LITTLE ROCK — The recent dramatic increase in the number of Arkansas children in foster care is primarily the result of changes in decision-making by officials, a consultant told a state legislative panel Tuesday.

The state Department of Human Services reported earlier this month that 5,200 children were in foster care placements across the state, a 30 percent increase from a year earlier. Dennis Zeller, co-founder of New York-based consulting firm Hornby Zeller Associates, told the legislative Joint Performance Review Committee on Tuesday that typically there are two possible explanations for such a spike.

“Either the population changed and your decisions stayed the same … or your decision-making changed.”

Zeller said a report by his firm “ruled out the first.”

“We couldn’t find a change in the population,” he said. “Families in Arkansas had not simply all of a sudden gotten worse. But the way that decisions were made, whether by the department or by the courts, were different.”

Zeller said children can only be placed into or out of foster care by a judge, and “you’ve got judges all over the state who have very different criteria. So you had (Division of Children and Family Services) workers and supervisors saying, ‘Yes, I’ll approve a removal in this county but not in that one because the judges’ criteria are different in those two counties.’”

He also told the panel that decisions to seek removal of children from the home sometimes are made for the wrong reasons. Children should be removed when they are in immediate danger, he said.

“What we’re supposed to be about is promoting the welfare of kids,” he said. “That’s why they call it child welfare. Sometimes we forget that and we think it’s about punishing parents.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has proposed a $26.7 million increase in funding for the foster care system over the next two fiscal years. DHS has said the increase would allow it to hire 228 new employees and reduce worker caseloads.

DCFS Director Mischa Martin told the panel the division is working on about 50 projects to improve the foster care system and said that is “really just the beginning.” Reducing caseloads should help reduce the number of children being placed in foster care and increase the number being taken out of foster care, she said.

“It’s not just about removal decisions,” she said. “It’s also on, are we getting families the services they need? Are caseworkers, because of caseloads, able to work the cases the way they need to so that we can exit children from foster care?

“I would say to you, no, with caseloads as high as they are, and with a lack of services in many rural areas, we are not able to wrap around those families and get children out of foster care as quickly.”

DHS Deputy Director Keesa Smith said the agency plans to add supervisors to ensure that removal decisions by caseworkers are reviewed, which she said is not happening now.

Martin said the agency has been working to improve its relationship with judges. She said the Zeller report cited instances of judges removing children from their homes against the recommendations of caseworkers, but she is not seeing that happen now.

Martin said there are many judges in the juvenile court system with years of experience, which prompted Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, to question whether their experience has helped.

“Those years of experience have led to a crisis in this state. Would you agree to that?” he said.

Martin said she did not think the crisis could be blamed completely on judges.

Stubblefield asked Martin to name the No. 1 cause of the increase in foster care placements.

“There is not one place that we can pinpoint and say, ‘Here is our problem, let’s go fix it,’” Martin said. “I wish there was.”