UPDATE: Gov. Hutchinson said he accepted the recommendations and will work to achieve them. He cheered some improvements by the state — a reduction in use of anti-psychotic drugs on children, for example and an improved adoption rate, for example — but said improvements were needed. He wasn’t ready to put a price tag on all the recommendations that require new employees. Arkansas caseload for social workers is 29, about double the national average, for example, so that will take some doing to reduce. The recommendation is to do it over three years. That alone could cost $8 million a year.
David Koon will report in greater detail on a subsequent post.
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Gov. Asa Hutchinson will meet reporters at 10:30 a.m. today to talk about consultant Paul Vincent’s report on his review of the Division of Children and Family Services.
This review followed the Arkansas Times’ reporting on state Rep. Justin Harris’ “rehoming” of adopted children into the home of a man eventually convicted of sexual abuse and related reporting on state handling of child welfare cases and the overburdened foster care system. State law on adoption changed shortly after our articles appeared. Harris has also said he doesn’t intend to seek re-election.
The posted the consultant’s report on the governor’s website at 8 a.m. today.
We’ll be covering the news conference, though our lead reporter on the project, Benji Hardy, is unfortunately out of state today. Also watching from afar will be Kathryn Joyce, who wrote last week’s cover story on the crisis in foster care.
Vincent is director of an Alabama nonprofit that works on child welfare issues. Benji Hardy has talked with him before about his review.
I’d anticipate a report that finds need for improvements in Arkansas’s system, though perhaps not expensive changes. The governor’s office engaged the consultant. He could, in addition to being an expert on the subject, also be sophisticated about the political realities of what is perfect and what is good.
UPDATE: The report is now available for review.
Quick takes: Child maltreatment is slightly above average in Arkansas, but down from years past. Child fatalities are the third highest in the U.S., though the report suggests no causes. It could be better reporting; it could have more complex explanations. The foster care system is in crisis, with growth in cases and a reduction in children leaving the system.
The report makes 11 recommendations, but, as I forecast, many have no monetary cost.
This report contains 11 recommendations, the first 8 of which could be implemented with little or no additional revenue. Two of the most critical, however, expanding home and community based mental health services and reducing DCFS caseloads, would require additional funding. In summary, the recommendations are as follow:
• Designate a Staff Member in the Governor’s Office to Coordinate Interagency Planning and System Collaboration for Children, Youth and Family Services
• Build DCFS Capacity to Partner with Stakeholders
• Address the Shortage of Placements
• Create a DCFS County-Central Office Task Force to Address Local Administrative
• Strengthen the DCFS – Administrative Office of Courts Relationship
• Expedite the Process for Filling DCFS Vacancies
• Develop and Implement a Principle-Based DCFS Model of Practice
• Strengthen DCFS Assessment and Family Engagement Skills
• Expand the Availability of Intensive Home and Community-Based Mental Health Services
• Develop a Three-Year Plan to Reduce DCFS Caseloads
* CACD is the Crimes Against Children Division of the State Police.
The report credits the Division of Children and Family Services with a number of improvements. It also notes that Arkansas has a higher reporting rate of child abuse than other states. (That could be a measure of more vigilance or more abuse or both, I suppose.)
On the hard-to-measure question of child well-being, the report says children in foster care fare better than children in in-home care.
The most urgent challenge cited was the lack of placements for children in out-of-home care, which is creating a host of bad outcomes for children, families and staff. Child protection investigators spoke of driving long distances to other counties to place children because in- county placements were unavailable. Family Service Workers, who provide case management to children in foster care face a similar challenge, compounded by the fact that they have to make at least monthly contacts with children and often transport children to visits with parents, siblings, medical and other appointments. Some DCFS staff noted increases in placements ordered by courts of youth who also have delinquent behaviors, perhaps in an effort to secure more treatment-oriented placement settings. DCFS does not feel equipped to adequately serve some of these youth.
In the first four months of 2015, the report noted 22 children had to spend the night at state offices with state workers because there was no alternative.
One sympathetic veteran judicial stakeholder interviewed summed up the Arkansas child welfare environment as one in constant crisis, a status the system shares with many other child welfare systems in the country. He mentioned staff shortages, staff turnover, inexperienced staff and the lack of sufficient placements as stresses that contribute to the crisis-driven environment. He added that DCFS is highly risk-averse, for understandable reasons, which has driven the agency to attempt to control local practice and decision-making with a large number of policies, rules, compliance tracking and layers of approval. The result is a work setting in which constant compliance monitoring and the multiple layers of review and approval required for exceptions or reasonable deviation from standard are perceived by staff as mistrust. This stakeholder noted that staff turnover was not surprising, given the many stresses that diminish job satisfaction.