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Among the many challenges facing Arkansas's foster care system, one basic problem looms large: There are almost two children for every foster bed in the state. It's a shortfall that Gov. Asa Hutchinson acknowledged as a "crisis" in a press conference this summer. One might think that recruiting more foster parents, then, would be the key to keeping foster kids in their home counties and out of group homes or institutions. To that end, the governor convened the "Restore Hope Summit" in August, a two-day event to enlist the state's religious leaders in recruiting more foster parents for the Arkansas Department of Human Services' Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
But some foster parents and would-be foster parents say recruiting new families won't help so long as frustrations with DCFS are pushing foster parents out of the system. DCFS struggles to handle the number of applicants it has now, children's advocates say. And veteran foster families leave the system about as frequently as new ones enter.
In mid-July, there was a backlog of 1,280 Arkansans who had contacted DCFS about becoming foster parents — more pending applications than existing foster homes in Arkansas. Some of those applications have been in limbo for longer than a year, seeing delays from DCFS every step along the way: responding to initial queries, sending out applications, matching applicants with training programs, conducting background checks and home studies. The long waits and frequent lack of explanation from the division have led to many applicants becoming discouraged and dropping out.
Until this month, the division has lacked a tracking system that could identify where each applicant is in the recruitment process, DCFS Director Cecile Blucker said. Those 1,280 people included families who only sent one initial email inquiry as well as those who are many months into the process, and whose applications have stalled with background clearance or home study approvals. As a result, Blucker said, DCFS can't estimate how many potential foster homes it loses every year to frustration over the division's slow bureaucracy. But, she admitted, "anecdotally, we know that happens."
A review of around 170 internal DCFS emails obtained by a state Freedom of Information Act request shows that, at one point this year, the backlog was significant enough that Blucker proposed the unorthodox step of temporarily altering the home study process so DCFS could approve applicants more quickly.
Meanwhile, DCFS regularly loses at least as many existing foster homes as new homes it approves. For three of the last four quarters, Blucker said, the division has operated at a net loss, closing more homes than it opened.
Some foster homes close for reasons out of the division's control. Parents might adopt the children they're caring for and decide they're done fostering. Some families move out of state. Sometimes, abuse or neglect findings rightly force the closure of a home. But other times, Blucker acknowledged, foster parents say that they're quitting over a lack of DCFS support, bad communication and feeling excluded from official court and DCFS processes that affect the children in their care.
DCFS came under increased state scrutiny this spring after the Arkansas Times broke the news that Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork) and his wife had "rehomed" two young girls they'd adopted through DCFS; the Harrises gave the children to a family where one child was then raped. In the wake of that controversy, the legislature made rehoming a felony, and Hutchinson ordered a review of DCFS. The study was performed by Paul Vincent, director of an Alabama-based nonprofit that consults for public child welfare agencies. In July, Vincent delivered his findings to the state.
As of that month, there were more than 4,300 children in state care but just 1,190 foster homes, representing around 2,700 beds, to take them in. Because of the scarcity, more than half — 55 percent — of the state's foster children are placed outside their home county. Nineteen percent will go to non-family settings, such as emergency shelters or behavioral health facilities. Some spend their first night away from home on a DCFS worker's couch. This discrepancy between the supply and demand of foster parents has resulted in what Arkansas child welfare stakeholders have called "the worst placement crisis" in state history.
Vincent also found that "there has been little or no net growth in the number of family foster home beds, despite recruitment efforts." He noted that DCFS caseworkers, on average, handle 29 cases each, twice as many as recommended by national best practices.
As part of his plan to address the shortcomings identified in the Vincent report, Hutchinson said he would ask the legislature to provide roughly $8 million in additional DCFS funding, for each of the next three years, to hire more staff. (Later, he pledged $1 million in rainy day funds as a short-term, one-time allocation to help in the interim.) But the governor also emphasized the role of the faith-based community in boosting foster parent recruitment. Some 550 to 650 attendees came to his Restore Hope Summit in August, representing 17 different Christian denominations and other faiths. "It's just a matter of mobilizing that compassion that exists in the hearts of Arkansans," the governor told the crowd.
