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Governor’s working group issues suggestions to improve Arkansas’ foster care system

The office of the Arkansas Department of Human Service in Little Rock.
The office of the Arkansas Department of Human Service in Little Rock.

A working group of more than 130 Arkansans with experience in child welfare and foster care released a list of 11 recommendations on Monday to improve the state’s foster system, which has long suffered from staffing and home shortages.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders created the working group by executive order in February. The group included the secretaries of education and public safety, mental health professionals and Every Child Arkansas, a statewide network of organizations that recruit and support foster families.

The group split into three subcommittees that each came up with recommendations, according to Monday’s report:

  • Prevention and mental health services
  • Foster care safety and permanency
  • Foster home recruitment and retention

Sanders, Secretary of Human Services Kristi Putnam and Division of Children and Family Services Director Tiffany Wright all praised the group’s efforts.

“I often say that Arkansas is the most pro-life state in the country — but the pro-life agenda doesn’t end once a child is born,” Sanders said in a statement. “Our foster care system has the potential to put every child in Arkansas in a safe, loving home.”

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families also welcomed the recommendations, Director Keesa Smith said in an email. Smith is DHS’ former deputy director of youth and families.

“Many of the recommendations, such as strengthening the DCFS workforce and making public assistance programs more accessible, have been put forth as solutions over several years,” Smith said. “So our hope for the latest round of recommendations is that there will equally be a strong plan to begin implementing these ideas, so that our child welfare system is improved and vulnerable children in our state are protected.”

Prevention and mental health services

The first four recommendations to improve the foster care system are:

  • Creating a “community resource model” that “uses a relationship-based approach to connect families and professionals to services and supports.”
  • Making it easier for families to access the state’s public assistance programs, such as public housing.
  • Developing evidence-based programs to prevent child abuse and neglect before they happen.
  • Making existing crisis response services less reactive and more proactive for families or youth in crisis situations, such as poor mental health.

Ensuring that families have adequate resources to nurture their children prevents state involvement to begin with, said Jeannie Roberts, a foster parent and the executive director of the nonprofit Foster Love Arkansas.

Foster Love works with DCFS and other organizations throughout the state to help families “get that home up to par to where they can stay together,” whether they need bedding or help paying bills, said Roberts, a member of the working group.

Foster care safety and permanency

4,524 children were in foster care in June 2022, according to a report from DCFS to state lawmakers in June. As of March 31, that number had decreased to 4,199.

The working group’s second subcommittee made four recommendations:

  • Creating a multi-agency team to train child welfare, law enforcement, public safety, legal and education employees in trauma-informed care.
  • Strengthening the DCFS workforce, which has been short-staffed in recent years.
  • Building teams of experts to help families handle court proceedings and foster care plans.
  • Regularly training “all parties involved in the child welfare system” to recognize safety and risk in order to meet the specific needs of children and families.

Wright, the DCFS director, told state legislators in June that even though the foster care system manages fewer children than it used to, she believed a larger workforce with less turnover and more manageable workloads would be better equipped to serve Arkansas children and families. DCFS had 331 vacancies within its 1,423 total positions at the time.
Workload is the main reason both workers and supervisors leave, and employees often leave less than two years after starting their jobs, even though they usually “need three years of experience to really feel confident in the work,” Mischa Martin, the Department of Human Services’ deputy director of youth and families, told lawmakers.

Roberts agreed that turnover among caseworkers at DCFS is a problem.

“That goes down to the individual child being impacted because they trust these caseworkers, and all of a sudden they’re not there anymore and their case is put onto someone who maybe doesn’t have the same experience and definitely doesn’t have the same history with the child,” Roberts said.

Foster home recruitment and retention

There have been more than 4,000 foster children in Arkansas for the past few years, but there are fewer than 1,600 foster homes in the state, according to the report.

The number of foster homes includes relatives of foster children, so families who choose to foster with no preexisting ties to the system are much fewer, Roberts said.

Arkansas Foster Care Working Group

DCFS tries to keep siblings in the same foster home, but that’s not always possible because it depends on how many foster children a family can take in at once, especially if the foster children come from a large family.

Retention of foster families who are not related to foster children has averaged 78.3% over the past year, according to the report.

The third subcommittee, which included Roberts, made three recommendations:

  • Continuing to use “private license agency” foster homes and partnering with Every Child Arkansas to “implement a targeted marketing campaign” to recruit more foster families.
  • Making accurate information about foster parenting more accessible and making sure existing foster families have the support they need from the state.
  • Altering the training and requirements that foster parents and DCFS staff must achieve in order to work with foster children, based on feedback from experts, foster parents, and former foster and adopted children.

The state has gained more foster homes than it has lost over the past three fiscal years, but the working group concluded that the families that chose to stop fostering did so because they did not have enough support from the state, according to the report.

Roberts said Foster Love has done in-person and virtual outreach so that people who are hesitant to open their homes can “ask questions and get real answers” from experienced foster parents.

“That works as far as putting the information in front of the person, because unfortunately, it’s not like selling a used car,” Roberts said. “This is a life change that we’re selling.”

Tess Vrbin is a reporter with the nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization Arkansas Advocate. It is part of the States Newsroom which is supported by grants and a coalition of readers and donors.