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Arkansas DHS raising pay, shifting approach to retain foster care workers

by Rachel Herzog | November 14, 2021 at 7:11 a.m.
Mischa Martin, director of the Division of Children and Family Services, answers questions during an interview Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021 at the Department of Human Services office in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Facing high employee turnover and an increasing number of children in the foster care system in Pulaski County, Arkansas' Division of Children and Family Services is implementing staffing and salary changes in hopes of better recruiting and retaining field workers.

The division has the highest turnover rates among two categories of employees who work directly with families in the foster care system: caseworkers and program assistants.

The turnover rates among family service workers, caseworkers who provide foster care and support services for abused or neglected children, and program assistants, who supervise family visits for children in the system, were both about 65% for fiscal 2021. The turnover rate is calculated by dividing the number of people who left their positions by the average number of filled positions.

Those percentages have increased since fiscal 2018, according to data provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

In the state's most populous county, the number of children in foster care has increased 88% since November 2019, compared with an 11% increase statewide.

There were 708 children in foster care as of Friday in Pulaski County and 4,855 children in foster care statewide at the end of September, according to the division's most recent monthly report.

In an interview earlier this month, division administrator Mischa Martin described a "snowball effect" after Pulaski County saw an increase in children entering the system before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

"You start losing staff, losing staff means you can't work cases as quickly, not working cases as quickly means that children don't reunify with their parents as quickly, which means that you have more kids in care, which means you have higher caseloads ... which means lower morale, which means people start leaving because they don't feel like they can make a difference," Martin said, adding that the pandemic and coronavirus quarantines didn't help.

Natalie Pham, who worked as a caseworker from 2017-20 in White County, said she experienced high turnover and high caseloads at the division.

"It's a lot, and it's definitely something [where] you never can fully get your job done. You're just trying to prioritize what needs to happen first and hope you can get as much as you can done and knowing you're never going to be 100% done with everything," she said.

She said turnover increased while she was there, and at the time she left, most staffers weren't fully trained.

"Supervisors were having to hold the majority of the caseload and have newer workers still trying to help where they can, but they couldn't really take a full caseload," she said.


The division has 1,079 filled positions -- including 530 family service workers and 210 program assistants -- and 201 vacancies.

Incentives that the division has been implementing with the aim of retaining and recruiting front-line staffers, at a total cost of about $15 million annually, include paying employees for being on call, implementing raises and increasing entry pay for program assistants.

In August, the Department of Human Services received legislative approval to pay program assistants, caseworkers and supervisors 20% of their regular pay for being on call, an estimated annual cost of about $2.6 million to be absorbed within the existing appropriation.

"Basically, we have to work 24/7, we have to be available to law enforcement, foster parents, you know, we're raising 4,900 children so we have to be available after hours," Martin said.

Program assistants saw a one-time salary increase in their first October paycheck, and the division increased the entry-level salary from $26,000 to $28,500.

Caseworkers who have completed classroom training received a 7% pay increase, and newly hired family service workers who complete that training will receive the same pay increase once they do.

"We're trying to really target those two positions, which are our hardest to fill and have our highest turnover, to put those raises there to incentivize people to come to work for us and incentivize people to stay working for us," Martin said.

Those salary increases were implemented under a new pay grid for all executive branch departments' lower-paid employees that the Arkansas Legislative Council approved in June. High turnover rates, and an inability to recruit and retain employees are occurring across departments, officials said at the time.


The division is also adding 72 new positions this year for the first phase of a planned three-year pilot program to implement a team-based approach to working cases in Pulaski County.

Thirty new positions were approved by the Legislative Council in October at a cost of $1.75 million, and the other 42 were transferred from Developmental Disabilities Services.

The division plans to pilot a new workforce structure where cases are assigned to a team that includes a supervisor, three caseworkers and a program assistant. The current structure assigns eight workers to one supervisor, and there may or may not be a program assistant assigned.

There are currently only about six program assistants in Pulaski County, Martin said.

The cost of implementing that pilot program in Pulaski County is a little over $18 million for the three years, according to the division.

With more than 200 vacancies currently, Martin acknowledged that hiring for those new positions would not be easy, nor would it happen overnight. If the division isn't able to get the staff on board or the new approach isn't working after a year, then it won't move forward.

Recruiting remains difficult because it's a tough job, she said.

"I think that asking people to go into other people's homes that they don't know and assess abuse and neglect is a big ask; asking them to do that in the middle of a pandemic and put themselves and their families at risk is an incredible ask," she said. "I think the men and the women who are doing it across the state are real heroes for continuing to do it."


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