But however many applications ultimately result from the outreach at the Restore Hope Summit, they're unlikely to change another root problem: For a long time, DCFS has neither been able to adequately handle the pool of applicant foster parents who'd like to help, nor retain the foster families it has. The amount of licensed foster homes remains generally static while the number of foster children climbs.
This August, Carolyn Edwards, a 59-year-old former home health aide from Pine Bluff, adopted a child from DCFS after nearly two years of caring for the girl as an unpaid provisional foster parent. By the time she was finally approved, she said she could imagine why few people offer to foster.
Edwards began the long process in the fall of 2013, shortly after her niece's daughter was born with drugs and alcohol in her system. The child was taken into foster care, and Edwards and her husband offered to become her guardians. They received custody of the baby when she was 2 months old, serving as provisional foster parents. Fourteen percent of Arkansas foster children are cared for by relatives, including 6 percent by provisional foster parents like Edwards, who have six months to get licensed as an official foster home and thereby become eligible for DCFS support.
The couple immediately applied to become a regular foster home, but from the start there were delays. Not just the wait for Edwards' niece's parental rights to be terminated — typically a year-long window during which birth parents can attempt to address the issues that brought their children into care — but long waits for the DCFS approval process to begin, and a rotating cast of caseworkers who rarely returned their calls.
A significant part of the delay was that Edwards' husband had two minor, decades-old "hits" on his background check that DCFS policy required to be assessed. One was a breaking-and-entering charge that arose during his divorce from his first wife some 20 years ago. The other was a 44-year-old misdemeanor from when he was 17. (Edwards said her husband had been along when a friend was caught shoplifting, but the judge had promised to expunge his record if he agreed to join the military.)
While the former offense, at least, might understandably prompt DCFS to proceed with caution, Edwards said even the old juvenile offense took months to deal with. The process of getting cleared lasted almost a year. When her husband was finally approved to begin DCFS's mandatory six-week foster and adoptive parent training class in December 2014, a DCFS paperwork delay caused the couple to miss the start of that training session, and they had to wait until March for another. By the time they finally completed their training this May — 18 months after they'd begun caring for their grandniece — their initial application paperwork from 2013 before had expired, requiring them to get new physical checkups, CPR training and background checks. Further delays in finishing their home study followed. The otherwise excellent social worker who conducted it, Edwards said, was simply spread too thin.
In all that time, they never received the board payments that regular foster parents are entitled to, and they estimate that they paid well over $10,000 out-of-pocket for their foster daughter's care. Edwards didn't mind: She loves the girl, and finalized her adoption this August. But DCFS's slow process was "nerve-racking," she said. "You have to jump when they call," even though the reverse rarely seems to be true. "I just thank God [the adopted daughter's] not in that system anymore."
Edwards wasn't alone. A representative from a foster parent support group in Jefferson County said many people have called her to say they had applied to be foster parents but have "had no luck" getting DCFS workers to come out to do paperwork or initial house calls, even though, she said, local DCFS workers have told her there are currently no open foster beds in the county. She said she's heard of at least 10 foster families that have quit in the last year alone, most due to frustration with simultaneous demands and delays from DCFS.
The official numbers are worse. According to DCFS's report for fiscal year 2014, 19 foster homes in Jefferson County closed, leaving, by May 2015, only 26 open homes to care for 121 children.
Allowing more relatives to step in as provisional foster parents would undoubtedly ease the burden. In his report, Vincent wrote, "A crucial place to look for solutions to the placement challenge is the use of relative placements and guardianships." However, from 2011 until today, Vincent found, the percentage of relative care placements in Arkansas has remained flat. Surrounding states have far higher percentages of foster children placed with relatives, ranging from 21 percent in Louisiana and Missouri to 29 percent in Oklahoma.
Delays in licensing pose financial challenges for provisional foster parents, many of whom are low-income. Not only must they wait to receive financial support until they're approved, but there are also often delays in children's eligibility for Medicaid and other benefits.
A Jefferson County foster parent who also asked not to be named ("I don't want to make it harder than it's already been for me," she said) has cared for four of her young relatives for more than six months without any financial support save small, occasional DCFS clothing allowances. She had sympathy for overburdened DCFS workers. "I don't think that they don't want to do the job; there's just not enough help there." Still, she said, "That's going to be a big minus [for other potential foster parents], because when you tell them you have to wait to get into class, then wait for three more visitations, then wait for them to open you up, and wait for the paperwork to come in ... ." She sighed. "The process is just too long."
