Report labels foster care a crisis in Arkansas

200 more workers and $26M in plan

A record number of children in the state's foster care system has been caused more by a declining number of children exiting state care rather than an increasing number of children entering it, according to a report released Monday by the state Department of Human Services.

Over time, the problem has become a "crisis," said Cindy Gillespie, department director. The number of children in the state foster care system -- currently 5,200 -- topped 5,000 for the first time this year, after hovering between about 3,600 and 4,100 from 2007 through 2014.

To address the growing population of foster children, she plans to hire more than 200 workers with a $26 million proposed budget increase at the Division of Children and Family Services. The total budget is currently $91.5 million, which is about $20 million more than last fiscal year.

Gillespie also said she plans to reduce overtime and employ a second shift of workers.

If additional funding is approved by lawmakers, the money would be available on July 1, 2017. The state now has a $5.33 billion general-revenue budget. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has proposed a $153 million increase, with most of the increase going to various programs at the Department of Human Services.

The changes largely are aimed at improving quality of work and decreasing turnover among agency employees. The Children and Family Services Division oversees the state foster system. It has about 1,060 employees.

"A year and a month is the average experience of our field staff," Gillespie told reporters at a news conference. "It's not just, 'Let's add more bodies,' but it's also, 'How do we address retention, what is making them leave us?' "

Monday's plan lacked much mention of a report commissioned by Division of Children and Family Services earlier this year that was contested by Hutchinson and Division Director Mischa Martin.

That report, prepared by Hornby Zeller Associates of New York, said caseworkers are removing more children from homes immediately upon investigation and judges are ordering removals against the recommendations of caseworkers.

It contended that about 22 percent of child removals are "potentially" unnecessary. That percentage had increased over time, according to the report. Valid child removals must involve "an imminent safety threat to the child" and no "reasonable" alternative, according to the report.

"What does that even mean? Whenever you're exercising judgment, there's always the potential you make the wrong judgment," Hutchinson said on Oct. 11 after the Hornby Zeller report was released. "I was not helped a great deal by that."

Gillespie said Monday a "war room" of officials and nonprofit organizations had considered the report, analyzed data and found more of a problem with the number of exits than entrances into the foster care system.

From 2007 to 2015, more children entered the foster care system in four of the seven years. Over the same period, the number of children leaving foster care was higher in seven of the nine years.

"Over the years, frequently we've had as many children coming into care as we've seen over the last year. The numbers that we've seen of new entries into care are not unprecedented," Gillespie said. "But, what we've also seen, is that we are no longer exiting children from care at the rate we used to."

The number of children leaving foster care is not keeping pace with the number of children entering because caseworkers can't keep up with the workload, she said.

Martin, the division director, said societal changes have little to do with the increasing number of children in Arkansas' care. Drug use is among the top reasons children are removed from their homes by the state, but she said those numbers have not seen increases.

The "crisis" in Arkansas mirrors a trend at the national level, where more children are winding up in state care, but adoptions are holding relatively steady, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In Arkansas, a lack of experience, a caseload at about double the national average, rampant overtime work and low pay prevent the division from dealing with foster children efficiently, Gillespie said.

Hutchinson's proposed budget would fund 228 additional staff at the Division of Children and Family Services in fiscal 2018 and 2019.

According to the report, there would be 150 new family service workers, 60 program assistants to help transport children and perform other tasks, 18 new supervisors and five new staff members who will work to stabilize high-turnover offices across the state.

Martin said the hires would be aimed at reducing the amount of clerical work and child transportation that caseworkers are required to do.

In an email, Brandi Hinkle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said caseworkers do not qualify for overtime pay unless they work more than 240 hours of overtime in a fiscal year. Instead, they qualify for compensatory time. Caseworkers, she said, work an average of 240 hours of overtime per fiscal year.

Despite the restrictions, Amy Webb, a spokesman with the Department of Human Services, said the state paid $3.1 million for 207,652 hours of overtime in the last fiscal year.

During the news conference, Gillespie said she also plans to use about $4 million in federal Medicaid dollars for an in-home program designed to coach parents and help manage health care. The program is designed to prevent children from being placed under state care.

She said she plans to use another $2.5 million in federal Medicaid funding to help transition youths out of psychiatric residential treatment.

Gillespie said she wants to continue to increase the placement rate of children with relatives. The rate has gone from 22.9 percent to 25.1 percent over the past five months. She said she would like the state to hit the national average of 29 percent.

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, said Monday's announcement shows that the Division of Children and Family Services is facing its problems.

He is a co-chairmen of the legislative Joint Performance Review panel, which has been investigating child removals and the Children and Family Services Division.

"They're trying to deal with the fact that they're continuing to lose good people," Clark said. "The length of time that people stay with them has dropped."

He said he wants the division to ensure there's quality control so caseworkers make good decisions about child welfare.

"Seeing them react in such a positive way, I couldn't be anything but positive," Clark said. "I'd like to see some other agencies doing the same thing."

Those include the court system and the Crimes Against Children Division of Arkansas State Police, he said.

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

A child can be removed for up to 72 hours without court approval. 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.

A Section on 11/15/2016