DIFFERENT DIAGNOSES: Dennis Zeller testifies before the Joint Performance Review committee with DCFS Director Mischa Martin and DHS Deputy Director Keesa Smith.

A slate of reforms promised by Arkansas’s child welfare agency, the Division of Children and Family Services, are “absolutely necessary,” the president of DCFS’s independent consultant told a legislative committee this morning. However, they still may not be enough to control the state’s alarming growth in foster care cases, which have ballooned to record numbers in the past two years.

Dennis Zeller is the co-founder of New York-based consultant Hornby Zeller Associates, Inc., or HZA. Zeller told the legislature today the firm has worked in 35 states, primarily in child welfare issues. We wrote last month about a report HZA delivered to DCFS early this year which blamed the growth in foster care primarily on “decision-making” at DCFS, in the judicial system and elsewhere in the state, rather than an increase in cases of child maltreatment in Arkansas. The harsh assessment by its own consultant placed the Division of Children and Family Services in something of a bind, and it soon followed up with its own report that outlined an ambitious set of reforms (including an increase of staff by 228, the funding for which has the advance blessing of Governor Hutchinson).


The DCFS reforms are substantive and address many of the problems with Arkansas’s system that advocates have identified before. But as Kathryn Joyce and I wrote in last week’s cover story for the Arkansas Times, there is something of a disconnect between what exactly DCFS proposes to do and what HZA previously diagnosed as the main problems with the system.

Zeller told the legislature’s Joint Performance Review committee today that “when you look at an increase in the foster care population, broadly speaking, only two things could have happened … the [foster care] population changed,  or your decision-making changed. When we looked at our report, we ruled out the first. We didn’t have any more child abuse reports. We didn’t have an increase in the percentage of them that were substantiated, that were found ‘true.’ We did have an increase in the percentage [of children] that came into care. … That’s why our report focused specifically on the decision-making, because … families in Arkansas hadn’t simply all of a sudden gotten worse.”


DCFS Director Mischa Martin also appeared before the committee today to outline the agency’s proposed reforms. Aside from the staffing increase, DCFS is also taking steps to increase the number of foster children placed with their relatives (rather than within the broader foster care system), increase its number of “in-home” cases (where children stay with their parents, under supervision, rather than entering foster care), and much more. Department of Human Services Deputy Director Keesa Smith, who oversees DCFS and several other divisions of DHS, noted that the agency is “adding an additional level of supervisors” focused on reviewing cases where children are removed from their homes. (DHS is also creating a “client ombudsman” position to review complaints, which will exist outside the DCFS chain of command, Smith confirmed after the meeting.)

Zeller spoke positively about the DCFS reforms. Regarding the added level of review for removals, he said “I think that’s great.” However, he added, “I’m not sure it’s enough. … Yes, you need increased staff, all of those things are necessary for the department to do its job, but it may still be unable to do its job because it can’t control the front door.”


By that, Zeller meant the fact that the decision to remove children from their families is ultimately made by juvenile judges, sometimes over the recommendation of DCFS. Such decisions are borne of misguided ideas about what child protective services cases are actually intended to do, according to the consultant.

“I think what happens is we get confused in this business [in regards to] what we’re about. It’s supposed to be about the welfare of kids. That’s why it’s called ‘child welfare.’ And sometimes we forget that, and we think that it’s about punishing parents. And so, we find something that parents did wrong and say ‘that’s not appropriate and therefore we have to take certain actions,’ whether or not those are in the child’s best interest — whether or not the child’s safety is really threatened by those actions. … What is it you’re really interested in? Are you really interested in the kid’s welfare? Or are you interested in making sure that everybody has absolutely perfect parents?”

Zeller added later, “I know of places in this state where children were removed because their parents tested positive for marijuana. My guess is that those kids were not in danger.” He cited this as an example of punishing parents rather than protecting the welfare of children. “I had a judge tell me that the reason he removed kids when parents tested positive for pot was that it is against the law. Well, yeah, it is. But that didn’t say anything about what the impact on the kid was.”

Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale), the outgoing chair of the Joint Performance Review committee, asked Zeller about the role of the Crimes Against Children Division of the Arkansas State Police. A civilian arm of a law enforcement agency, CACD acts as the investigator in cases of alleged severe abuse of children. It was given that authority some years ago as an answer to accusations that DCFS wasn’t adequately pursuing such cases. But some, including Clark, now say CACD acts with impunity and needs to be subjected to more scrutiny.


Zeller began by noting that “in some cases, it’s not CACD but local law enforcement that’s taking that role [of investigator], and they don’t even have the training that the CACD workers get.” But, he added, anyone investigating a child welfare case — whatever their agency of origin — has to play a strangely bifurcated role.

“They’re asked to do two things that most agencies aren’t asked to do, and that’s both be a kind of policeman and be a social worker. That’s really tough. You see agencies across the country separate those functions, because it’s tough — because taking the investigative stance is one thing to do, and taking the caseworker stance, the supportive stance, takes another set of skills. But when you separate it, you sort of make the agency schizophrenic … because the agency still has both those functions. It has to do both of those things.

“I remember when CACD was given the functions it now has. I was a little skeptical then. I don’t think it’s worked terribly. I’ve seen systems where it’s much worse. But I do think that whoever is in these functions, wherever they work, have to understand that they are both policeman and social worker. That’s got to be training, it’s got to be supervision, it’s got to be a different way of thinking. … They’ve got to have the training to do both jobs.”