Initiative aims to provide needed resources for Arkansas’ foster care system

FILE — The Arkansas Department of Human Services at Donaghey Plaza in Little Rock is shown in this 2019 file photo.

Multiple public and private organizations will launch an analytics-driven initiative early next year to address the foster care crisis in Arkansas, a foster care advocate told legislators during a committee meeting Monday.

State agencies such as the Arkansas Department of Human Services, the Division of Children and Family Services and the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services will join public entities such as CASA for Children, CarePortal, Children's Homes Inc., Project Zero, Restore Hope Arkansas and others to create the Every Child Arkansas initiative, whose main mission is to ensure adequate resources for the state's foster care system.

Dr. Phillip Goad, a member of the executive council for Every Child Arkansas, told members of the legislative committee on Aging, Children and Youth on Monday the partnership plans to launch in February.

Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, commended Goad for the work he has done over the years for the foster care system, which includes raising more than $400,000 recently with a fundraising concert that included songwriter Chris Tomlin and Bart Millard from the Christian music group MercyMe.

"He is trying to not only address but end the foster care crisis here in Arkansas and nationwide," Brooks said.

Goad said when it comes to Arkansas' foster care system, "not enough" is a common phrase.

"Not enough support, not enough resources, not enough families," he told the committee. "The challenges we face are many, and I think you all know this."

Goad said Arkansas' foster care system has too few foster and adoptive families, low biological family reunification rates, and the Arkansas Department of Children and Family Services is stretched too thin.

Arkansas' foster care system had a little more than 5,200 children in foster care in the spring of 2016, according to a report by the Division of Children and Family Services. The agency implemented strategies with the goal of reducing the number of children in foster care to approximately 4,200 to 4,400.

As a result of changes made by the Department of Human Services, the numbers began to decline and reached the 4,200 to 4,400 range over those years. However, the covid-19 pandemic stopped the trend by slowing the number of children discharged from state care.

Data included in the report showed that by 2021 there were 3,247 entries into foster care compared to 2,791 discharges -- a dramatic change from the 3,236 entries into care versus the 3,361 discharges in 2019.

"The challenges of the public health emergency and the rising number of children in foster care, among other reasons, have also seemingly led to a higher degree of staff turnover and a corresponding increase in the average statewide Family Service Worker caseload," according to a report by the Department of Human Services' Division of Children and Family Services that was approved by legislators in November.

Every Child Arkansas is a network of advocates, agencies, faith-based organizations, and other groups that work to fill the biggest gaps in care for children and families before, during and beyond foster care.

"It's exciting for me that Arkansas will be the first state to go for more than enough with a top-down approach," he said. "I believe we will be the first state to get there, and for that I am very thankful."

Goad said the goals are to have more than enough foster and kinship families for every child to have a placement; adoptive families for every child waiting for adoption; help for biological families trying to stabilize and reunify; and wrap-around support from advocates, churches and other organizations for children, families and youth aging out of foster care.

Among the initiative's tangible goals are raising foster family retention from 40% to 75%, raising biological family reunification from 43% to 75%, and making sure there are more than enough foster families in Arkansas' top 25 counties by population, Goad said.

The statewide initiative will explore innovative technology solutions like CarePortal, Connect Our Kids, Chosen, HopeArk and The Contingent to revamp and provide support to the system.

CarePortal is headquartered in Kansas City and links the needs of individual families to organizations such as churches by using technology. Connect Our Kids, which helps local courts find relatives of children across the country, is also interested in joining the effort, Goad said.

Analytics being discussed include studying the demographics of successful foster families and targeting similar families through email or other means.

"We have partnered with Axiom, who is giving us the data at no cost," Goad said. "Hopefully out of this eventually comes people who want to learn more about foster care. Then we can plug into our ground game to have people carry them through the process of being trained."

Goad said the initiative's concept began in the summer of 2021 with talks about collaboration. In December 2021 working groups were launched, and the following month discussions began with The Contingent, a non-profit group based out of Oregon that focuses on tackling injustice through community efforts.

"We have been meeting weekly for over a year planning this," he said.

The plan calls for face-to-face meetings in January for teams addressing media relations and communications, training on the Every Child Arkansas web portal, and the "customer experience" process. He said the initiative's tentative launch date is late February or early March.

The approach will be based on a collective impact collaboration model, shared leadership, innovative technology solutions, coordination between existing organizations and state partners, bringing in national partners and using working groups.

Goad separated the "ecosystem" of the initiative into an "air game" and "ground game" for engagement.

The "air game" will involve daily content, advertisement, analytics, a toll-free telephone number and more, Goad said. The "ground game" will involve things such as recruiting events, foster family training, licensing foster families, tangible goods and services.