cycled through too many foster homes.

That's a large part of the reason why Deidre Gray, a former Sebastian County DCFS staffer, ended up leaving social work after just two years. Until this April, Gray was a program assistant, scheduling and overseeing visitation, ferrying kids like Ivy around the state. Over her career with DCFS, she estimated that easily a quarter of the children she worked with were placed in restrictive behavioral or mental health facilities. That's higher than state DCFS statistics, which show 11 percent of foster children living in general residential facilities, and an additional 4.3 percent in acute and sub-acute placements. (In Sebastian County, official numbers are slightly higher, with 14 percent of foster children living in general residential homes, and another 4.8 percent in behavioral and mental health facilities.) But Gray's work transporting children exposed her to many of the latter, and she said that institutionalization seemed like a catastrophic case of overtreatment.

In order to justify the placement of foster children in behavioral and mental health homes, Gray said, "[the kids] had to have an issue, so they would be asked a lot of leading questions and then put on all these meds." One teenage girl Gray transported told her that intake staff at an institution had asked her whether she'd been feeling rage lately. "She was a 16-year-old girl, who'd just been taken away from her family and school, and she was like, 'Of course I'm feeling rage!' " It's hard to parse the legitimacy of a diagnosis once children have been labeled with a disorder, and often kids who end up at behavioral and mental health institutions have a paper trail from having "blown" previous foster home placements that indicates disruptive behaviors and seems to justify their treatment.

"But that's not the real reason [the children are upset]," Gray said. "The real reason they have the behaviors is because they were taken from their family."

click to enlarge RACHEL PUTMAN
  • Rachel Putman

When she was in 10th grade, Ivy said, she was placed with a foster family in Clarksville that wanted to adopt her, but the proposed adoption led to a conflict with her remaining biological relatives. Ivy felt torn and decided to leave. Ultimately, last December, she ended up in a transitional living program in Fayetteville called The Bell House for Girls, run by Youth Bridge Inc., a Northwest Arkansas nonprofit that serves 3,000 youths per year. The home was a voluntary girls residence, where older teens and young adults can lead semi-autonomous lives and leave at will, and where Executive Director Scott Linebaugh said that Ivy received numerous therapeutic services. But this February, a bed bug infestation led to its temporary closure. The problem, again, was there were no local homes to place them in, and even fewer foster parents willing to take on 17- and 18-year-old wards of the state. So the Bell House women were shipped north, to another Youth Bridge facility, the Benton County Emergency Shelter in Centerton, 40 minutes away.

The Centerton home, which also takes in children who are homeless or sentenced there by courts, had stricter rules: restrictions again on how many clothes residents could bring; no soda or coffee; and punishments that included confiscating residents' hair products that Ivy, who is biracial, found particularly insensitive.

Linebaugh explained that, by necessity, "it's a stricter, more structured program, simply because you have so many different types of kids that you don't know much about, who are there for a short time, and most of whom are going through a period that's the worst of their lives." But even if that's understandable, what it means for many foster children is that there's no clear line between punitive placements for delinquent children and those who just have nowhere else to go.

"In honesty," Blucker acknowledges, "there are probably some children that are placed in our residential group homes that should be in a foster home setting. If we had that setting."

For the month they stayed in Centerton, the residents had to rise before dawn to take three buses to get to the high school they'd been attending in Springdale. But just a few weeks after Bell House was reopened, the women were told they were returning to Centerton so that Bell House staff could investigate an alleged drug offense involving one of the residents.

Ivy refused to go back to Centerton. Since she'd recently turned 18, she was allowed to sign herself out, and so she did, staying with friends, sometimes sleeping in their cars, until the Clarksville family to whom she'd become close sent her money to move to a hotel so she could finish her last months of high school. They also sent gas money so a friend of Ivy's could transport her to school each day, but, Ivy said, the friend often failed to show, leaving her without a ride. Though she said she'd previously taken advanced placement classes and had a 3.6 grade point average, with plans to go to college for computer science, this spring her attendance record plummeted. By state law she'd missed too much school to graduate with her class. Distraught, she dropped out, and this May watched from the audience as her friends collected their diplomas.

