A working group established under an executive order from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has made 11 recommendations aimed at protecting vulnerable children, supporting foster families, and improving the foster care system, the Arkansas Department of Human Services and Every Child Arkansas announced Monday.
The group's recommendations range from strengthening the state's Division of Children and Family Services workforce to making crisis response services and associated support services more accessible for families or youths in crisis.
Sanders tasked the state Department of Human Services with bringing together Every Child Arkansas, the state Department of Public Safety, the state Department of Education, and expert stakeholders to develop the plan, and subcommittees came back with recommendations for improving outcomes for Arkansas children and families, the state Department of Human Services said in a news release.
There were 3,870 children in foster care in Arkansas as of Aug. 31, according to Gavin Lesnick, spokesman for the Department of Human Services.
Announced in February in tandem with the governor's executive order, Every Child Arkansas is a network of more than two dozen organizations working together to recruit and support foster families.
"I often say that Arkansas is the most pro-life state in the country – but the pro-life agenda doesn't end once a child is born," Sanders said in a news release issued by the governor's office. "Our foster care system has the potential to put every child in Arkansas in a safe, loving home, which is why I created a working group to make it even better.
"I applaud these advocates on their hard work and excellent proposals, and look forward to working with them to turn these recommendations into reality," the Republican governor said.
According to the state Department of Human Services, the working group's recommendations include:
Creating a community resource model that provides virtual and in-person prevention support that uses a relationship-based approach to connect families and professionals to services and supports.
Reducing family barriers to accessing existing public assistance programs.
Continuing development and expansion of models that have a strong evidence base for primary prevention and reducing poor outcomes, such as maltreatment.
Making crisis response services and associated support services more accessible for families or youths in crisis.
Crisis intervention should be provided to those who are experiencing a decline in their mental health, an increase in harmful behaviors or a disruption of family dynamics in the aftermath of highly stressful and traumatic events, the group said in its recommendation.
"Given the prevalence of trauma for younger children and the fact that support is limited for families with children under age four (4), ensure crisis response services are not restricted by age when provided in conjunction with infant mental health certified mental health professional services," the work group said. The group called for developing services that would include a safety and needs assessment order to expedite trauma recovery interventions and stabilize the family system as quickly as possible.
Creating a cross-agency coordination team to support key stakeholder groups in development and implementation of high-quality, trauma-informed care training for staff. Examples of stakeholders include, but are not limited to, child welfare, law enforcement, public safety, the court system and education.
Strengthening the Division of Children and Family Services workforce.
The recommendation calls for evaluating the Division of Children and Family Services' worker and supervisor salaries and overtime based on the complexity of the work and other professions with similar education and experience and considering evidence-based reforms aimed at improving staff retention.
The subcommittee shared stories of working with division staff with high caseloads, including supervisors carrying caseloads, that led to staff burnout and a revolving door of caseworkers, the work group said in its report.
Expanding team-based approaches to collaboratively support families through court proceedings and associated case plans.
Implementing ongoing, community-specific training for all parties involved in the child welfare system, to include the Division of Children and Family Services staff, CASA, attorneys, judges, CACD, MDT, law enforcement and other agencies responding to neglect and abuse, that addresses the difference between safety and risk and the implications of each.
Continuing to expand the use of private license agency foster homes and partnering with Every Child Arkansas to implement a targeted marketing campaign for recruiting foster parents.
Creating and communicating a clear plan regarding access to information about the case for foster parents and strengthening overall support to foster homes to improve retention.
Redesigning the training model and requirements for foster parents and the Division of Children and Family Services staff.
"As requested, the working group will provide additional details regarding these recommendations and will collaborate with" the state departments of human services, education and public safety and Every Child Arkansas "on operationalizing the recommendations, and believes if they are implemented successfully, then all directives set forth in Executive Order 23-18 will be met, resulting in an improved foster care system, and ultimately better outcomes for the children and families of Arkansas," the working group said in its report.