DHS response on child care criticism | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, December 18, 2008

DHS response on child care criticism

Posted By on Thu, Dec 18, 2008 at 1:41 PM

Earlier today, we linked to a critical report on the state's declining performance in dealing with child abuse and neglect reports.

Leslie Newell Peacock of the Times met later with department officials who responded to the report and to our continuing questions about an absence of state accountability on reports this year of foster child deaths and other abuse. I also got a comment from the governor's office and I've added an UPDATE on some questions about numbers.

DHS officials said:

In the wake of the deaths of four children in foster care this past year and other serious problems at the Department of Children and Family Services, staff has been fired, foster homes closed and a bill is being drafted that would allow the agency to disclose to the public information on fatality and near-fatality cases.



Department of Human Services Director John Selig and DCFS head Deputy Director Janie Huddleston met with reporters this morning after Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families released its report saying the state has been tardy in responding to children at risk of neglect or abuse (see report in blog item posted earlier this morning).

Huddleston also said the agency has formed an internal group to analyze cases, calling in caseworkers and supervisors from the field. (Previously, an external group alone handled reviews.) She said the team has looked at a random sample of 120 cases involving unsubstantiated allegations of abuse or neglect to see if it could detect a pattern of reporting. Huddleston said employees had been terminated because of reports found to be falsified; she was not able to provide an exact number this morning, but said those numbers would be forthcoming.

Selig attributed the division’s difficulties to a structure “built around social workers” and said a lax culture had developed in the field in the wake of staff cutbacks in 2004.

“We were being warm bodies for a while,” Selig said, though he added that most child welfare workers are devoted to the job and work hard to protect children. DHS will ask for 115 new positions for Children and Family Services in the next fiscal year, but he said that providing children with adequate protection was more than a “matter of resources.”

Starting in January, with the help of the Child Care Licensing division, DCFS will begin to monitor foster homes -- Huddleston said she hoped to get to all; there are 1,137 currently – to see if they are meeting standards. “Resource workers” have made home visits in the past; Child Care licensing staff will now make more systematic and detailed reports on conditions in the home –- whether medications are locked up, whether children have adequate clothing, whether the house is clean, whether there enough beds for the children, etc.

 “We’re going to get past the living room,” DHS spokeswoman Julie Munsell said. In July, the agency will start making unannounced visits. DHS maintains that state law prohibits it from disclosing any information to the public about cases of death or near-death of children in its care. The bill it’s drafting would change the law to allow the agency to identify children who died, the date of death, the suspected cause of death, where the child was placed, the relationship of the alleged offender to the child, what legal action has taken place as a result of the fatality, the investigating agency, and services provided by the DCFS, both past and current. Once the investigation is complete, more information would be released, including a summary of the investigation and any previous investigations, criminal charges and action taken by state police of DCFS. Names of offenders would not be disclosed until charges are made. In cases of near-death, children’s names would not be released.

Matt DeCample, the governor's spokesman, said later of the Advocates' findings: "I think it’s a pretty fair report. It points out some of the things we've been working hard to address."

DeCample said the governor was intent on improvements, but not simply by spending more. "We first need a system that works. So the work John Selig and Janie Huddleston have done in past few months gives us more confidence going forward that if we put more money into the situation, we'll see more tangible results."

DeCample noted that the governor plans significant state spending in a tight time in only two places -- public education and children and family services. With a better system of handling complaints and more staff, he said the governor believed the agency could improve its response time and meet targets for service.

How to explain declining performance over the last two years? DeCample noted, as the report did, that numbers came before an agency reorganization. But he also said the number of suspected abuse cases had risen dramatically. Even if the state met standards in the same or more cases, the percentage response could have dropped because of the need for more resources. Turnover is a continuing problem, he said.

DeCample said, "Now we're confident if we give tehm the resources to respond to the increase in cases, they will be well utilized to give results we need."

UPDATE-- Answers from Julie Munsell to questions posed this morning:

1.       # of homes closed due to maltreatment – 13

2.       # of disciplinary actions taken since July 1 and the number 32 (includes suspensions, terminations, and written warnings)

3.       # of death cases reviewed – 20 these include children foster care -- but also children with whom the agency had any contact in the last 12 months. (Some of these are children ill from causes unrelated to abuse.)

4.       Salary of caseworkers on pay plan study

Current beginning wage for worker trainee $28,565

                After 6 months – move to worker - $30,483

Proposed pay scale – beginning wage for worker - $30,713

5.       # of clients including Supportive Services, Protective Services and Foster Care cases

For State Fiscal Year 2008

SS –   642 cases which involves 1,282 children

Protective Services – 10,305 cases which involves 22,469 children

Foster Care –   6,974 cases which involves 6,974 children

6.       Any information on the persons who falsified documentation.

1 – Termination

1 – Resigned

2 – In process of investigation



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