Speaking to reporters this morning at the state capitol, Gov. Asa Hutchinson addressed a new report on the practices of the state Division of Children and Family Services point by point, saying that he is committed to following the eleven key recommendations of the report, including finding up to $8 million in the budget to help reduce field worker caseloads and improve mental health services over three years.
UPDATE: Scroll to the bottom for thoughts on the press conference from Kathryn Joyce, who penned the masterful special report we ran last week on the overburdened foster care system in Sebastian County.
Hutchinson started off by addressing some of the positives in the report, such as a reduction in the use of anti-psychotic drugs on children in DHS and foster care. Hutchinson also pointed out that the adoption rate has increased, and the average time between entering the system and adoption has decreased. However, he said that focusing progress is not what’s important.
Hutchinson then addressed 11 recommendations for improvement suggested in the study by independent researcher and study author Paul Vincent.
“I accept the recommendations that have been made,” Hutchinson said, “and as Governor, we’re going to work to achieve those recommendations. I think they’re balanced… While we don’t know of the exact dollar number on some of the items, I’ve tried to put a pencil to the number of additional caseworkers that are needed, and I’m going to work with the legislature to make sure those needs are met and that we can make progress and win on the recommendations that have been made.”
Addressing the study’s first recommendation, that the state appoint a coordinator to facilitate interaction on DCFS issues between the Administrative Offices of the Courts, law enforcement, judges, behavior health, Medicaid, the legislature, and other interested parties, Hutchinson appointed Betty Guhman, a senior staff member who had previously served as Hutchinson’s Chief-of-Staff while he was in Congress, and later worked in the Department of Homeland Security and the DEA. The position is not permanent, Hutchinson said. “This is hopefully a less than one year assignment,” he said.
On the recommendation that the state increase partnerships between stakeholders, Hutchinson announced that he has directed DHS Director John Selig to establish an independent stakeholder panel, “to participate in and shape the implementation of the recommendations of the report. We already have stakeholder engagement, but it’s important that we have this additional stakeholder role that will play in reviewing the recommendations, helping guide the implementation of the recommendations and to work with Ms. Guhman as she helps to accomplish that from the Governor’s office.”
Next, Hutchinson spoke on the “placement challenge,” the hurdle of getting kids out of foster care and into foster or adoptive homes. Hutchinson noted a section of the report that said that in the past four months, 22 children had to sleep at their local DHS office because there was no foster home available to accept them.
“Whenever you look at the fact that there’s been an increase in the need for placement over the last two months from 3,800 in need of placement to over 4,300,” Hutchinson said, “that illustrates the challenge we face. There’s 55 percent of our placements for protective services that happen outside the county where the child resides.” Distance often creates unreasonable burdens on children, families, caseworkers and intervention assistance, he said, and must be addressed.
“We’re going to address this recommendation by changing policy and practices that restrict even the use of relative caregivers,” he said. “And then, secondly, we’re going to have to have a greater utilization of our private partners. This illustrates the importance of our faith based summit that has been set in August that has been announced. Our faith based partners have helped up address the challenge of adoptions. We’re now asking them to help us to address the challenge of placement of those in need of protective services and foster care, and to find additional partners that can join with us to make sure our children are not spending the night in a DHS office.”
After briefly addressing recommendations on resuming licensing of respite homes, allowing for greater office-to-office flexibility and improving the relationship between the Administrative Office of the Courts and the DCFS, and other topics, Hutchinson spoke of one of the bigger-ticket recommendations on the list: expediting the filling of DCFS vacancies, expanding the availability of mental health services and a plan to reduce the caseload of field workers.
“This is a challenge that’s going to cost some money,” he said. “I don’t have a figure for exactly what that will be… We’ll need to partner with [the legislature] to make sure that we can look at this from a resource standpoint and exactly what’s needed and what the solution is.”
The study recommends a three-year plan to lower caseloads. Nationally, Hutchinson said, the average is 15 cases per caseworker. “We have 29 cases per caseworker,” he said. “That is a strain on the caseworkers, it leads to increased turnover, it leads to bad morale, it leads to bad decisions and bad performance. So, our objective is to reduce the caseload for those caseworkers in the field.”
