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Child welfare system near crisis

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Ten years after court-ordered reform of the state child welfare system was begun, the state Division of Children and Family Services still struggles to meet its goals, according to Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, and the reason for the Division’s difficulties is “a perennial problem: the hiring, training and turnover of family service workers. It is at the core of almost all the problems that have confronted the child welfare system in Arkansas for more than a decade.” In a report released last week, the advocacy group says that family service workers are the workhorses of the child welfare system: “They conduct investigations, organize or manage protective service delivery, record activities and services provided to children and their families, make visits to the homes, and communicate with parties involved in their cases to ensure communication and co-ordination.” But, “Turnover has plagued the child welfare system because of high case loads, stressful working conditions, lack of administrative support, and [lack of] access to needed services for their clients,” the report says, and the shortage of FSWs “has reached a critical and potentially disastrous stage in some regions of the state.” The statewide vacancy rate increased from around 10 percent in 2002 to 23 percent in 2004. In Northwest Arkansas, the fastest-growing area of the state, the FSW vacancy rate went from 12.5 percent to 41 percent over the same period of time. The report, written by Paul Kelly, senior policy analyst at AACF, did not say specifically that more money was needed to lower the FSW vacancy rate or to deal with other problems faced by DCFS. But AACF executive director Rich Huddleston said that since an initial funding increase for DCFS as part of the court case 10 years ago, the Division has not been allowed “to shape its budget based on the actual needs that are out there. They’ve been forced to compose their budget with minimal funding increases.” (A social worker in the audience when the report was released at the state Capitol was less timid about the need for more money. She said the state surplus should be given to the kids, not used for a tax rebate or spent on highways, which are among the suggestions that have been made for the surplus.) Over the last decade, “DCFS has made some progress, such as attaining accreditation from the Council of Accreditation for Children and Families and improving their capacity to track outcomes,” Kelly said. “The staff is dedicated, hard-working and have done their best under what are difficult, if not impossible, circumstances.” However, the child welfare system “still remains on the verge of crisis,” he said. Some of the report’s conclusions: • From 2000 to 2004, the state met standards for protecting child safety in the majority of cases. However, it typically failed to meet its stated goals, and performance on child-safety indicators declined considerably during 2004. • The state performed poorly on indicators related to family preservation or reunification. Visits between foster children and their natural parents often do not occur in cases where the goal is reunification of the family, and family-needs assessments often do not occur within the required 30 days. • In some areas of the state, social workers’ caseloads are many times higher than the recommended standard. State Rep. Jay Bradford of Pine Bluff, chairman of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, said, “It’s not just money, it’s management. We [legislators] wouldn’t know about these problems except for this report.”

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