As with so many problems plaguing DCFS, the delays seem to be fueled largely by a shortage of well-trained staff. Blucker said other issues led to bottlenecks as well, including long waits on FBI background checks and difficulties coordinating trainings in rural areas.
"If you look at it from the perspective of the caseworker, if they have someone in their office with a child, and then someone calling who they know nothing about, that goes to the bottom of the pile," said Gary Phillips, a North Arkansas county coordinator for The CALL, or Children of Arkansas Loved for a Lifetime. The CALL, a Christian fostering and adoption advocacy group, has partnered closely with DCFS since 2007 and has recruited and trained roughly half of all current Arkansas foster parents. But while all bureaucracies have an element of "hurry up and wait," Phillips said, applicants who never hear back after inquiring about how to apply are left thinking that the DCFS must not need foster parents after all.
DCFS has attempted to address the problem both by reorganizing its recruitment efforts and by securing additional funds. In mid-2014, DCFS shifted the task of recruitment from overburdened local offices to the state level — an effort, Blucker explained, to streamline the background-check process, relieve the workload of field staff and better track applicants. All inquiries would be routed to the division's central office in Little Rock, which would be responsible for basic intake. DCFS also received a federal Diligent Recruitment Grant in 2013 to find foster families willing to take older children and in 2012 obtained a federal waiver on the use of an existing revenue stream that freed up more funds for recruitment. The division used both pots of money to hire 10 new Community Engagement Specialists with marketing backgrounds — one for each of DCFS' geographic areas — to better recruit new families.
But a recent assessment of the division's progress toward that goal, conducted by outside consultant group Hornby Zeller Associates (HZA), found that low staffing at the state level meant that the backlog remained: The high volume of inquiries now coming into the central office were being routed to just two workers, and at times only one person was in the office to facilitate background checks.
Internal DCFS communications obtained by the FOIA request demonstrated the tension the backlog created. In February, Brenda Richard, the DCFS area director responsible for Northwest Arkansas, requested that the local office again be given charge of screening prospective foster parents. The region had 175 pending applicants at the time, and the local chapter of The CALL had told Richard that many families were finishing their training before a DCFS worker had even been in touch for an initial consultation. "We are losing applicants to other agencies or because they have not heard from anyone in months," Richard wrote to DCFS Foster Care Manager Mona Davis.
Local and state coordinators for The CALL began to write in as well, asking for help getting their members' home studies and background checks completed. "As these counties continue to increase their recruitment (as we have been hoping they would), we are looking at a serious backlog of families," wrote CALL program director Michelle Douglas to The CALL's DCFS liaison, Alicen Bennett, in November 2014.
By February, Douglas wrote Bennett again, noting, "There is growing frustration among the families, staff and volunteers across the state. Families are getting really upset about the situations with background checks." Douglas wrote that she'd contacted DCFS previously about this issue, without response, and that she worried CALL families had taken their complaints to state legislators (as some had done in the past). "It seems that no matter what path of communication we take, we here at The CALL are still trying to work in a complete void of information."
Publicly, as a longtime DCFS partner, The CALL is more diplomatic about the challenges that came with centralizing recruitment. "I think, as always in a new process, there are obstacles that you don't anticipate," said Laurie Currier, the organization's executive director. Currier emphasized that some applicants are partially responsible for the delays: They may turn in paperwork late or have background-check issues that need to be addressed. Part of The CALL's purpose, she said, is to work closely with applicant families so that they don't get discouraged.
Indeed, compared to prospective foster parents applying directly through DCFS, families with The CALL enjoy far more support. CALL foster parents are trained over two intensive weekends, rather than the protracted six- to eight-week course required of non-CALL parents. In addition to offering a streamlined training process, The CALL, with its dedicated DCFS liaison, is available to intervene on behalf of frustrated applicants and to nudge their paperwork along. But that helping hand isn't available to all applicants: The CALL will only work with Christians who will sign the group's statement of faith and can bring a reference from their pastor or church; they will not work with same-sex couples, and refer prospective LGBT foster families to work with DCFS directly. Without the benefit of outside intervention, non-CALL foster applicants can face longer delays.
