BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – Since August the state has added 109 foster homes with space for 232 more children, the governor announced at the dedication of a 33-bed residential home for children in Charleston.
The state Division of Children and Family Services has eliminated a backlog of more than 1,200 foster parent inquiries, which is evidence that it is improving its procedures for handling cases. In November, 50 new homes were added, bringing the total number of foster homes in Arkansas to 1,385.
More than 4,600 Arkansas children are in state custody, according to the head of the division. Also, division employees are working with about 7,500 children who remain with their families and have not been removed from their homes.
In August the governor announced a renewed effort to improve the Arkansas child welfare system, and increasing the number of foster homes is one of the goals. In September the Legislative Council approved the governor’s request to hire an additional 40 employees for the division, so that case loads are reduced and become more manageable.
Child welfare advocates say that case workers should average about 15 cases, and in Arkansas the average has been as high as 27 or 29 cases per worker. Employees who must manage a high number of cases tend to burn out more quickly because of long hours and emotional stress.
Earlier this year a consultant completed interviews with 200 people in the child welfare system, including division staff, foster parents, advocates and the youths themselves. The consultant listed 10 recommendations for improving the system, one of which was to reduce average case loads to about 20 per worker.
Staff who work directly with children are not the only ones with high case loads. The division’s lawyers average 96 cases each, compared to American Bar Association recommendations of 60 cases per lawyer. Turnover among the legal staff is also high.
Recruiting more foster parents will allow children to be placed in foster homes closer to where they live. Currently, due to a lack of available foster homes, nearly 55 percent of children are placed in counties outside of their home county.
In Arkansas only 14 percent of foster children are placed with relatives, which is low compared to other states. Ten states place at least 30 percent of foster children with relatives.
In rural areas especially, more mental health services are needed for neglected and abused children who are being placed in state custody. They need intensive and individualized counseling.
The study noted that tension exists between the Division of Children and Family Services and the legal system, specifically juvenile and family courts. Conflicts are common nationwide, the study said, because judges expect their orders to be carried out fully, while child welfare agencies are not always able to do so because of a lack of money.
Negative feedback from attorneys, advocates and others in the court system has caused bureaucrats and employees in the division of children’s services to become defensive, fostering mistrust. The consultant recommends that individuals in both the court system and the state agency remember that they share a common goal of protecting children, and that they restore a constructive working relationship.