Governor Hutchinson on Monday announced six juvenile treatment and correctional facilities taken over by the Arkansas Department of Human Services on Jan. 1 will be placed back
For over two decades, the DHS' Division of Youth Services (DYS) paid two Arkansas-based
According to a letter sent to DYS in January by the advocacy nonprofit Disability Rights Arkansas, the state initially stumbled when it came to both therapy and schooling at the lockups. There were months-long lapses in mental health treatment following the takeover, the nonprofit group said, along with "a failure to provide required and necessary education." Since then, however, DYS has contracted with community mental health centers — by way of the Division of Behavioral Health Services, a separate arm of DHS — and each lockup now has a therapist on-site. DYS has also initiated a partnership with Virtual Arkansas, a project of the Arkansas Department of Education that provides online coursework to public schools across the state.
Following the governor's announcement Monday, DYS Director Betty Guhman described the agency's new family engagement efforts, including a July 30 "Family Day" event that welcomed parents and other relatives to each of the facilities for games and activities.
Hutchinson and Guhman also announced several internal and external reviews of the agency. The governor said he is seeking a consultant to provide "an outside, independent look at not just facilities, but our whole system of youth services." That study will resemble the 2015 report on the Arkansas child welfare system delivered by consultant Paul Vincent, the governor said; it's not yet clear who will conduct the review. Meanwhile, a security audit of the lockups, including the facility in Alexander, will be performed before the end of the year. A consulting firm retained by the DHS will identify ways the state can maximize its Medicaid funding for youth in DYS custody, thereby reducing the agency's reliance on state general revenue.
Guhman is initiating a broad internal review of DYS "programs and policies" to ensure that the facilities meet American Correctional Association standards. "That's what we're here to do," she said. "We need to make sure we're doing that, both in written policy and in actual practice." And, she said, the agency is "looking at community-based programs at the same time we're looking at our residential [
Sharon Strong, an attorney for Disability Rights Arkansas, said many of those plans constitute "a step in the right direction," such as ordering the independent review of the system. "To get a fresh set of eyes on it — I think that would be a really good idea," Strone said. The DYS' family engagement initiative is "commendable, a big positive," she said. "They're working on [youth] transition after they get released; I think that's all very good, and an important piece that's been missing."
Strong said she has concerns about the use of Virtual Arkansas. "My understanding is that that's a tried-and-true tool that's used throughout the state ... but it's supposed to be used as a supplement, not the primary method of education."
She also noted that the state's eventual contract with a new private provider, or providers, won't necessarily look like its old contract with the nonprofits. "They're still wanting to maintain the piece about behavioral health, community mental health, so it sounds like there will be some state involvement. ... The governor said he wants the ability 'to hold contractors accountable,' so maybe they want to bid out the day-to-day operations but still manage pieces of it."
Scott Tanner, the state juvenile ombudsman at the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, was also cautiously optimistic. "Potentially, there could be some very positive outcomes to increased collaboration with [the Division of] Behavioral Health," he said. "Behavioral health is a component that's needed on the community level and also on the residential level, particularly for youth coming into DYS' residential system and existing that system." Tanner also said the state was correct to look into maximizing its use of federal Medicaid money. Under Arkansas's Medicaid program, federal dollars match state dollars at a 70/30 rate. But while most youth remanded to DYS custody are eligible for Medicaid before they are confined, Tanner explained, their eligibility typically ends once they are locked up in a treatment or correctional facility. That means DYS must pay for a confined youth's medical needs entirely out of state general revenue.
"Placement in detention cuts off Medicaid funding, because they're considered to be in a secure, confined area, and Medicaid dollars are only supposed to be spent on medical services and rehabilitation. So there's just been a historic prohibition on using any Medicaid funds," he said. "But, there has been some windows of opportunity for youth committed to DYS that do need a residential psychiatric placement, like at the [Arkansas] State Hospital, or Youth Home or Piney Ridge in Fayetteville. And so for those committed youth that
Supplementing the DYS budget with additional Medicaid money, in places, could allow the state to make progress toward its long-stated goal of reducing reliance on confinement of youth and increasing community-based programs, Tanner said. "It's a way of stretching our general revenue
As for the return of the lockups to a private contractor, Tanner said, the youth services agency must continue
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.