A LONG WAY TO GO: Gov. Asa Hutchinson at the 'Restore Hope Summit' this August.
In late August, Gov. Asa Hutchinson
hosted the "Restore Hope Summit" in Little Rock, an effort to address Arkansas's foster care placement crisis
by soliciting faith leaders to recruit more foster families. Today, at the dedication of a home for children in Charleston, the governor issued a statement declaring progress has been made.
"Following my Restore Hope Summit, real efforts have been made by the public and private sectors to improve our foster care system. Since August, the state has increased its number of foster homes by 109 and increased its number of available beds for children by 232. We are making progress, but we must do better," Hutchinson said. He added later, "In November alone, there have been more than 50 foster family homes opened, which brings our statewide total to 1,385."
But although the number of available foster beds may have increased, the number of children in foster care has increased by about the same amount. When the governor's event was held on Aug. 25, there were 4,349 children in the foster system; today, there are 4,615, according to figures requested from the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS)
of the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
In other words, from Aug. 25 to Dec. 1, DCFS saw the number of children in state custody increase by 266, which means the 232 new foster beds added in the past three months fall slightly short of the number needed just to keep up with the increasing demand.
I don't have a figure for the exact number of beds for either August or today, so I can't say exactly whether the bed-to-child ratio has increased or fallen. DCFS did tell me, however, that there were 1,276 foster homes
operating on Aug. 25, which tells us the home-to-child ratio improved very slightly over that period, from 0.29 to 0.3. (Foster homes are often be able to house multiple children, so "bed-to-child" would give a more accurate picture.)
Even that requires some major caveats. First, the Arkansas child welfare system is overwhelmed; holding steady in a crisis state is questionable progress. Second, while we certainly need enough beds to serve every kid in the foster system, the real goal is to have fewer kids in the system, period. Entering foster care is rarely a happy experience for children; it's a safety net that should be employed only when necessary, and the continued uptick in kids in the foster system should be cause for concern, even if there were five ready-and-willing foster families for every single child.
Earlier this summer, Kathryn Joyce wrote for the Arkansas Times about the state's overloaded foster system
. At that time, there were about 4,400 children in state custody, "That's the most children that this agency has had in foster care," said DCFS Director Cecile Blucker
at the time. "We've got more children in the system than the state has the capacity to serve. ... We're just maxed."
The fact that that number is now in excess of 4,600 places ever more strain on child welfare caseworkers, makes it harder for caseworkers to keep track of individual children's needs, heightens the turnover rate within DCFS, and increases the likelihood of tragic mistakes occurring. That is not a good situation. The state needs to be asking some serious questions about why the number of kids in foster care keeps growing, and whether that trend can be reversed.
The governor also said today that DCFS has cleared its backlog of inquiries from potential foster parents, a subject that Kathryn Joyce reported on in September for the Times.
The Division of Children and Family Services has made several procedural improvements and has expanded its statewide partnerships. In addition, DCFS has successfully eliminated the backlog of more than 1,200 foster parent inquiries," Hutchinson announced.
His press release included a few details on those improvements, such as an improved tracking system for DCFS to monitor the status of new inquiries. Many would-be foster parents told Joyce in September that they stopped trying to participate after failing to hear back from DCFS (another casualty of an overloaded, understaffed system, perhaps). Better tracking could help that situation — but, of course, only if there's follow through.
Here's the governor's full statement from today:
Governor Asa Hutchinson Updates Progress in State’s Foster Care System at Maggie House Dedication
LITTLE ROCK – At an event today in Charleston, Governor Asa Hutchinson provided an update on the progress of the state’s foster care system. “There’s plenty of work to do to address the foster care crisis in our state, but we are taking the right steps,” said Hutchinson to those in attendance at the dedication of the Maggie House, one of the many faith-based organizations that are stepping up to fill a critical need. “I am optimistic about the progress we are making to improve foster care services in Arkansas.”
Governor Hutchinson issued an additional statement below following the dedication:
“Following my Restore Hope Summit, real efforts have been made by the public and private sectors to improve our foster care system. Since August, the state has increased its number of foster homes by 109 and increased its number of available beds for children by 232. We are making progress, but we must do better. The Division of Children and Family Services has made several procedural improvements and has expanded its statewide partnerships. In addition, DCFS has successfully eliminated the backlog of more than 1,200 foster parent inquiries. This is a good start, but there is still more to be done.
“In November alone, there have been more than 50 foster family homes opened, which brings our statewide total to 1,385. Small things matter, and as a state, we are heading in the right direction. It is up to us to help our children start their lives on the right track, and I want to do everything possible to ensure we are providing them with every opportunity for success.”
Since Governor Hutchinson’s Faith-Based Summit – a two-day conference held in Little Rock this past August – Arkansas has made substantial gains in key areas, including:
· 109 new foster homes
o In November alone, 50 foster family homes opened, bringing the statewide total to 1,385.
· 232 new beds
· Eliminated the backlog in contacting interested foster care applicants (more than 1,200 applications)
· Since August, DCFS has sent 394 In Home Consults to the field (First stage in the foster home licensing process)
o At the end of October, 136 homes were on the wait list to begin training, which – for many – began November 5.
· For the first time, an Applicant Tracking log has been developed and implemented which allows the agency to track where applicants are in the foster home process
· For the first time, Foster/Adoptive/Foster & Adoptive Inquiry Queues have been developed which will allow the agency to know how many inquiries are coming in on a daily basis.
In addition to these key advancements, the state has increased and/or expanded its partnerships, including examples like:
o Agape House - Opened family style group homes for children.
o Fort Smith Children’s Shelter – Bought an apartment complex which will be used to house youth who are transitioning to adulthood.
o Maggie’s House – Opened an emergency shelter.
o C4K – Expanded coverage beyond Craighead County
o Arkansas Baptist – Recruited volunteers and will start training foster parents
Since August, contacts have been made to all individuals who completed a Letter of Commitment at the Restore Hope Summit and the Governor’s faith based steering committee has met numerous times since then and continues to meet regularly.
For the latest updates on this ongoing commitment to the children of Arkansas, please visit the Arkansas Child Welfare – Improving Outcomes for Children and Families page on the Governor’s website.