While state officials have made progress in reducing the number of children in foster care, more work needs to be done, according to a report approved by Arkansas legislators Monday.
The ability to assess a family’s risk for future maltreatment is one area that needs improvement because the current risk tool is not effective enough, according to the report. To address this issue, the Department of Human Services’ Division of Children and Family Services has worked with the nonprofit Evident Change to train staff to better assess risk and safety and manage safety concerns.
Act 574 of 2021 requires a study of best practices for reducing the number of children in foster care. The report’s findings were presented Monday to the Senate Committee on Children and Youth and the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs. A final report must be submitted to the Arkansas Legislative Council by Dec. 1.
More than 5,200 children were in foster care in the spring of 2016, a nearly 30 percent increase from 2017, according to the report. DCFS implemented strategies to decrease the count to 5,010 by August 2017.
The number ranged from 4,200 to 4,400 between February 2019 and February 2020.
The number of children in foster care jumped to 4,836 as of Nov. 5, 2021, an increase attributable to quarantines and delays in services during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as high staff turnover, according to the report.
The report noted that the state has been successful in keeping children out of the foster care system as a result of a federal law that places a priority on children remaining with family or other adults with whom they have close ties but are not related.
Arkansas became one of the first states to implement the federal Family First Prevention Services Act in 2019. The legislation provides funding for prevention services and prioritizes children remaining with family or fictive kin instead of entering the foster care system.
Forty-one percent of children were placed with relatives as of Sept. 30, 2021, compared to about 28% of children as of March 30, 2019.
DCFS has also launched its Every Day Counts campaign that focuses on reunification and adoption to reduce the number of children in foster care.
To recruit and retain child welfare staff, DCFS has implemented statewide efforts, such as allowing employees to claim overtime pay, increasing entry pay for new program assistants and securing 174 new positions over three years.
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