Members of the Arkansas Judiciary say inefficiencies, lack of information and inadequate staffing are the main hurdles to deciding where to place neglected and abused children in the state.
A round of hearings on child welfare reform was held Tuesday. The meeting was conducted jointly by the state Senate Committee on Children and Youth and the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs.
In testimony, Associate State Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood said Arkansas judges often cannot determine whether it’s best to place children who face parental neglect or abuse with extended family or in foster care. Wood, who served 6 years in juvenile court, said background checks could be part of a solution.
“They come in and present a child to you and you have a foster care and you know the foster care family has been through checks, a system of checks, background checks and family home studies and all of that. And then they say, oh and here's grandmother. And I have nothing on grandmother,” she said.
A report analyzing Arkansas's foster care system, issued earlier this year by Paul Vincent of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, recommended that more foster kids be placed with relatives. It spurred a comprehensive review of the state's child welfare system, which lacks sufficient bed space for children in need of foster care placement. The recommendations of the Vincent report were accepted by Governor Asa Hutchinson this summer.
In legislative testimony Tuesday, Saline County Circuit Judge Gary Arnold echoed another recommendation of that report saying more Department of Human Services caseworkers are needed. He said judges should also help train caseworkers and called the DHS Central Office “unresponsive” and “insensitive” to the needs of caseworkers. Both Wood and Arnold agreed that more funding would be needed to increase the number of staff positions and lessen the burden on caseworkers, a plea voiced by DHS Division of Children and Family Services head Cecile Blucker in a past legislative hearing.
“By and large the people who work in the system that are case workers do not lack empathy or sympathy. They're there because they have a genuine concern and heart for what they do. They have an incredibly hard job, at times literally impossible. Nevertheless, they lack support,” Arnold said.
The Director of Juvenile Courts in Arkansas, Connie Hickman-Tanner said judges around the state do not get the same level of information when deciding where to place abused or neglected children. Hickman-Turner also spoke before the committee Tuesday. She said courts sometimes know very little about the relatives children are placed with.
“I had one judge just tell me the other day they placed one with somebody and they're a convicted murderer on parole. And he [the judge] was concerned that nobody did the background check before they did the placement. And they had to come and then remove the child again. And that caused more disruption in the child's life to be removed again,” she said.
Hickman-Tanner said standards for assessing new homes vary by judicial district, and that DHS caseworkers in some districts do a better job than others in providing information to judges. She said placement preference normally goes to extended family over foster homes, a preference prescribed by state law, but foster homes tend to be checked out more extensively.