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Flaws seen in Arkansas family-services program

State system often punishes rather than helps, advocacy group’s report says by Amanda Claire Curcio | December 15, 2016 at 5:45 a.m.

A new report urges lawmakers to overhaul the state's system for dealing with struggling youths and parents so that it lives up to its name, Families in Need of Services.

Too often, the report says, children are removed from their homes or jailed in "a clear violation of civil liberties of both the parent and child."

And collected data from the program fall short, which prevents judges and policymakers from making more effective choices.

The report, titled "Unfulfilled Promises: The Reality of FINS in Arkansas," was compiled by Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that operates under federal authority, and a team from Hendrix College. It was presented Wednesday to the Legislature's committees on children and youth.

The report notes that Families in Need of Services is supposed to provide a legal avenue for troubled families to access key services, such as counseling, health assistance and parenting courses, but states that there is "insufficient guidance" in the law that results in a "hazy picture of its desired aims or scope."

Because of a lack of data on who is affected by the system, "we know almost nothing" about the effectiveness of the program at providing services to families.

Often the system punishes children and families, the report's authors state.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, who chairs the Senate Children and Youth Committee, said she was "really glad to see the report."

It confirmed the need for "reform," which she attempted to address through proposed legislation that failed to pass in 2015, she said.

"The system is like an assembly line, like children are on conveyor belts," Flowers said after the committee meetings. "It is scary."

Flowers said the she hopes Republican lawmakers will bring up the issue again next year and described their remarks, made during and after the meeting, as "positive" and "promising."

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Most of Flowers' remarks against the Families in Need of Services system were directed at judges' decisions, which she said, only made families "suffer more."

"But this is more than FINS," she said. "There are abuses going on throughout the juvenile system."

The report echoed findings in a 2015 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette investigation into the jailing of so-called status offenders -- children who are locked up in county detention centers for disobeying judges' orders to, for example, go to school or obey their parents.

A particular example that concerned child advocates was 1 Circuit Judge Earnest Brown's decision to detain status offenders nearly 200 times in 2014.

Under the law, any adult can file a petition with a court to declare a child or parent as a family in need of services, the report notes. In practice, school officials are more likely to file such petitions for truancy or disruptive behavior, the report notes.

Unlike juvenile delinquency or neglect cases, children in Families in Need of Services cases can be removed from their homes "instantaneously and without due process," the report says.

Arkansas does not guarantee parents in such cases legal representation, the report stated. And although the law grants children access to public defenders, it is not required.

When there is a public defender -- who is most likely juggling at least 90 to 120 defendants in a given year -- he has little to no contact with the child or family beforehand.

Available data cited in the report show a majority of Families in Need of Services petitions stem from the northeast and southeast regions, among the poorest in Arkansas.

Families in rural areas rely more on the program's services, but have to overcome more barriers to access services, such as fewer mental-health professionals in the area and limited transportation.

"Court-provided services tend only to be located within highly populated counties," according to the report.

Officials were not keeping track of enough Families in Need of Services data to provide a basis for policymaking either, according to the report.

It's hard to even pinpoint how many children are placed in foster homes through the system, the report notes.

The report says that 52 percent of children in the system are white and 20 percent black, but another 20 percent of cases reviewed contained no racial data.

There is also no regulatory reporting requirement to show whether youths have been screened for eligibility of special education services that would be provided at the school level, or whether they hold any disability status.

"Collaboration, or any effort to establish best practices, is seemingly nonexistent," the report's author says.

The report recommends that the Legislature mandate the collection of such data in the future, as well as information about why Families in Need of Services petitions were filed, the types of risk faced by youths referred to the court and the services ordered and their outcomes.

Peter Butler, the Hendrix College student who wrote the report under the direction of professor Jay Barth, said that complete data are key in determining factors that could drive meaningful policy change, such as racial disparity or which services really work best for youths.

Judges also can make better decisions with increased data, said Butler.

"Supporters need to stop saying FINS is perfect the way it is," he said. "FINS is deviating from its origin... There seems to be a lot more 'stick than carrot' right now, more emphasis on the lecture and punishment components of growth, rather than making people better going forward."

A Section on 12/15/2016

Print Headline: Flaws seen in family-services program

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