Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
This summer, the number of children in Arkansas's foster care system rose to an unprecedented level, placing serious strain on the state's already understaffed and overworked child welfare agency and resulting in an alarming shortage of foster homes in which to place those kids. A July report from an independent consultant commissioned by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to review the Division of Children and Family Services (a branch of the Arkansas Department of Human Services) found that there were about three kids for every two beds in DCFS' statewide foster system, or an average 0.66 bed-to-child ratio, with some parts of the state having much worse figures. At the time, Hutchinson called the situation a "crisis" and said he would take steps to address it.
Last week, when the governor attended the dedication of a new residential home for children in Charleston, he took the opportunity to issue a statement declaring headway has been made. "Since August, the state has increased its number of foster homes by 109 and increased its number of available beds for children by 232," Hutchinson said. "We are making progress, but we must do better."
But the governor's statement did not mention the fact that the number of children in foster care has also increased over that same span of time.
In late August, there were 4,349 children in the foster system; as of Dec. 1, there were 4,615, according to figures requested from DCFS. So, over the past three months, the number of children in state custody increased by 266, which means the 232 new foster beds cited by Hutchinson falls just short of the number needed just to keep up with the increasing demand. The bed-to-child ratio has essentially remained unchanged, at 0.68 as of the beginning of the month.
Holding steady in a crisis state is dubious progress. When interviewed about the situation earlier this year, DCFS Director Cecile Blucker said, "We've got more children in the system than the state has the capacity to serve. ... We're just maxed." The consultant's report delivered to the governor in July noted that DCFS caseworkers had caseloads "of nearly twice the national [recommended] standard." Swelling numbers of foster kids means caseworkers have even less time to keep track of individual children's needs, therefore increasing the likelihood tragic errors will occur — whether that means children being left in a dangerous situation at home or children being placed in an inappropriate foster care setting.
To the governor's credit, he dedicated $1 million in discretionary rainy day funds this summer toward hiring more hands at DCFS. The money will eventually pay for an additional 29 caseworkers, four supervisors and seven assistants, Blucker said. That's not nearly enough to address the statewide shortage, and it's only one-time money, but Hutchinson has said he's committed to finding an additional $8 million in the state budget to patch holes in the agency. Unlike the $1 million in one-time rainy day funds, such money will require legislative approval. In the meantime, Hutchinson has stressed the role that nonprofits and the faith community play in the bigger child welfare picture, especially in recruiting more foster parents.
In his remarks last week, the governor said DCFS is addressing problems in increasing the foster parent pool. "The Division of Children and Family Services has made several procedural improvements and has expanded its statewide partnerships," he announced. "In addition, DCFS has successfully eliminated the backlog of more than 1,200 foster parent inquiries."
The Times reported earlier this year that many would-be foster families in Arkansas run into roadblocks with DCFS — lost paperwork, unreturned phone calls, lengthy hang-ups on the background check process — resulting in a backlog of inquiries. That fact seemed to fly in the face of Hutchinson's call for more aggressive recruitment. Now, DHS spokesperson Kate Luck said, the agency has responded to each of those 1,200 inquiries and has developed a tracking system to monitor the status of potential foster families.
"Basically, it's a brand-new system. It allows us to track where applicants are in the process," Luck said. Before, she said, DCFS couldn't tell where the slowdowns in the system were occurring. "Now we can take a better look and see: Are we waiting on people to return paperwork to us? Or, are they stuck on the background check step of the process?" (Of course, better tracking will only improve things if the agency acts on the information it gathers.)
While Arkansas certainly needs enough beds to serve every kid in the foster system, there's a more fundamental question: Why are so many more kids coming into DCFS custody recently? Entering foster care is rarely a happy experience for children, even under the best of circumstances. It's a safety net that should be employed only when necessary, and the continued uptick in kids in the foster system would be cause for concern even if there were two ready-and-willing foster families for every child. Will the state's foster care numbers level off soon, or will they continue to increase into the next year?
In an email, Blucker said other child welfare systems nationally were also seeing more kids entering state custody.
"Drug use and the neglect that accompanies has been one contributing factor," she wrote. "We have also seen the number of maltreatment investigations increase ... [and] we have seen an increase in the number of calls related to neglect, physical abuse and substance misuse when looking at the increase in maltreatment investigations. We are hopeful the number will level off. However, we did not predict the increase we have seen in the last six months."
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