Thanks to a concentrated effort over the past two years, the Arkansas foster care system has shown several notable improvements.
A 14 percent decline in the number of children in the system is the most important evidence of improvement. In late 2016 there were 5,196 children in foster care and today there are 4,471.
The 14 percent decrease goes hand in hand with another improvement: the proportion of children who are placed with relatives has increased from 23 percent to 27 percent. Of all the children who are placed with relatives, more than a third are placed on the same day they are removed from their parents.
Another improvement is that 82 percent of foster children are now placed in a family setting, as opposed to a group home. In late 2016 the percentage was 78 percent.
The state Division of Children and Family Services runs the foster care system. In 2016 a child welfare expert issued an alarming report on the status of the agency, where high caseloads and a seeming lack of support contributed to inordinately high employee turnover.
The effect was that the number of foster children was growing alarmingly, because employees were not processing many of their cases in a timely manner.
The governor proposed a budget increase for the Division, and the legislature approved funding for more staff. As a result, the Division has added 187 new positions over the past two years, bringing the total number of authorized positions within the Division to 1,215 for Fiscal Year 2018.
Adding staff meant that those who work directly with families have seen a decrease in caseloads, from 28 to 20.
The turnover rate went down from 48 to 41 percent, which is still too high. Staff with experience are better able to assess a families’ needs, and to work with them on solutions.
In 2016 attorneys for the Division also had high caseloads. Last year they averaged 115 cases for each attorney, and the turnover rate for attorneys was 60 percent.
The Division added two attorneys and two legal support staff, from other areas within the Department of Human Services. Caseloads for attorneys went down to 99, and the turnover rate dropped to 26 percent.
The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of children who suffer from abuse and neglect, therefore the challenge for the Division is to focus the efforts of its staff on approaches that are the most effective.
With that in mind, it expanded a proven program called Nurturing Families of Arkansas. It is an intensive program teaching parents how to be better. It used to be for families with children between five and 11, but has been expanded to include families with children up to 18. SafeCare is another program teaching parents about health and child safety. It also teaches communication between parent and child, as a means to reduce physical abuse and neglect.
Family service workers try to connect families to informal and formal support systems. They may include relatives, churches and social organizations. They coach children to improve their behavior, and they help parents improve their ability to communicate with their children’s teachers.