This March, as the scandal over the Justin Harris rehoming drew increased attention to DCFS, the agency grew increasingly concerned about the backlog, which was growing by 250 to 300 new inquiries each month. Meanwhile, DCFS was taking more kids into care with few places to put them. A Sebastian County supervisor reported that the local office was taking in an average of one child every day, and managers were worried workers would begin to walk out.
This April, the consultant group HZA released its assessment of DCFS's implementation of the federal Diligent Recruitment Grant. HZA found that "little progress had been made" toward the grant's goals, and some local field staff said centralizing recruitment was not working. Staffers told HZA, "They need more people at the central inquiry to speed up the process or they need to put it back in the field."
In an internal email, Davis objected to the suggestion, arguing that the same problems had occurred before centralization, but the division was clearly struggling to come up with solutions. Blucker proposed hiring temps to handle parts of the application process and in May even made the surprising suggestion that the division temporarily forego its normal home study standards so it could "figure out a way to address the clogs."
"I really can't believe I am even thinking about this," Blucker opened an email to senior staff, "however when you look at a need and ways to address — [I] think we have to look at a number of things." Davis replied with the warning that taking shortcuts to address the backlog in the short run would likely lead to a continuation of laxer standards down the line: "Once you change it to 'less' it is difficult to shift up to 'more,' " she wrote. (On Sept. 10, Blucker said, DCFS approved a new "hybrid home study" to be used with provisional foster parents only, omitting some steps required for non-relative foster homes and likely shortening the training period as well.)
Finding the balance between safety and efficiency isn't just an Arkansas problem. A December 2014 internal report from Casey Family Programs, a national initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, found that foster parent recruitment efforts across the country are often stymied by lacking response infrastructure. "Studies have found that 50 percent of interested parties drop out of the process before a child is even placed in their homes," noted the report, often because of "bottlenecks that slow down the process." The report recommended that all prospective foster parent inquiries be answered by a live person, that applicants be oriented within two weeks and that they begin training within a month after that.
That target is a long way from DCFS's recent practice. One foster mother said that, when she first inquired about fostering in 2013, it took DCFS nearly five months to write her back. By the time Hutchinson proposed his Restore Hope Summit, DCFS staff privately expressed anxiety that the conference would lead to a new wave of foster parent applications they were unprepared to deal with.
"I can see why the governor decided this needed to take place," one DCFS worker told the Arkansas Times, "but I don't think we have the capacity to handle this influx when we already have so many [applications] pending. We have no mechanism to handle that."
If DCFS can't manage to efficiently process potential foster homes, it has an equivalent problem in holding on to the families it already has. Almost as many foster families leave the system each month as are recruited. Some of those parents close their homes for personal reasons, but others quit over frustration with DCFS.
"If there's a problem, it's so hard to get a hold of a caseworker," remembered one former foster parent in Fayetteville who said he had to register three times before he was able to receive his foster parent training. "You call the local office and can't leave a message because the mailbox is full. I've gotten into screaming matches with DHS on the phone. It's important, when you're looking for help."
Another former foster parent said that when he got his fingerprints done as part of his background check, a technical problem with the results led to months of delays that weren't resolved until he wrote his state representative. "I'm not saying cut corners on background checks and training," he said, "but you'd think there'd be a streamlined process to get this in place."
Other foster parents said they were perplexed to find that, after years of putting up with DCFS' oversights, missteps and delays, the division punished them for what seemed like minor mistakes.
Scott Miller, a member of the North Little Rock School Board, said he and his wife, Sonja, were treated harshly by the division after what Scott called a poor, but not catastrophic, parenting decision. The couple began fostering their now-18-year-old adopted daughter Anastasia in 2004 and found DCFS to be a consistently unpredictable partner — failing to show up for planned inspections for weeks at a time; skipping scheduled transportation for doctor's appointments and visitation; taking the child on family visits without telling the Millers, leaving them to fear she was missing.