Since then, she's divided her time between living with fellow former foster kids in Springdale, her unofficial "adoptive family" in Clarksville, and her sister, Kristin, and Kristin's 8-month-old son in Fort Smith. For several months this spring, she tried to find work, applying at restaurant bars in which she's too young to drink. She briefly took a night shift at a Fort Smith chicken processing plant, where she worked until past 2 a.m. for a week, before deciding she couldn't take it. She wants to earn enough to get an apartment and to return to school this fall. ("I'm not letting DHS make me into a stereotype," she wrote me.) But several months out of foster care, she's essentially drifting, moving almost weekly, with no phone or other steady means of staying in touch with the people in her life, and no consistent authority to help her cross the bridge from eight years of temporary, often badly matched foster homes, into independent adulthood.

Youth Bridge's Linebaugh said that Ivy would have made an excellent candidate for another of the organization's homes, the Julie House, which beginning in 2005 provided apartments for homeless young adults who aged out of foster care, connecting them with jobs and tuition-free college. But federal budget cuts led the home to close in 2014, and state funds haven't made up the difference.

"That's where this program would have been so great," he said. "Because there are so many kids like Ivy."

***

The complex web of problems in Sebastian County isn't new. Four years ago, DCFS hired an outside consultant group, Hornby Zeller Associates Inc. (HZA), to investigate why so many Sebastian County children entered the system, why caseloads had skyrocketed to 70 cases per worker in some instances, why the local department failed to meet so many of its mandates for care, and why it couldn't hold on to its staff. At the time, in 2011, 85 percent of children had been placed outside the county at least once. Caseworkers routinely neglected to create individualized case plans for families trying to regain custody of their children or document what was happening with the kids and their parents. For those families who hadn't lost custody, but were receiving in-home preventive services from DCFS — assistance in addressing environmental issues like cleanliness, budgeting or therapy needs — DCFS met less than a fifth of its required visits. HZA was tasked with answering one basic question: whether department decision-making was functioning differently in Sebastian County from elsewhere in the state.

Comparing Sebastian County with Garland County, which was chosen as representative of general Arkansas child welfare standards, HZA found that Sebastian County removed twice as many children from their homes as Garland County did. Sebastian County's caseworkers were beyond overwhelmed, HZA reported, and as a result, case plans in the county were rarely tailored to an individual family's needs. Instead, the demands on families to fulfill all the requirements of a case plan became almost dictatorial: an end in itself, rather than the means of assessing whether a home had been made safe.

But the report also found that DCFS wasn't the only problem. While DCFS generally receives the brunt of periodic public dissatisfaction — whether it's accused of being too lax, and letting children slip through the cracks, or too aggressive, and dividing families unnecessarily — the department isn't operating in a vacuum. At the time of the HZA assessment, 40 percent of Sebastian County's referrals resulted from arrest or incarceration, usually for drug charges, and often because the police wouldn't leave the children in another relative's care and DCFS staff incorrectly believed those circumstances mandated removing children from the home. In Garland, that was only true of 10 percent of cases, since an independent court officer had been empowered to find immediate placements for children whose parents were arrested, preventing many from entering the system in the first place. Further impeding family reunification, HZA found that in Sebastian County substance abuse issues usually meant automatic removal of a child, whereas Garland took a more lenient approach, distinguishing between the presence of drugs and a truly incapacitated parent. The judicial system played a role, too, imposing what DCFS workers described as overly specific court orders for children's care, which caseworkers struggled and frequently failed to fulfill.

In the summary of its findings, HZA stressed that it hadn't set out to diagnose a problem that crossed multiple agencies and departments; the review had been commissioned, after all, to find out what was wrong with Sebastian's DCFS. But what it found instead were troubles that were systemwide, where "all parties are contributing to those issues."

That doesn't seem to have changed. Four years after the HZA assessment, the various stakeholders in Sebastian County child welfare are still at odds with one another. Asked about Sebastian County, DCFS Director Blucker still attributes some of the problem to an overactive police department and juvenile court judges, who order nine times more children into care for truancy than the rest of the state, and usually impose mandatory drug tests before every family visitation.

click to enlarge SEBASTIAN COUNTY COURTHOUSE - RACHEL PUTMAN
  • Rachel Putman
  • SEBASTIAN COUNTY COURTHOUSE

Although he recently retired, for 24 years Judge Mark Hewett was the face of juvenile justice in Sebastian County, handling around half of all cases in the county. Described by some of those who worked with him as an incredibly diligent, passionate and informed advocate for children who frequently traveled to out-of-state conferences to stay current on best practices, Hewett also had a reputation among DCFS staff for being "rough" on both families and caseworkers. If he doubted that a family had adequately addressed a dirty home, he sometimes recessed court mid-hearing to inspect the house himself. He recognized the court's frequent flyers — parents who'd been in multiple times for neglect cases — and called them on it from the bench. And he took a consistently hard line on substance abuse problems, categorically opposed to Garland County's practice of allowing children to remain in the homes of "functional junkies."

