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The number of children in foster care has reached an all-time high in Arkansas, straining state officials who have long referred to the growth as a crisis.

But the state has reversed a trend of losing foster families every quarter, according to reports prepared by the Division of Children and Family Services.

"We're all feeling a little bit of the strain of the number of people in foster care, and we're glad that we're making progress, but as much progress as we've made, we have more children in care now," said Lauri Currier, executive director of The Call, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes Christian families to foster or adopt children who are in the care of the division.

From March 2015 to March 2016, the total number of available and in-use beds in foster homes increased from 2,801 to 3,306, but the number of foster children also increased, from 4,178 to 4,791, according to the latest quarterly report. In addition to moving in with foster families, children may be placed in group homes or with relatives on a provisional basis, and some receive acute placements, which can involve clinical care.

Since March, according to Mischa Martin, director of the Division of Children and Family Services, the number of foster children has continued to climb. There were about 5,030 children in foster care last week. The all-time high, reached earlier this month, was about 5,050.

When Martin became director on July 8, there were 4,983 children in foster care. She said at the time that the state had never had more than 5,000 children in the system.

Substance abuse by heads of households outpaces neglect as reasons for why children enter foster care, according to the division's latest report. About 56 percent of children enter foster care because of substance abuse by their caregivers, though the report notes that many children enter the system for more than one reason.

Martin said partnering with outside groups such as The Call is key in her strategy for managing the treatment of children in the state's care.

"We've really collaborated with our partners to help them increase the number of foster homes we have," Martin said. "We're trying to streamline the [foster bed] opening process, increase communication with our partners, and work through some technical issues that we've had in the past to make sure we've got the most homes open."

Photo by Stephen B. Thornton
Mischa Martin, director of the Division of Children and Family Services

Finding foster families

Of the about 1,500 foster families in Arkansas, Currier said, her organization is responsible for about 600 of those families and is training another 250 families.

She watches the division's reports carefully.

"There was a net gain of 44 foster families over the quarter, and I can remember a day -- in the not-so-distant past -- that there were negative five. It was that way for several years in a row," Currier said. "As dire as it seems that we have all these kids in care and only 1,500 homes to care for them, I can remember a day when we had 1,000 homes, and so we are making progress."

From December 2013 through March 2015, the number of foster families dropped every quarter -- from 1,248 families to 1,168.

But the number rebounded over the past year. At the end of March this year, there were 1,478 foster families, according to the most recent report.

A child welfare case begins when a report of possible child abuse or neglect is made to the Child Abuse Hotline. Cases are investigated by the Division of Children and Family Services or, in more serious cases, the Crimes Against Children Division of the Arkansas State Police.

If the division feels that a child is not safe at any time, the child can be removed for up to 72 hours without court approval. If the report is found to be true, a child can be removed and placed in foster care, left in the home with an open protective services case or voluntary services put in place, or left with no case open or services put in place.

If a child is removed from the home, a judge must decide whether the state can continue to have custody and where the child should live.

From there, an adjudication hearing is held to decide whether the child was abused or neglected.

If found to be so, a disposition hearing is held to allow a judge to decide whether it is better for the child to be in the custody of the division or someone else.

A review hearing must be held at least every six months to ensure that everyone is following court orders.

Finally, a permanency planning hearing is held to decide the permanent placement of the child. Children can be returned to their parents, their guardianship can be given to another adult or parental rights can be terminated, allowing a child to be adopted.

The typical child stays in Arkansas' foster care system between six months and 12 months.

A changing process

Currier said Martin has made her job of finding foster families easier by streamlining the process.

Amy Webb, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said potential foster families are now referred to a home study after their first training sessions, not at the end of the process. The home study explores applicants' social and family histories, current family makeup and support systems to see whether they are able to serve children.

She said the division is tracking families better, so it knows where they are in the process of becoming foster families. Potential foster parents will soon be able to receive paperwork electronically, if they wish. The state's is getting a revamp.

The division is also now meeting monthly with organizations such as The Call, Christians for Kids and Arkansas Baptists that recruit families for the division, Webb said.

Currier said her organization aims to be a bridge between the church and the state. The Call doesn't take custody of children, but provides training to would-be foster parents -- which can take the place of state-run instruction. It also helps with paperwork; organizes donations of clothing, food and gift cards; and provides a network of support.

"A lot of times, we mean the same thing, but we don't speak the same language. So The Call speaks church -- whatever that is -- and we develop relationships. We talk about it from a Christian perspective, what it means to be a foster parent, what it means to be an adoptive parent," Currier said. "Then, we take that and we help those families by speaking the government language."

