In a meeting with reporters Wednesday morning, Arkansas’s top child welfare officials with the Department of Human Services presented data that appears to show the state’s efforts to improve the foster care system are bearing fruit in several key areas.
DHS’ child welfare arm, the Division of Children and Family Services, released a reform plan in November 2016, which was given a boost by Governor Hutchinson’s successful effort to convince the legislature to increase the agency’s funding to hire more caseworkers. DHS Director Cindy Gillespie and DCFS Director Mischa Martin today cited several figures that indicate progress. Among them:
*The number of kids in foster care, which swelled to unprecedented levels over the last two years, seems to have stabilized. Since peaking at 5,196 in February, the figure has inched downward and now stands at 5,099, its lowest point since last October. That’s still higher than in the past— when former DCFS Director Cecile Blucker said in 2015 that the agency was “just maxed,” there were only 4,400 kids in custody — but the curve has bent in the right direction.
*The caseload of DCFS workers has decreased from a statewide average of 28 last November to an average of 22 today. There’s significant variation in caseload from region to region in the state, however. (We’ve been reporting on the damage caused by excessive caseloads since 2015.) And, retention of employees remains a serious problem.
*The number of open foster homes statewide has increased from 1,601 last September to 1,821 today, surpassing the agency’s goal.
*The percentage of children placed with their relatives, rather than the broader foster system, has doubled since 2015. At that time, only 14 percent of kids removed from their parents or guardians by DCFS were placed with relatives — a remarkably low figure that was far below the national average, and which was cited by consultant Paul Vincent as one of the biggest problems with the Arkansas child welfare system. The rate of kinship placement rose to about 23 percent in August 2016 and is now just short of 29 percent. (For more on why DCFS and Arkansas courts have lagged in relative placements, and the problems that can cause, read this 2015 article by Kathryn Joyce.)
*The percentage of kids placed in “family-like settings” has increased from about 78 percent last August to about 82 percent today. That means placement in a foster home, a therapeutic foster home, or a group setting with “house parents,” as opposed to a more institutional setting in which children are monitored by staff in shifts.
*The number of overdue child welfare investigations has plummeted, from 721 last November to 41 today.
“The progress that has been made is really remarkable,” Gillespie said today, but
The agency also released phase two of its plan for continued reforms, which call for hiring more staff (the new positions funded by the
The governor issued a statement praising the gains made by DCFS:
I’m pleased with the work of DCFS and the progress Director Martin and her staff have made to improve our child-welfare system. While there’s still much work to be done, this report shows we are headed in the right direction with fewer children in foster care, a higher number of children placed with relatives and reduced caseloads. This is great news for our children and the foster care community as a whole, and we will continue to build on these successes to make our state a better place for children and families.
Here’s the full release from DHS:
Significant Improvements Made in Child Welfare System as Part of Year-Long Effort, Still Work to Do
Second phase will focus on workforce, placement stability, and prevention
The Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) made significant strides toward stabilizing the child welfare system over the last year, including slowing the alarming increase in the number of children in foster care, reducing caseloads, and ensuring that children in foster care are placed in the best and safest place for their needs.
“Last year, we created a comprehensive plan to improve the child welfare system. With our partners, we worked to focus on better supporting families so children can be safely reunified with their parents and we strengthened the foster care system for those who need it,” said DCFS Director Mischa Martin. “Our data show that together we achieved much of what we set out to accomplish but there is more work to do. Now that we see some signs that we are moving toward stability, we must keep moving forward so that we can attain long-term, systemic improvements.”
Governor Asa Hutchinson said, “I’m pleased with the work of DCFS and the progress Director Martin and her staff have made to improve our child-welfare system. While there’s still much work to be done, this report shows we are headed in the right direction with fewer children in foster care, a higher number of children placed with relatives and reduced caseloads. This is great news for our children and the foster care community as a whole, and we will continue to build on these successes to make our state a better place for children and families.”
DHS Director Cindy Gillespie said she also appreciates the work Martin and her team put in over the last year.
“What they’ve done has not been easy, and some people may have given up when obstacles got in their way, but not Mischa and her team,” Gillespie said. “That’s because they have a true calling to help the children and families we serve. I am so thankful for all they accomplished, and for how other DHS divisions stepped up and worked side-by-side with them to make positive changes.”
Gillespie and Martin also thanked Governor Asa Hutchinson and members of the Legislature for passing Legislative changes that were critical to improving the system as well as increasing funding so the Division could hire much needed additional frontline workers and supervisors. In addition, they thank community partners – The CALL, Project Zero, Immerse Arkansas, Arkansas Baptist Children’s Homes and many others – that helped DCFS achieve goals it outlined in November 2016.
Since releasing its plan in November 2016, DCFS has seen:
• Slowed growth in number of children in foster care (Projected 5,800 children in care by the end of August 2017; actual number is 5,035)
• Reduced caseloads (From a statewide average of 28 to an average of 22)
• Fewer overdue investigations (Number of overdue investigations from 721 to 51)
• Significantly fewer children 10 and under in residential care (From 105 in August 2016 to 41 today)
• A higher percentage of children placed in family-like settings (From 77.6 percent in August 2016 to 82.1 percent in August 2017)
• More foster family homes (Exceeded goal of having 1,749 foster families by having 1,821 compared to 1,579 in August 2016)
• More children placed with relatives (From 23.4 percent in August 2016 to 28.8 percent in August 2017)
Still, a fundamental shift toward better supporting families, especially those with substance abuse and mental health issues; ensuring children and teens in foster care are in the right placements; and building a stronger, more accountable workforce is needed. So today DHS released phase two of its plan called Renewed Hope.
The plan calls for continued improvements in the following areas:
• Hiring, training, and retaining staff
– DCFS has come up with a one-year plan to accomplish this goal.
– The new state employee pay plan and subsequent pay raises also will be a positive factor.
• Continued reduction in caseload
• Increased placement stability
• Increased foster homes that take children ages 6 and up and sibling groups
• Prevention and reunification
– Focus on safety and ensure that children can remain in the home and then return home when it is safe to do so.
• Behavioral health services transformation and its impact on child welfare