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DHS Continues Improving Child Welfare System Despite Unexpected Challenges


For Immediate Release:

Media Contacts: 

Amy Webb
Chief of Communications

Marci Manley
Deputy Chief of Communications


DHS Continues Improving Child Welfare System Despite Unexpected Challenges

During global pandemic, focus remained on strengthening families, improving foster care,
and supporting the workforce in alignment with Family First Act

(LITTLE ROCK, Ark.) — Despite the unprecedented impact of the current public health crisis, the Department of Human Services (DHS) Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has moved forward this year in its ongoing efforts to improve the child welfare system in Arkansas by strengthening families, improving foster care for those who need it, and better supporting its workforce.

DCFS outlined its work over the last year in a report released today. A New Horizon is the fifth in a series of annual reports that highlights the areas needing improvement, strengths, and work already done in the child welfare system since DHS launched large-scale reform in 2016.

Keesa Smith, DHS Deputy Director for Youth and Families, is encouraged by the report and the work it details. “This report is both timely and relevant,” she noted. “It gives the public a better understanding of how DCFS overcame pandemic-related obstacles and kept a strong focus on families, children, and agency staff.”

“I’m proud of the efforts of my staff and our partners because we’ve been able to move forward with programs and services that will strengthen the families we serve,” said DCFS Director Mischa Martin. “We’ve also found creative ways to forge ahead with new and exciting work while also maintaining our focus on safety and permanency for the children we serve. We all look forward to continuing to work together toward a better system with better outcomes for children in Arkansas."

We’ve seen steady and significant improvement in the child welfare system over the last four years, such as:

  • An increase in the children who are placed with relatives from 23.4 percent in 2016 to 34.7 percent.
  • An increase in children placed in family-like settings from 77.6 percent in 2016 to 87.5 percent.
  • An increase in the ratio of foster home beds to children in care from 0.69 in 2016 to 0.75.
  • A decrease in the average caseload for a frontline worker from 28 cases in 2016 to 20 cases.
  • A decrease in the number of children in foster care in Arkansas from 5,196 in late 2016 to 4,458 in August 2020, a 14 percent decline.

Background and DCFS Progress in Reforming Child Welfare System

Four years ago, DCFS began an aggressive but strategic set of reforms designed to pull the Arkansas child welfare and foster care system out of a crisis—one defined by extraordinarily high numbers of children in care, unmanageable caseloads, and families, workers, and partners who felt unsupported and undervalued.

DHS worked with every resource available—national child welfare experts, practically every division in DHS, the Governor’s Office, and key community stakeholders—to come up with a plan to move intentionally and methodically away from crisis and toward stability and strength. In November 2016, DCFS released a report called Moving Beyond Crisis.  

A year later, the number of children in foster care had stopped rising and fewer young children were staying in emergency shelters. Caseloads had declined and families felt more supported. These were encouraging steps forward, but significant work remained. So, in September 2017, we ushered in Phase Two of our efforts with the release of the Renewed Hope report. 

Renewed Hope focused on three key areas of improvement: (1) strengthening families so that children can remain safely at home and families are more resilient; (2) improving the foster care system so that it is stable for those who need it; and (3) building, supporting, and empowering a strong workforce. Again, it was an ambitious but focused plan designed to lay the groundwork for positive and sustainable improvements.  

In October 2018, DCFS released Foundation for the Future as Phase Three of reform efforts with a continued focus on the areas above, because the core of a strong child welfare system is resilient and supported families and workers.

In 2019, states received guidance about a landmark piece of federal legislation called the Family First Prevention Services Act. More commonly known as Family First, it is the first major federal child welfare reform effort in decades. The law includes federal funding for prevention services to help keep children safely with their families and avoid the traumatic experience of entering foster care. The law also stresses the importance of children growing up in families and helps ensure children are placed in the least restrictive, most family-like setting to meet their needs when they do come into foster care. It emphasizes that every child deserves a safe, stable family every day.
“As we looked back at our reform efforts, we saw that our work in Arkansas mirrored the new requirements in the Family First legislation, “Martin said. “What could have been a daunting overhaul instead will be a continuation of the work we started three years ago.” Fittingly, the Phase Three report was titled Family First Fits Us, and it outlined how the values and programs we believe in and have implemented were in line with the Family First legislation.

Phase Four was set to be a time of expansion and enhancement of successful programs and initiatives driven by our alignment with the Family First Act. Then the global coronavirus pandemic began and forced us to really focus on our key priorities of strengthening families, improving the foster care system, and building, supporting, and empowering a strong workforce in new and creative ways. Our staff, our partners, and our families have truly embraced the “new normal” during the ongoing pandemic, and as a result, we all realized there are new and better ways to accomplish our goals…together. DCFS titled this year’s report A New Horizon to represent that forward-looking belief that we can adapt and become stronger as a child welfare system when we focus on what’s important and embrace new ideas and challenges with open minds and a firm belief that every child in Arkansas deserves a safe, stable family every day.

All of the reports are available here under DCFS Reports.


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