Fewer children in foster homes

By submitted, 02/11/24 7:14 AM

LITTLE ROCK – The state Division of Children and Family Services has intensified preventative services in troubled families, and managed to lower the number of children in foster homes.

Over the previous two years, the number of Arkansas children in foster care has gone down from 4,614 to 3,698. Over the past year, in more than one third of the cases the first placement for children in foster care has been to the home of a relative.

The director of the Division briefed legislators on the Senate Committee on Children and Youth and the corresponding House committee at a recent meeting. Asked about the decline in the number of children in foster care, she attributed it in part to intensive preventative services.

Staff and caregivers visit troubled families three times a week for at least six months. During that time, families have full-time access to crisis support for help resolving conflicts, treatment of mental health issues, handling behavior problems and coping with emotional trauma.

Workers help family members obtain access to basic needs, like food, housing and medicines. They help keep the children involved at school.

Since legislators approved the intensive in-home services, Division staff have helped about 3,000 families, the director said. Those services were instrumental in preventing the children in those families from having to be placed in foster care.

The Division still faces challenges, such as the consistent problem of turnover in staff. There are currently 88 vacancies among program assistants and 160 vacant positions for family services worker. There are 20 vacancies for supervisors.

Another problem, she said, is that supervisors have to manage their own caseloads and that makes it difficult to adequately train, monitor and supervise their staff.

A major reason for the high turnover is that the work is very hard, the director said. It is emotionally stressful and workers are on call 24 hours a day. Sometimes they are in physical danger when visiting homes.

One of the Division’s goals is to continuously improve relations with local law enforcement. Police officers have different duties, and sometimes their responsibilities clash with those of family services workers. It’s helpful for law officers and family services workers to sit at the table together, and even if they cannot reconcile their differences they still benefit from the face-to-face interaction.

Of the more than 3,600 children in foster care, about 200 were placed by a private licensed placement agency. The director identified seven private agencies, and told legislators that a priority of the Division is to expand the use of them.

The private agencies receive a portion of the reimbursement that the state pays foster families. Private agencies take some administrative burdens off Division personnel because they recruit foster parents, participate in home visits and help transport children.

The number of foster homes has gone down. The Division has shortened the required number of training hours that foster parents must take, as well as the number of continuing education hours required.