Nov. 14, 2016
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Chief of Communications & Community Engagement
DHS Identifies, Acts on Initial Steps Aimed at Stabilizing Foster Care System
After months of intensive discussions with child welfare, Medicaid, behavioral health, finance and other experts, the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) has outlined the initial phase of work needed to address the foster care crisis in the state, officials announced Monday, with the release of a full report titled, “Moving Beyond Crisis.” To date, 5,200 children are in foster care placements across the state.
“We’ve made great strides over the last several months identifying steps that we as an agency can take now to strengthen the child welfare system in ways that make the safety and well-being of children – and the resiliency of their families – paramount,” said Mischa Martin, DHS Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) director. “There’s still much work to be done, but today we can celebrate the steps we’re taking toward a more stable child welfare system.”
Over the last year, DHS has seen a nearly 30 percent growth in the overall number of children in care, with the increase coming both from the number of children entering care and the slowed rate at which children are leaving care. This growth does not correlate with what was determined to be only a slight increase in the number of child maltreatment investigations during that timeframe. At the same time, DHS has seen an exodus of experienced field staff, along with high turnover among newer family service workers. This has resulted in high caseloads and concerns from judges about DCFS’s ability to ensure the safety of children who remain in their homes.
DHS Director Cindy Gillespie brought DCFS staff together with employees from almost all other DHS divisions and support offices as well as national experts in child welfare, behavioral health and Medicaid in a “war room” atmosphere to assess the needs of the child welfare system and ways to systematically improve it. The group’s work had three overarching goals:
1. Strengthening families so children can remain safely at home by filling gaps in services and family supports
2. Improving the foster care for those children who come into the system for placement by increasing the number of foster homes and better supporting the workforce and community organizations that are part of the child welfare system
3. Building a behavioral health system that can better serve children and parents who have mental health and substance abuse treatment needs.
“Aside from the unprecedented growth, the problems discussed in the war room meetings are not new,” Gillespie said, “but the approaches identified to resolve them are new to Arkansas. These strategies are the result of having many partners – not just child welfare experts – at the table.”
Regarding the first goal, research has shown that home-visiting programs keep children healthier and safe while also building families up so they become more self-sufficient and better able to care for their children. However, high caseloads and a limited pool of experienced caseworkers in Arkansas have kept the state from pursuing that model. During the meetings, Medicaid staff identified federal funding that can be used to create a new home-visiting initiative for families involved with in-home protective services cases. The $4 million, 100 percent federally-funded initiative is designed to strengthen families by focusing on infant and parent health, parent-child interactions and home safety to preclude placement in foster care. Federal approval is expected later this year.
Other steps identified and included in “Phase One” of the overall plan to improve the system are:
• Expanding mentoring and parenting programs with the help of faith-based and non-profit partners.
• Increasing relative placements to at least the national average of 29 percent by removing system barriers.
• Streamlining the DHS foster parent application process and improving relationships with faith-based and non-profit organizations that help recruit foster and adoptive parents.
• Recruiting additional foster placements for children with special needs by working with organizations that provide services to children with developmental disabilities and better supporting organizations that recruit therapeutic foster homes.
• Better supporting foster families through increased communication and senior-level staff engagement.
• Improving relationships between caseworkers and foster parents by creating an environment that is focused on customer service.
• Better supporting caseworkers by shifting overtime funding for a pilot program to employ a complete second shift of workers for “after hours” calls, placements and services.
• Providing a texting system that allows caseworkers to reach out via blast messages to foster families when a home is needed so that caseworkers do not have to spend hours calling families to find a placement.
• Assessing the current foster care population to identify barriers to reunification or finding permanency with another family.
• Reducing reliance on emergency shelters and congregate care for children ages 10 and under.
• Creating a prevention and reunification unit that will focus on keeping families together and out of foster care.
• Creating a mobile crisis team that will be deployed to areas with high turnover to provide stability.
• Working with the Division of Behavioral Health Services to identify short-term and long-term funding and services for children and families with mental health and substance abuse issues. This includes a temporary Medicaid initiative that will help children more quickly leave intensive, high-cost residential psychiatric treatment. Completely federally-funded, the initiative will fill the gaps in services until more comprehensive behavioral health reforms can be implemented in July 2017.
“If we can give families, caseworkers and foster parents the tools they need, we can have a long-term and positive impact not only on the system but also the children and families we serve,” Martin said. “We know we can’t do those things alone, and hope these initial steps will show our partners how committed we are to working with our dedicated workforce, compassionate families, legislators and faith-based and non-profit organizations to improve child welfare in Arkansas.”
The “Moving Beyond Crisis” special report is available online in its entirety at humanservices.arkansas.gov. To report child abuse or neglect, call 1-800-482-5964. For more information about the child welfare system in Arkansas or to become a foster family, visit www.fosterarkansas.org to begin the application process.