This morning, I spoke with Paul Vincent, the child welfare expert Gov. Asa Hutchinson has selected to conduct a review of the foster care and adoption system at the state Department of Human Services.
The review was prompted by a March 5 story in the Arkansas Times uncovering the fact that Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork) “rehomed’ two adopted girls with another family, where one was then sexually abused. Harris later said DHS was responsible for the failed adoption by not informing him of the children’s behavioral problems and by not providing him with post-adoptive help. Interviews with multiple people familiar with the case also indict DHS, but in a very different way: In a follow up March 12 story, several individuals said Harris used his influence with DHS administrators to force the adoption to happen in the first place, over the objection of caseworkers and therapists.
Thus, in addition to the legislature’s movement to criminalize rehoming and improve post-adoptive services, Hutchinson has also ordered a review of DHS practices.
Paul Vincent is the director of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, a private nonprofit out of Alabama that provides technical assistance to public child welfare systems and (to a lesser degree) childrens’ mental health services. His organization trains the trainers in state social service agencies, he said, and helps perform evaluations.
“We’ve worked in probably more than a third of the states,” Vincent said. His group has consulted with agencies from Iowa to Florida to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Right now we’re doing a lot of front line supervisory coaching in Oklahoma.” Prior to founding the nonprofit in 1997, he spent eight years as director of Alabama’s state child welfare agency.
In other words, Vincent should be well qualified to comment on policy and practices at the Division of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, the arm of DHS that handles child welfare in Arkansas. He said he expects his review to begin within “a few weeks” and to last for about 8 weeks total. “I’m expecting most of the field work analysis will be done by me,” he told me.
J.R. Davis, a spokesperson for Hutchinson, said this morning that the Annie E. Casey Foundation “has agreed to cover the cost of the child welfare review” and will contract directly with Vincent. It’s expected to cost around $25,000. Annie E. Casey is on the front lines of efforts to improve child welfare around the country, and the foundation does plenty of good work in Arkansas.
(Note: It’s nice Casey is footing the bill, but lets hope it’s sufficient. What if Vincent’s study indicates that further ongoing review or reform is needed after he fulfills his eight-week mandate? Will further action be contingent upon Casey continuing to fund the effort? Will the governor be willing to ask the legislature for the money necessary to fix any deficiencies found?)
Vincent said it’s too early to say exactly where his review of DCFS will focus. When asked about what makes state child welfare systems successful, he mentioned “resource commitment” and noted that overloaded caseworkers perform their jobs less well. Good supervision and training for staff are vital, he said. (That, too, requires a commitment of resources — also known as money.)
He said that states are finding greater success with using teams of individuals to assess and make decisions in child welfare cases — that is, rather than a single overworked DCFS caseworker making tough calls, she might be assisted by others, including mental health specialists. He also pointed to a greater acknowledgement among experts of just how important it is to address the abuse, neglect and other trauma that children in the foster system may have experienced.
“Increasingly, there’s better recognition of the trauma history those kids have … effects can show up as kids age and might not show up when they’re young,” he said. “It takes an effective clinical system to respond to children … unfortunately, sometimes that doesn’t become recognized until after [an adoptive] placement has been made.” That fact, he said, reinforces the need for mental and behavioral health experts to weigh in on the best interest of kids: “Child welfare caseworkers are not clinicians … which is one reason having a team is so valuable.”
In the case of the two adopted girls “rehomed” by Rep. Justin Harris (which prompted the governor’s review in the first place), a team of experts did weigh in before the adoption, according to the account given by the girls’ prior foster family, Cheryl and Craig Hart. A former DHS worker contacted by the Times corroborated the Harts’ story: When the Harrises were seeking to adopt the sisters, who came from a troubled background, they were warned by caseworkers, therapists, the Harts and others that these girls’ history of prior trauma would make them a bad fit for the Harris home, which included young boys.
The Harts and the former DHS worker claim their recommendations against the adoption were overruled by Cecile Blucker, director of DCFS, and that Rep. Harris frequently mentioned Blucker’s name in conversation. FOIAed emails between Blucker and Harris show that the legislator sometimes used the threat of a budget hold over DCFS as a bargaining chip, although the emails don’t indicate that necessarily happened in the case of Harris’ adoption
Vincent said he wasn’t sure whether he’d be looking into anything involving the Harris case specifically. “Generally speaking, the purpose of the review is a broad look at the whole system,” he said. As for the practice of rehoming adoptive children with other families outside the purview of the law, Vincent said that he (like many others) only became aware that it was an issue in the past couple of years. “I’ll take my guidance from the governor’s office if they wish to include the issue of postadoptive supports generally [in the review],” he said.
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