"I didn't agree with that," Hewett said. "I think if there's drug abuse in the home, it needs to be stopped."

Hewett was equally hard on DCFS workers he felt weren't doing their jobs. He often ruled that DCFS staff had made "no reasonable efforts" to comply with a case plan — a designation that must be reported to state administration, and which can impact federal funding — and occasionally declared the local DCFS office in contempt of court for failing to comply with his orders regarding things like visitation. Sometimes he fined the department, and sometimes he threatened to require Blucker to come to Fort Smith to testify in person if an order wasn't fulfilled by the next hearing. ("It was amazing how things then got done," he said.) Once, when DCFS staff failed to find a respite care placement for a disabled child whose foster parents needed a break, Hewett summarily ordered two workers to take the child to a hotel and stay with him until the parents returned from their vacation.

Most of it, recalled former legislator Carson, whom Hewett personally recruited as an ad litem, was born from the judge's frustration with a broken system and his use of the tools at his disposal to send a message up the chain. "He would say it's really stupid that this bureaucracy is taking so long to get a birth certificate for this kid, or to make a simple decision, and I'm calling your boss." He would press caseworkers testifying in court to disclose how many cases they really had, and would then go back to his chambers to call Blucker directly, telling her the department had to hire more people and equalize the caseload distribution between smaller and larger counties.

The complaints flowed both ways. Blucker recalled talking with Hewett to impress on him that the caseworkers he censured in court had sometimes been up all night, driving a child across the state, and that's why visitation in another case had been missed. In one instance, Blucker said, Hewett so upbraided one caseworker during a hearing in front of the family with whom she was working that the courtroom burst into howls of laughter. She asked him: How can we ever work with that family again, after the caseworker was so publicly humiliated?

"You can't argue the theory [of these court orders] in terms of [the child's] best interest," Blucker said. "You can't argue educational stability or the benefits of allowing children to do the things that he or she was doing in their removal county. Yet we don't have the resources to do that from a placement standpoint." It's like what Blucker says she tells the legislature — which sets the DCFS budget — when they take the department to task for not meeting target numbers: "I say it isn't humanly possible for me to meet [that] target. The staff feels like they're being charged with doing things that they just cannot do. And they're correct in that."

BLUCKER: The Division of Children and Family Services leader called the Sebastian County foster crisis "extreme." - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • BLUCKER: The Division of Children and Family Services leader called the Sebastian County foster crisis "extreme."

But the wariness of DCFS workers who feel constantly under fire seems to have led to a critical breakdown between the different members of the child welfare system in Sebastian County. Detective Deason said relations between police and DCFS workers have improved in recent years, but are still strained. Insiders said there's similar tension between DCFS and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates, a volunteer network of professionals who work with foster children). Carson and Hewett added that the department has an openly hostile attitude toward court-appointed ad litems. DCFS attorneys, Carson said, have instructed caseworkers not to talk to the children's lawyers and even created an unofficial "blackball" list of ad litems who have embarrassed DCFS in court, and with whom caseworkers are warned to avoid sharing information. ("Caseworkers have said to me, 'I can't talk to you. You're going to get me in trouble,'" Carson recalled. "There have been blanket statements that 'We don't trust you.' ") Carson said that when she returned to ad litem work in Fort Smith in 2005, after leaving the legislature in 2002, a group of fellow ad litems (including Hewett's replacement on the bench, Leigh Zuerker) told her she'd been blackballed straight out of the gate, since she'd sat on a legislative committee that oversaw DHS.

The result, she said, is a department culture that is insular, suspicious and sometimes outright obstructionist, unwilling to talk about the intense challenges it's facing, lagging in sharing necessary court documents.

"It's a bit of a fortress over there," Carson said. "Everyone turns inward and secretive, like it's us against the world, we're holding a finger in the dike. ...We have to say to Sebastian County [DCFS] that it's OK to sit down with the ad litems, the judges, anyone involved in the team. It's OK for us to sit down and share our failures so we can figure them out."

