Foster care sys­tem con­tin­ues to show im­prove­ments

More chil­dren placed with rel­a­tives

The Times (Northeast Benton County) - - OPINION - CECILE BLED­SOE Arkansas Sen­a­tor ••• Edi­tor’s note: Arkansas Sen­a­tor Cecile Bled­soe rep­re­sents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bled­soe is chair of the Pub­lic Health, Wel­fare and La­bor Com­mit­tee.

LIT­TLE ROCK — Thanks to a con­cen­trated ef­fort over the past two years, the Arkansas foster care sys­tem has shown sev­eral no­table im­prove­ments.

A 14 per­cent de­cline in the num­ber of chil­dren in the sys­tem is the most im­por­tant ev­i­dence of im­prove­ment. In late 2016, there were 5,196 chil­dren in foster care and to­day there are 4,471.

The 14 per­cent de­crease goes hand in hand with an­other im­prove­ment: the pro­por­tion of chil­dren who are placed with rel­a­tives has in­creased from 23 per­cent to 27 per­cent. Of all the chil­dren who are placed with rel­a­tives, more than a third are placed on the same day they are re­moved from their par­ents.

An­other im­prove­ment is that 82 per­cent of foster chil­dren are now placed in a fam­ily set­ting, as op­posed to a group home. In late 2016 the per­cent­age was 78 per­cent.

The state Divi­sion of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices runs the foster care sys­tem. In 2016, a child wel­fare ex­pert is­sued an alarm­ing re­port on the status of the agency, where high caseloads and a seem­ing lack of sup­port con­trib­uted to in­or­di­nately high em­ployee turnover.

The ef­fect was that the num­ber of foster chil­dren was grow­ing alarm­ingly, be­cause em­ploy­ees were not pro­cess­ing many of their cases in a timely man­ner.

The gover­nor pro­posed a bud­get in­crease for the Divi­sion, and the leg­is­la­ture ap­proved fund­ing for more staff. As a re­sult, the Divi­sion has added 187 new po­si­tions over the past two years, bring­ing the to­tal num­ber of au­tho­rized po­si­tions within the Divi­sion to 1,215 for Fis­cal Year 2018.

Adding staff meant that those who work di­rectly with fam­i­lies have seen a de­crease in caseloads, from 28 to 20.

The turnover rate went down from 48 to 41 per­cent, which is still too high. Staff with ex­pe­ri­ence are bet­ter able to assess a fam­i­lies’ needs, and to work with them on so­lu­tions.

In 2016, at­tor­neys for the Divi­sion also had high caseloads. Last year they av­er­aged 115 cases for each at­tor­ney, and the turnover rate for at­tor­neys was 60 per­cent.

The Divi­sion added two at­tor­neys and two le­gal sup­port staff, from other areas within the Depart­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices. Caseloads for at­tor­neys went down to 99, and the turnover rate dropped to 26 per­cent.

The ul­ti­mate goal is to re­duce the num­ber of chil­dren who suf­fer from abuse and ne­glect, there­fore the chal­lenge for the Divi­sion is to focus the ef­forts of its staff on ap­proaches that are the most ef­fec­tive.

With that in mind, it ex­panded a proven pro­gram called Nur­tur­ing Fam­i­lies of Arkansas. It is an in­ten­sive pro­gram teach­ing par­ents how to be bet­ter. It used to be for fam­i­lies with chil­dren be­tween five and 11, but has been ex­panded to in­clude fam­i­lies with chil­dren up to 18.

SafeCare is an­other pro­gram teach­ing par­ents about health and child safety. It also teaches com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween par­ent and child, as a means to re­duce phys­i­cal abuse and ne­glect.

Fam­ily ser­vice work­ers try to con­nect fam­i­lies to in­for­mal and for­mal sup­port systems. They may in­clude rel­a­tives, churches and so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tions. They coach chil­dren to im­prove their be­hav­ior, and they help par­ents im­prove their abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with their chil­dren’s teach­ers.

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