Director: Cause Of Foster Care Spike Hard To Pinpoint

Mischa Martin (right), director of the Division of Children and Family Services, and Keesa Smith, Department of Human Services deputy director, talk to legislators about the state’s foster care system.
Credit Steve Brawner / Talk Business & Politics

The recent spike of Arkansas children in foster care is caused by many factors, including understaffed caseworkers who err on the side of requesting removing a child from their home because they don’t have enough time to properly determine if the child is in a safe place, the director of the Division of Children and Family Services said Tuesday.

Mischa Martin told the Joint Performance Review Committee that the system she recently took over is in a “crisis.” The number of children involved in foster care has spiked from 3,806 in 2015 to 5,209 as of Sept. 28, 2016.

The spike cannot be blamed on one cause but instead is the result of many factors that have snowballed, Martin said. The number of children who are entering the system has not increased over a 10-year period, but they are not exiting at the same rate. She said the agency has not been engaging enough with families or providing enough services.

“There’s not one thing that we can blame,” Martin said in response to a question from Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch. “It is a combination. I mean, we have spent hours, we have looked at data, there is not one place that we can pinpoint and say, ‘Here is our problem. Let’s go fix it.’”

Martin said one issue is a lack of caseworkers. The number statewide dropped from 1,028 in 2010 to 940 in 2012 and held steady but has since increased to 1,057. Martin said caseworkers do not have time to properly consider if a child should be removed, so sometimes children are removed to ensure safety. In Arkansas, they average 28 cases apiece when the national standard is 15.

Dennis Zeller, president of Hornby Zeller Associates, which wrote a detailed report on the situation published in June, said a spike in the number of foster children would either be caused by a change in families or a change in the agency’s decision making. He said his company ruled out the first because child abuse reports and substantiated cases haven’t increased.

“Families in Arkansas had not simply all of a sudden gotten worse, but the way that decisions were made, whether by the department or by the courts, were different,” he said.

Zeller, who has worked in 35 states mostly on child welfare issues, said he has seen spikes like Arkansas’ occur in other states. He said DCFS had the same number of entries in 2010 and 2016, with the number decreasing after 2010 every year before increasing back to its 2010 number this year. A high percentage come into the system and then return home or to relatives within 90 days, indicating they should not have been removed in the first place.

“There’s not much you can do, quite frankly, within 90 days, to fix the kind of situations that are involved here, so the fact that there were a lot of these children going home, that quickly said to me that probably they didn’t need to come into care,” he said.

He said one cause of the increase is more children are in foster care and staying with relatives, rather than simply being discharged to those same relatives, meaning there is closer oversight by the state.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s budget includes money to hire 228 staff members over three years, including 102 employees this year. Those include 60 caseworkers, six supervisors, an assistant director for prevention and reunification, and 10 staff members working at the regional level who will track data on resources and removals. Also included are 20 program assistants to do clerical work and transport. Martin said DCFS is trying to create additional levels of approval before removing children from their homes and is focusing on prevention and reunification. A pilot program in Sebastian County involves reviews of removals by supervisors.

Zeller said the additional resources would result in changes.

“What the department has proposed, what the governor has proposed in terms of increased resources for staff and so on are absolutely necessary to address this set of issues, the crisis,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s enough.”

He said the focus should be on protecting a child who is in an unsafe situation, not determining a child’s “best interests,” and not punishing imperfect parents. California at one time removed every child at birth whose mother tested positive for crack. When the system reached 90,000 children, the state stopped providing money to counties for each child in foster care. The overall number started declining as the counties began better assessing families and their children, leaving some in their homes with support. He said in Arkansas, some children have been removed from their homes because their parents tested positive for marijuana. One judge justified the practice by saying marijuana use is against the law, without giving proper weight to how removal affects the child, he said.

Zeller said he has witnessed dramatic swings in foster care populations based on internal and external factors. He said he worked eight-and-a-half years in New York, where the foster population dropped from 40,000 to 17,000 because the state invested in in-home cases and changed the way staff members thought about removals. Then crack hit the streets and the number of AIDS babies increased, and the number spiked to 60,000.

DCFS caseworkers must obtain an order from a judge before a child can be removed, though under state law they can remove a child for up to 72 hours if they believe the child is in imminent danger. Several legislators expressed frustration that no one from the Administrative Office of the Courts or other representatives of the judicial branch were present. Martin and Keesa Smith, Department of Human Services deputy director, said afterward that judges and others in the judicial branch have been communicative and responsive.

In addition to foster children, DCFS serves 6,000 children where there was a finding of abuse or neglect that was not serious enough to warrant removal. Martin said DCFS is hoping to soon receive approval from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to participate in a federally funded program where a paraprofessional would provide hands-on training to parents.

Among the other changes DCFS has instituted is reducing from 89 to 53 the number of “stuck” children who were institutionalized for psychiatric reasons and are still institutionalized even though Medicaid says it is no longer medically necessary. In those cases, the state is required to pay the entire cost, which amounted to $8 million last year. DCFS has been working with other government agencies to help those children move to a lower level of services.