The problems in Sebastian County, Blucker warned, are extreme, and not a representative picture of the larger DCFS system. But they're also not unique. The foster care population has grown across the entire state, and the interlocking crises responsible for that fact don't boil down to any one cause, let alone a clear villain.

Blucker and state politicians attribute the problem partly to growing drug use, but it seems as accurate to consider how substance abuse is treated; the rate of removing children from their homes for drug-related reasons has leapt from 18 percent in 2008 to 56 percent today, even though statistics from the Arkansas Crime Information Center show a generally static rate of drug arrests over the last seven years. (Arrest figures may not account for all substance issues that become part of DCFS cases though, since prescription drug abuse is prosecuted more rarely.) Lack of funding — whether to hire and retain more caseworkers (Blucker says she only has a third of the workers necessary if the department were to try to meet its 15-child-per-caseworker target), to better compensate foster parents, to provide more services to poor and struggling families, or to run transitional homes for former foster children like Ivy Brake — also plays a role, as do the disparate cultures of local child welfare stakeholders, who approach the same problems with starkly different philosophies.

To Hewett, for example, the problem isn't that Sebastian County takes too many children, but rather that other counties likely aren't investigating homes thoroughly enough. "I really didn't think there were any kids in the system that shouldn't have been," he said, adding that even Sebastian County has failed to investigate some reports thoroughly enough. Pointing to the same case that Detective Deason referenced on The CALL tour — the death of the 2-year-old girl, whose abuser recently pled guilty to the charges — he said, "That's a child that should have been in custody who wasn't."

But this too leads to larger, longstanding debates across the country about how to fix child protection systems. Some advocates, including the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, argue that this seeming paradox is just the other side of the same coin: that the bigger and more overloaded a foster system becomes, the more likely it is that children in serious danger will be overlooked. Other advocates, like the national group Children's Rights, which organizes class-action lawsuits on behalf of foster children, tend to argue that governments need to better fund the child protection services they've committed to run.

"Each system is broken in its own way," says Children's Rights' litigation director Ira Lustbader. "There isn't a cookie-cutter solution to this. But a fundamental question you might ask any state where there's a question of crisis or a lack of accountability is: Does the system have the tools and resources to make informed decisions in individual cases? Because if it doesn't, you're placing kids at risk of harm and revictimization."

SAYS STATE MUST FIX ITS CHILD WELFARE FAILINGS: Former state Rep. Jo Ellen Carson. - RACHEL PUTMAN
  • Rachel Putman
  • SAYS STATE MUST FIX ITS CHILD WELFARE FAILINGS: Former state Rep. Jo Ellen Carson.

It can seem like a hopelessly complicated crisis. Fixing these problems will take money and time, cooperation and rethinking. But, Carson said, it's one the state has a legal responsibility to fix, at the risk of a lawsuit or federal action that could force more painful reforms. It's happened before. In 1991, the National Center for Youth Law and other child advocacy organizations sued the state of Arkansas on behalf of 17,350 children in the landmark case Angela R. v. Clinton (later Angela R. v. Huckabee), resulting in a settlement that had implications for nearly all aspects of Arkansas child welfare policy. Since around that time, Children's Rights has launched 16 class-action lawsuits in states around the country, including Oklahoma, where a 2012 settlement has resulted in an ongoing, court-monitored overhaul of that state's foster care system from top to bottom. The prescribed reforms include both sides of the debate — that Oklahoma must better serve struggling parents and facilitate more kinship placements, and that the system must recruit more foster parents and eliminate the use of shelters. In recent years, Children's Rights representatives have visited Arkansas to interview child welfare workers, although Lustbader declined to comment on whether the organization was currently considering action against the state.

"The bottom line is there's an awful lot of secrecy going on when we really ought to be buckling down and handling the problem, before someone else comes in and makes us handle it," Carson said. "There's no defensible reason why these children are in a placement crisis except for the fact that someone has to carry this banner and say we have to get this program in the position to do what it is statutorily charged to do. We decided to care for children, and we have to, by federal and state law.

"It's time to bust it open and say, 'All comers: We're all at the table, and we're all responsible.' "

*A previous version of this story misidentified Davaeyia Brown as Kristin Brake in a photo caption. Some passages concerning Ivy's mother have also been edited for greater clarity and accuracy.

Funding for this reporting — the first in an ongoing series — was provided by people who donated to a crowdfunding campaign on ioby.com and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

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