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DHS Moves To Stabilize Child Welfare SystemDate: 11/14/2016
DHS Moves To Stabilize Child Welfare System
Every week, executives at the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) tracked the numbers – the rising number of children in foster care, the constant turnover among caseworkers, the high caseloads, and the need for more and more foster families.
Clearly in the midst of a crisis in child welfare, new DHS Director Cindy Gillespie in May convened what would turn out to be a four-month “war room” with staff from across the department, not just child welfare experts. Working with the DHS Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the group put forth clear goals that could make a meaningful and lasting positive impact on the child welfare system:
• Strengthen families at risk of foster care involvement so children can remain safely at home by filling gaps in services and family supports.
• 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
• Build a statewide mental health and substance abuse system that is equipped to better serve children and families.
“It took time to really dig into all of these issues and identify what policies and processes were creating stumbling blocks in the system and all the different workforce issues that needed to be addressed,” said DCFS Director Mischa Martin. “It was amazing to have other DHS divisions and offices – Medicaid, Behavioral Health, IT, Developmental Disabilities, Procurement and more – at the table helping us find innovative ways to fix what we found.”
The group met three times a week, discussing everything from how much time family service workers spend doing clerical work to potential federal funding streams that could be tapped to fund prevention programs to help children stay out of foster care. The group outlined dozens of steps that DHS could take to achieve the goals outlined during the war room meetings and stabilize the child welfare system.
Included in the steps are:
• Increasing the percentage of relatives who step in and care for children in foster care 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 experience that is focused on customer service.
• Better supporting caseworkers by shifting overtime funding for a pilot program to employ a second shift – nights and weekends – of workers for “after hours” calls, placements and services.
• Developing a texting system that allows caseworkers to reach out to foster families when a home is needed so that caseworkers do not have to spend hours calling families.
And, Gillespie noted, they found internal resources to bolster DCFS’s work that may not have been discovered if only child welfare experts had been at the table.
“Our Division of County Operations realized certain processes were causing delays for healthcare applications for children in foster care, so they are working to fix that and Behavioral Health was able to shift existing funding to help cover substance abuse treatment for families in crisis,” Gillespie said. “We at DHS really came together as a team through this work, and I think that team atmosphere will help us as we move forward and address other issues in the agency.”
The findings also were presented to Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who has requested an additional $26.7 million next fiscal year to help DCFS care for the more than 5,200 children in care and to hire new caseworkers and other field staff to support the work done in these meetings.
You can read a special report on the work, called “Moving Beyond Crisis,” by going to http://dhs-staging.ark.org/MovingBeyondCrisisDCFSReport.pdf.