A new report from the state says Arkansas is making major progress toward improving its child welfare system, which drew praise from Gov. Asa Hutchinson Wednesday. A few years ago the state had a disproportionate number kids in foster care, workers with unmanageable caseloads and partners who said they weren’t getting the support needed.
The Department of Human Services began implementing reforms in 2016 and the report from the department says that as of this past August, the number of kids in foster care was down 18 percent, more children had been placed with relatives rather than foster homes, and the average caseload per frontline worker had been cut by a third, from 28 to 19 cases.
"We’re really excited about this report because it shows how all of those things that we started three years ago are showing real progress and we’re starting to hit targets," said DHS Deputy Director Keesa Smith. "We’re not saying that we’re perfect, we know that we have growth [needed], but we are able to start saying look at the ways in which programs that we implemented years ago are starting to have a real impact."
Officials say the changes have also prepared Arkansas for implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which is the first federal child welfare reform in decades.
DHS Division of Children and Family Services Director Mischa Martin said in a meeting with reporters that while there is still a lot of work to do, Arkansas is one of the few states ready to abide by the change in federal law.
"I’m really proud of the team of how they have kept the kid at the forefront, but also made changes to the system to implement the law. There’s been a lot of contract changes, there’s been a lot of technology – our case management system – changes to make sure that we’re ready.," Martin said.
The key challenges still facing the department, she said, including finding and hiring good case workers and providing them with the best assessment tools. Grant money secured by the state will help.
The governor met with officials from DHS Wednesday to discuss the report. In a written statement to KUAR News afterward, Hutchinson said:
The progress reflected in this year’s annual DCFS report demonstrates that the ceaseless efforts of our state, our communities, our businesses, and our families are affecting real change in the lives of hundreds of Arkansas children. We have seen improvements in many different areas of our child welfare system, including a reduction of case work for our child services workers and overdue investigations, while increasing relative placement and decreasing the number of foster children. This report demonstrates that, while there is still more to do, our reform efforts are working and our child welfare system is doing a better job serving Arkansas’s most vulnerable population. I applaud the work of Mischa Martin and her team.
The full report from DHS can be read here.