MORE QUESTIONS: The news conference by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, consultant Paul Vincnet and DHS Director John Selig gets analysis from our expert on the subject, Benji Hardy.
Benji Hardy, who's done important reporting for the Arkansas Times
on child welfare issues in Arkansas, was traveling today when Gov. Asa Hutchinson
discussed a consultant's review of the state Division of Children and Family Services
. The report found strengths and weaknesses and the governor vowed to deliver on recommendations for improvements, including finding money to reduce the agency's caseload.
Benji e-mailed reactions to the report and theremarks by Hutchinson, consultant Paul Vincent
and Department of Human Services Director John Selig
. Benji's edited notes follow.
He praised the report, though noting it treats some issues carefully for reasons of diplomacy and politics. He notes, too, that many of the subjects have been reported before in the Times
and elsewhere, but the cumulative impact is important. The key is to turn statistics into the human beings they represent. Hutchinson did a little of that, with mention of the children forced to spend the night in state offices for lack of foster homes.
Benji continues with his assessment:
CHILD DEATH NUMBERS
This is downplayed, and it's huge. Leslie Peacock of the Times
discovered a long time ago that we have the third highest number of death in the country for children in contact with the welfare system. It's actually worse than that, because the DCFS figures arguably are incomplete based on our understanding. But 40 deaths?
in the first six months of 2015 in families with DCFS involvement versus 23 several years ago? Will there be 80 by year's end?
CORRECTION: The 40 deaths occurred in a year, not 12 months, the fiscal year ending June 30. But factors we'll explain later could take that count higher.
THE LOW RATE OF PLACEMENT OF CHILDREN WITH RELATIVES
At 14 percent, it's far less than other places. The figures compared with neighboring states are damning and Vincent didn't include a national comparison.
Why don't we do more kinship placements? Doesn't it seem outrageous that we let kids go to mental health facilities and sleep at the DCFS office before we put them with an aunt or grandmother? Vincent references that "apple doesn't fall far from the tree" mentality (and notes that judges and others may be to blame as much as DCFS). I spoke to a woman at the governor's last press conference (the one announcing the faith-based summit to recruit more foster families) who's fighting for this.
THE BACKLOG OF PEOPLE WAITING TO BE APPROVED AS FOSTER FAMILIES
So, despite the fact that we have more kids in care than ever before, and despite the fact that more families are leaving the system than getting approved, we have families waiting in line who evidently can't get approved because of this bureaucratic bottleneck.
It's actually even more perverse than it sounds, because the "Diligent Recruitment" grant that DCFS received was supposed to help get foster families into the system more efficiently by setting up a dedicated state-level recruitment team of "Family Engagement Specialists."
THE PLACEMENT CRISIS
Kathryn Joyce's story July 9
could not have been better timed.
Some things are not fully explained. Why are there fewer kids exiting FC now than before, for example? That seems alarming.
This sentence is notable: "Having almost half of the children placed outside of their home county is extremely high." Again, Kathryn captured this very well.
Placement stability (that is, how much kids in foster care get moved around from one foster home to another) is actually worse than the number we cited in Kathryn's article. She said that only 18 percent of kids who've been in foster for two years or longer have had two or fewer placements. Looks like now the figure is 16 percent.
Note that we also do poorly at retention. In the 2nd quarter of this year, we gained 122 foster families and lost 138. I'd want to see if it's possible we're driving away some of the better foster parents with a dysfunctional system.
Vincent's report is fairly commendable in this regard. It buries it somewhat, but it's also quite clear that more cash is required to bring down caseloads. Note the quiet reference on p.32 to class action suits: Caseloads are near the national standard of 1/15 in Oklahoma and New Jersey, yet they have been successfully sued recently over the state of their child welfare systems. Our case load is double theirs. Take careful note, legislators, and think about whether you'd rather cough up the money now to devise a plan for incrementally reducing caseloads (as Vincent's report suggests) or have a federal court force us into compliance at gunpoint.
In addition to lowering caseloads, Vincent's report says the other area the state has to spend more money on is mental/behavioral services. On p 31 he references something about mental health services expansion through the ACA that has evidently been pulled back. Is this a consequence of resistance to the Affordable Care Act in the Arkansas legislature? It's worth checking.
THE POOR RELATIONSHIP BETWEEND DCFS AND OTHERS, INCLUDING COURTS
"Tension between child welfare agencies and the juvenile and family courts system is not uncommon nationally," the report states, then goes on to note just how severely strained the situation is in Arkansas. I'd say it's also judges, mental health providers, State Police, and others. The statutes he cites in this section are interesting ... as are the general DCFS complaint of people's backs being broken by "compliance measures." I'm sure it's true
It's a situation that's analogous to compliance documentation in the public school system, exemplified but not limited to standardized testing. It goes like this:
1. Institution fails to meet a certain performance target, in part because the workload is unworkably huge and other targets are simply more pressing and there's no way to do it all
2. A law or rule is devised to hold the institution's feet to the flame, basically making it meet that performance target it had neglected
3. The institution now has an even larger workload and an even larger set of "compliance" tasks to perform — ie, showing that they've done their job
4. Workers in the institution find new corners to cut, just to get by. And thus some other performance target isn't met
And in both cases, when we say "performance target," what we mean is "the lives of children."
THE CHILD ABUSE HOTLINE
We have more to report here. Note the finding that 16 percent of the time people who report abuse are not interviewed and 39 percent of the time investigators failed to interview a "potential collateral source." Think back to the details of the Torres case [a child abuse case in Northwest Arkansas]. An official at the child's school made two separate reports to the hotline which were investigated and found unsubstantiated. Followups are critical.
* ANTI-PSYCHOTIC DRUGS: The governor praised a reduction in use of such drugs. But why were so many kids being given these drugs in the first place? Isn't an explanation in order?
* RESPONSE TIME: It has slipped on urgent cases. Is it a DCFS or State Police issue? Shouldn't the State Police investigate all Priority 1 reports?
* ADOPTION: The report cited a low 1.7 percent figure for dissolved adoptions, meaning after papers are signed. But what about "disrupted" adoptions, that fall apart after being initiated but before papers are signed?
In short, the report is a beginning, not an end.
CORRECTION: I've eliminated an item about foster care for some confusion on my part in interpreting Benji's notes. I said metrics were below average when they were above average, confusing given other elements of that situation.