Increasing the number of foster homes is key to solving ongoing issues in the division, officials have testified during legislative meetings. The division's staff members juggle twice the casework load as their out-of-state peers and transport children across the state when foster homes aren't locally available.

Children have slept in division offices at times when no foster homes were available.

State Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, serves on the Governor's Child Welfare Oversight Panel, adopted three boys, has an open foster home and went through The Call's training program.

He said the oversight panel is looking into the Safe Families program, used by other states, which allows parents to voluntarily surrender their children while they receive treatment for substance abuse, anger management, effective parenting or other issues.

"The children are not actually brought into the foster care system, and the parents do get the help they need," he said.

Meeks said he expected the panel to issue its full set of recommendations in the coming weeks -- well in advance of the regular legislative session that begins in January.

Martin said her division is continuing to hold "war room" meetings with other parts of the Department of Human Services to see how they can assist her division.

"That's focused on bringing our other sister divisions in to figure out how they can help with the foster care crisis, looking at substance abuse treatment, looking at preventative services," she said. "We're just really looking how we can support our caseworkers and families better by making this a DHS problem, not a DCFS problem."

Metro on 08/22/2016

Print Headline: Foster families up; need is, too


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Archived Comments

  • Skeptic1
    August 22, 2016 at 8:20 a.m.

    DCFS receives Federal Title IV-E money for every child in foster care and a bonus if they are adopted out of foster care. What this article does not mention is that it is in the very first paragraph of the statute that children taken by DCFS are FIRST to be placed with a relative, SECOND with fictive kin, and THIRD to outside foster care. They are completely ignoring the statute so they don't lose that Federal money. Next, the reason so many are in foster care is because most of them should not be. DCFS has been seizing children on nothing more than hotline calls then declares parents guilty of neglect or abuse with little or no investigation. In a state with only 2.9 million people DHS in Arkansas has an annual budget of nearly 9 BILLION dollars, up nearly a BILLION from last year. That alone cries for an investigation and by the Federal government.Title IV-E money has created a whole cottage industry around the foster care system, more kids in foster care means more federal money. This is national scandal but Arkansas is rapidly reaching the top of the list.

  • hurricane46
    August 22, 2016 at 9:25 a.m.

    It's too bad there are that many, I would think that all our fine legislators that passed all those anti-abortion bills would adopt at least two or three children. Oh that's right, they only want them to be born, they don't give a crap about them after they 're born.

  • Queen1976
    August 22, 2016 at 11:23 a.m.

    I agree with Hurricane. All these legislators are gun-whole about stopping abortions, but don't address who's going to pay for these unwanted children after they are born. And what about stepping up efforts to get more people on birth control in the first place? Then our legislators would have to work with Planned Parenthood, which won't happen unless they are forced to. Planned Parenthood is a great organization for getting poor folks on birth control & getting their annual exams; thus reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies out there! This would save us taxpayers LOTS of money, going out to women that keep having more kids to get their monthly checks increased.

  • LR1955
    August 22, 2016 at 1:24 p.m.

    I'll add this: anti-abortion & anti-birth control are not evangelical or christian things.
    In AR they're southern &/or missionary BAPTIST things.
    Bottom Line, not everybody is fit to be a parent! Or foster parent either!

  • Foghorn
    August 22, 2016 at 2:11 p.m.

    I find the comments by libertas interesting. Perhaps the article's author can drill down on the topic with the new DHS director Gillespie. Would be interesting to hear her answer to the questions, "How does DHS interpret Title IV-E? How is AR's compliance with Title IV-E monitored? Are there stats on total numbers of DCFS child seizures and how many were placed with relatives or kin vs. in foster care?" If lots of kids are being placed with relatives or kin and there are still almost 5000 in foster care, that's super alarming. If few are being placed with relatives or kin, it perhaps supports libertas' allegations or it begs the question, what is preventing more in-family placements.

  • Skeptic1
    August 22, 2016 at 8:42 p.m.

    Whiskey, there is a judge in Pulaski County that has a standing order that says, " No relative placement without a court order," and did you notice how this article fell off the front page or referenced in the topics list? This article is not news it's propaganda to deflect from the scrutiny many in the legal community are calling for. DCFS will give money to foster parents for everything from cereal to sneakers but won't give a penny to help the parents they've robbed children from. If DCFS shows up at your door and you have nice white or light skinned babies under 6 you better lawyer up.