Around 2010, as Anastasia struggled as a teenager in adjusting to her adoption — grieving over the realization that she'd never return to her mother, Scott believes — she began to threaten to run away. In what he now considers a bad decision, Scott responded to the threat by suggesting that Anastasia see what living on the street was like by staying in the family's attached garage for the weekend. At the time, he'd thought of it as a lesson-teaching twist on church youth group "homeless weekends," where many teens sleep out in parking lots. The garage was finished and insulated, and directly under the parents' bedroom, he said, although it didn't have a toilet, and Anastasia had to wait until the morning to use the bathroom. When the issue came up in a therapy session, the Millers were reported for child abuse. DCFS then responded with unusual speed: The agency removed Anastasia to a group home (and at one point to a DCFS office couch) while they investigated the Millers, compelling them to undergo a day-long psychiatric evaluation that included IQ tests and questions about their sex life. The couple ended up having to hire a lawyer to retain custody of Anastasia.
"Just based on that one incident," Scott marveled. "Which is why I get irked when I hear that PSA on the radio: 'You don't have to be perfect to be a foster parent, you just have to be there.' " It wasn't true in their case, he said. "We had to be perfect. That's why DHS has a bad reputation: Because they take the kids of people who don't have the resources to combat them, and the ones who do have resources and want to help as foster parents, they treat like dirt."
Lisa Knight Gregory in Sebastian County had a similar complaint. She and her husband, Dewayne, became foster parents in 2005, ultimately adopting four of the 20 children who came into their care, with hopes of adopting another three children they were still fostering in 2012.
Lisa said she became so busy that year, with six of their children under 6 years old, that she fell behind on required DCFS paperwork for things like the family's annual medical exams and proof of car insurance. She said she knows she likely overlooked mailed reminders, but didn't realize how serious the issue was until she received a call from her caseworker notifying her that they'd close her home unless everything was in by the next week. Gregory rushed to get the documents together, but there was one outstanding item: results from the family's required tuberculosis tests that wouldn't be ready until two days after the deadline.
"I'd said, 'They're not going to close us over a TB test. They need homes too bad, that's crazy,' " Lisa recalled. But on the day of the deadline, they were informed that their home was closed for noncompliance, and their three foster children were removed.
"If they'd made visits like they were supposed to every month, we'd have had some warning that they were upset with us," Dewayne said. "But the only time I ever saw a caseworker in the house [for an official inspection] was on the day we opened and the day we closed." When the couple reapplied with DCFS, Dewayne said they received a letter stating that they weren't suitable to be foster parents in the state.
An ad litem familiar with DCFS suggested that, after years of real concerns over problem foster homes and cases of serious abuse, the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction. Blucker has done a good job of making foster homes safer, she said, but today many foster parents operate in a system that seems to have "zero tolerance for mistakes."
"If they don't do things exactly as the department wants them done, there seems to be more retaliation against them," she said.
Although DCFS is prohibited by confidentiality regulations from commenting on specific cases, Blucker said that foster parents are necessarily held to a higher standard because children removed from bad situations need to be shielded from further trauma.
"Still, I wouldn't say we have zero tolerance for mistakes," she said. "What we have zero tolerance for is situations in which our children are not safe or are not being cared for the way they should be. These children have been through enough already." She added that, before homes are closed, staff meets personally with foster families to address concerns, and sometimes are able to develop plans to rectify problems and keep the homes open.
But the DCFS employee who spoke with the Times said the division needs to do better. "We don't treat our foster parents very well. We don't treat them like the resource that they are, and that we need."
In recent years, DCFS has tried to take a more "consumer-friendly" approach with regard to both recruitment and retention. Blucker said the division's new recruitment specialists are helping improve working relationships with potential and current foster families, explaining, "The agency is more cognizant of how we interact with families and the importance of ensuring foster families feel valued." She also noted that, as of mid-September, the number of pending foster parent applications was down to 1,109, and DCFS is hopeful that once a new tracking system is up and running in coming weeks, they'll be able to clear the remaining backlog more quickly. As Hutchinson has promised to allocate new funds to DCFS to help address the staffing gap at the root of many of the division's problems, Blucker said that some of the new staff will be used as resource workers, helping license new foster homes. But foster parents and advocates say there's a long way to go.
"We're asking people to do a difficult job," The CALL director Currier said. "I think when we do a good job of supporting families appropriately, we have a better chance of retaining that family over time." When that fails to happen, Currier said, families tend to close their homes. "I often say that it's much easier to retain a family than grow them up from the beginning. That's the only way we'll ever get past where we're at now."
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