LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s proposed $26.7 million budget increase for the state’s foster care system would allow the hiring of 228 new staff people and help address a “crisis” in the system, state Department of Human Services officials said Monday.
DHS released a report, “Moving Beyond Crisis,” outlining a plan to begin addressing the crisis. The plan was developed by DCFS, employees from other DHS divisions and national experts in child welfare, behavioral health and Medicaid.
According to the report, 5,200 children are in foster care placements across the state — a 30 percent increase from a year earlier.
The agency said the increase in the number of children in foster care has resulted both from the number of children entering care and a slowed rate at which children are leaving care. The growth rate does not align with what has been only a slight increase in the number of child maltreatment investigations over the past year.
DHS also said it has a 32 percent turnover rate among family service workers in most areas of the state. This has resulted in high caseloads and concerns from judges about DCFS’ ability to ensure the safety of children who remain in their homes, the agency said.
The report states that DHS plans to shift the money it spends on overtime to a pilot program creating a second shift of workers who would work evenings or other nonconventional hours.
Hutchinson’s budget request for DCFS, announced last week in advance of the legislative session that begins in January, would fund 228 additional staff over the next two fiscal years, including 150 family service workers, 60 program assistants and 18 family service worker supervisors, according to the report.
Five of the positions would make up a new mobile crisis unit, which would deploy to areas of high turnover and assist until new hires can be made.
Other steps outlined in the report as the first phase of the effort to address the crisis include:
— Seeking federal approval for a $4 million, federally funded home-visiting initiative for families involved with in-home protective services cases.
— Expanding mentoring and parenting programs with the help of faith-based and nonprofit partners.
— Increasing relative placements to at least the national average of 29 percent by removing system barriers.
— Streamlining the DHS foster parent application process and improving relationships with faith-based and nonprofit organizations that help recruit foster and adoptive parents.
— Recruiting additional foster placements for children with special needs by working with organizations that provide services to children with developmental disabilities and better supporting organizations that recruit therapeutic foster homes.
— Providing a texting system that allows caseworkers to reach out via blast messages to foster families when a home is needed so that caseworkers do not have to spend hours calling families to find a placement.
— Assessing the current foster care population to identify barriers to reunification or finding permanency with another family.
— Reducing reliance on emergency shelters and congregate care for children ages 10 and under.
— Creating a prevention and reunification unit that will focus on keeping families together and out of foster care.
— Participating in a temporary, federally funded Medicaid initiative that will help children more quickly leave intensive, high-cost residential psychiatric treatment.
“If we can give families, caseworkers and foster parents the tools they need, we can have a long-term and positive impact not only on the system but also the children and families we serve,” Mischa Martin, director of DHS’ Division of Children and Family Services, said in a news release.
“We know we can’t do those things alone and hope these initial steps will show our partners how committed we are to working with our dedicated workforce, compassionate families, legislators and faith-based and nonprofit organizations to improve child welfare in Arkansas,” she said.
The report is available online at humanservices.arkansas.gov.