Hutchinson said that the three year goal is to reduce the caseload from 29 cases per worker to 20. “I’ve asked DHS to put a cost figure on that and the preliminary numbers are that this would cost us, from the state dollars, about $8 million dollars,” he said. “As Governor, I’m committed to making sure we find room for that in the budget and meet the objectives of that three year plan.” The three year time frame would allow a graduated implementation, he said.
In closing, Hutchinson said again that he accepts the recommendations, and hopes the legislature will be responsive to solving the problem as well.
“This has been an important milestone for the protection of our children in Arkansas,” Hutchinson said. “I’m committed to make sure that we’re in this for the long haul, that we address these challenges, that we reduce the caseload and that we do this in partnership with the faith-based organizations that will be brought together at the governor’s summit coming up in August. There are many challenges here, but many opportunities to do something much better for the children of Arkansas. That’s something I think all of Arkansas will support.”
After the governor’s remarks, study author Paul Vincent was invited to the lectern. He said that those he’d interviewed to compile the report were uniformly receptive to the project. There is a tendency, he said, to “circle the wagons” and try to figure out solutions internally, Vincent said.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced a more open and accepting welcome to all of my efforts to find out how the system was working,” Vincent said. “DHS, DCFS, [Administrative Office of the Courts] staff, other state agencies, the provider community and your faith based partners and other advocates and providers didn’t hold back. They provided me with anything and everything I asked for. Out of the challenges that are always the focus of an evaluation like this, I think a strength you can hang on to is that everyone I talked to is eager to see their department improve its performance. Many of them also recognize that their department is doing some things well… but equally important, to a person, [is] everybody wants to help.”
FROM KATHRYN JOYCE:
The report confirms for the rest of the state much of what we found in Sebastian County: that, as one judicial worker told the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, Arkansas’ child welfare system exists in a state of “constant crisis.”
Corresponding to Sebastian County’s foster care placement crisis, there’s a broader statewide placement gap wherein 55% of foster children end up outside their home counties because there aren’t enough foster beds where they’re from. There are low rates of placing children with relatives, partly because of systemic factors, but also due to bias against family members of parents who have lost custody of their children—what a previous DCFS-commissioned review diagnosed as a mindset that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” As a result of the lack of foster beds, Arkansas has the country’s 13th-highest rate of foster children being housed in non-family settings, including group homes of various types.
The crisis also means a work environment for DCFS staff where they’re averaging about double the caseloads they should have; where they’re poorly compensated (including a cap on their frequent overtime hours) and often don’t even have the basic tools, like smartphones, to do their jobs; and where some labor under the threat of court discipline if they aren’t able to meet the impossible burdens of their workload.
Another interesting dynamic the report discussed in detail was the widespread sense of tension and mistrust between DCFS workers and their extra-departmental counterparts, particularly in the Administrative Office of the Courts, which runs the attorney ad litem program that assigns lawyers to represent foster children. This was a significant issue in Sebastian County, where one ad litem said DCFS attorneys routinely impede communication between DCFS caseworkers and ad litems; caseworkers say they fear ad litems are out to “get them in trouble”; and there are rumors of a DCFS “blackball list” of ad litems who have embarrassed the department in court.
The report explained that this sort of tension is sadly common on a national level, for reasons that seem understandable on both sides: “Courts are accustomed to having their orders and agency policy met fully, an expectation overstressed child welfare systems cannot always meet. Attorneys for children feel an uncompromising obligation to ensure that their clients’ needs are met, which means that a perceived lack of responsiveness by the child welfare system is considered unacceptable.”
Likely adding to this tension, the AOC also recently helped support new legislation that will impact DCFS policy regarding issues like family visitation, in keeping with accepted best practices. However, the report warned, formalizing best practices into law without increasing DCFS’s ability to meet them — namely by hiring and training more staff — could just make what’s an already hard job even worse, and could leave DCFS workers to face the additional threats of litigation or contempt of court charges if they fail to get everything done.
That makes the report’s recommendations to improve relations between DCFS and the AOC’s ad litems interesting — it’s one of the measures that can be implemented before Gov. Hutchinson’s proposed $8 million commitment begins to flow — even if more lasting change will likely rest on the legislature’s willingness to fully fund the needed reforms.