Tiffany Wright (left), the Arkansas Division of Children and Families director, and Mischa Martin (right), the Department of Human Services’ Deputy Director of Youth and Families, present DCFS’ quarterly report on child welfare to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Children and Youth on Friday, June 9, 2023. (Screenshot courtesy of Arkansas Legislature)
A staffing shortage in the government agency that handles Arkansas’ foster care system has led to higher caseloads and more turnover, according to the most recent quarterly report from the Division of Children and Family Services.
Meanwhile, the number of Arkansas children in foster care has decreased over the past year, even with a slight increase in the first three months of 2023, said Tiffany Wright, the DCFS director, and Mischa Martin, Department of Human Services Deputy Director of Youth and Families.
Wright and Martin presented the quarterly report to the state Legislature’s Joint Children and Youth committee on Friday.
There were 4,199 Arkansas children in foster care on March 31, 43 more than at the end of 2022, but the state saw a net decrease of 325 children in foster care since June 30 of last year, according to data in the report.
DCFS has 331 vacancies within its 1,423 total positions, and workload is the main reason both workers and supervisors leave, Martin said.
Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked Wright and Martin if a fully-staffed DCFS would further decrease the number of children in foster care.
Wright said she believed a larger workforce with less turnover and more manageable workloads would be better equipped to serve Arkansas children and families.
Martin said DCFS staff retention is especially important since they usually “need three years of experience to really feel confident in the work,” but “a significant percentage” of employees have been leaving DCFS after less than two years ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“That means not [making] the best decisions, not [being] able to work quickly and efficiently, so if we had a knowledgeable, more experienced workforce, they would be able to work cases in a better way to get kids home quicker,” Martin said.
The child welfare system should be one of the state’s highest budgetary priorities, said Laura Kellams, Northwest Arkansas director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. She said the state’s implementation of income tax cuts, such as the one the Legislature passed this year, has reduced the state’s ability to “adequately fund” DCFS and other programs.
“We’ll always have high turnover in caseworker positions until we recognize that the job is tough and should be compensated fairly based on what caseworkers are tasked with doing,” Kellams said in an email. “…We’re told there’s not enough money in the budget to increase salaries for caseworkers and to hire more of them to help lighten their load, but we’re choosing to reduce the amount of public dollars available to cover those costs.”
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The DCFS report shows that 1,167 more children were receiving in-home protective services than were in foster care at the end of March. An in-home protective services case “is opened when a true maltreatment report or court order necessitates DCFS’ involvement with a family but there is not an immediate threat to any child’s safety in the home,” the report states.
The Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline received 9,220 reports of child maltreatment between Jan. 1 and March 31. DCFS handled 82% of the reports while the Arkansas State Police’s Crimes Against Children Division handled the more serious 18%, the report states.
The majority of reported offenses handled by the Crimes Against Children Division were sexual offenses, according to the quarterly report that division head Major Jeffrey Drew shared with the legislative committee.
Children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care for a variety of reasons, usually more than one at a time, but the majority of cases involve neglect and substance use by the parents or guardians, according to the report. Martin said she has never seen a child enter foster care without one of those reasons in her seven years in DHS leadership.
Other reasons include parental incarceration, physical or sexual abuse, inadequate housing or a caretaker’s illness or death, the report states.
Children are most often discharged from foster care via reunification with their original guardians or adoption by new ones.
In the three months ending March 31, 691 children were admitted into foster care while 576 were discharged, the report shows. Between April 1 and Dec. 31 last year, the number of children discharged exceeded the number admitted each quarter.
Arkansas has consistently remained below the national average in the percentage of children reentering foster care within a year of being discharged, according to the report. The national average is 8.3%, and Arkansas’ average at the end of March was 7%.
Foster children should ideally receive monthly visits from their caseworkers, and DCFS aims to meet this goal for at least 95% of foster children, the report states. Only 80% of children received these visits between Jan. 1 and March 31, an increase from 73% between April 1 and June 30 of last year.
Between Jan. 1 and March 31, 90% of children in foster care received monthly visits from any DCFS staff member, an increase from 85% between April 1 and June 30 of last year.
Rep. Joey Carr, R-Blytheville, asked Wright and Martin if DCFS is able to stop a potential influx of children in the foster care system in light of the state’s near-total abortion ban, which has been in place for nearly a year.
Martin said DCFS does not “have a way to forecast that number.” She added that the state’s foster care system had 5,200 children when she assumed her position in 2016, 1,000 more than the most recent data.
“Workforce-wise, even though we are hundreds of positions below [full staff], if there are more children coming into care, we will care for those children,” Martin said.
Report on child deaths
The committee also heard a report on infant and child deaths throughout the state in 2020 from the Arkansas Infant and Child Death Review (ICDR) Program at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Hope Mullins, Arkansas Children’s director of injury prevention, and Dawn Porter, the ICDR community programs supervisor, presented the report.
The ICDR Program reviewed 110 of the 470 child deaths in Arkansas in 2020. The reviewed deaths were labeled accidental — most of which were caused by motor vehicles — suicide or undetermined.
Most undetermined deaths were “related to sleeping or sleep environment” and “predominantly occurred in adult beds,” the report states.
Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, asked Mullins and Porter how many of the homes in which children died in adult beds had adequate sleeping arrangements for the children. Mullins and Porter said they did not have that data readily available.
The report noted that Black children had higher death rates than white children or children of other races, particularly by suicide or undetermined causes.
Pilkington asked Mullins and Porter if they had data about the racial breakdown of child deaths by region of the state. Mullins and Porter said they would look into it.
Rep. Tara Shephard, D-Little Rock, asked what preventative measures exist or are being planned to reduce child deaths in light of the report.
Porter said ICDR’s local teams have been working on child safety education throughout the state, and Mullins said pediatric hospitals and “other organizations that work in injury prevention for children” use the data in the report to inform their work.
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