More Arkansas children are entering foster care than leaving the system, and there are more than three times as many foster children as foster homes. So the Department of Human Services is trying to streamline the process of creating more of those homes.
The state’s foster care system is caring for a little more than 5,000 children, a number that has been increasing. According to a report by Hornby Zeller Associates, 4,791 children were in foster care at the end of March, compared to 4,592 at the end of the previous quarter. During the year’s first quarter, 1,093 children entered foster care, while only 808 left it.
The state has about 1,500 licensed foster family homes. In the year’s first quarter, 220 homes were opened while 176 were closed.
According to the report, 72% of foster children are in a family-like setting – a foster home, a therapeutic home, a pre-adoptive home, etc. Others are in residential facilities, emergency shelters and other situations.
EFFORTS TO REFORM
Brandi Hinkle, Department of Human Services deputy chief of communications, said DHS and its Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) have been trying to reform the process of becoming a foster parent, trying to find weak points and trying to incorporate new technology.
Following are some of the changes implemented to address the weak points.
• The point when potential families undergo a home study by a DHS employee can now be moved forward, from after having completed more than 30 hours of training to as soon as they complete the first training session.
• DHS has more clearly defined the process and timeframes for becoming a foster family and created a roadmap that it provides potential families.
• A tracking process has been created to monitor how far each potential family has progressed.
• The paperwork families must complete is being converted to electronic form, with families still having the option of using paper forms.
• DHS is revamping www.fosterarkansas.org to provide more, easier to find information about foster care. DHS is also updating other sites such as its Heart Gallery featuring children available for adoption.
• DHS is meeting monthly with organizations that recruit families, including The CALL, Christians 4 Kids and Arkansas Baptist Children’s Homes.
• DHS is trying to improve communications with foster families and has started a DCFS Facebook page. Hinkle said the page had about 500 likes in its first 30 hours. It has more than 700 likes.
Lauri Currier, executive director of The CALL, a group formed in 2007 that recruits foster families in churches, said DHS has improved its processes. She praised DCFS Director Mischa Martin, who has made changes in staffing. She said the division’s certification process has been streamlined and improved.
“I would say overall the communication in general has improved greatly,” she said, adding that she noticed the change in May or June.
Currier has been a member of an oversight panel on child welfare issues formed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson last year after a consultant’s report shed light on some of the state’s foster care issues. She said the panel’s work is coming to a close but many of its recommendations have been incorporated, “and things seem to be flowing a lot smoother.” She said she is getting fewer phone calls from families needing assistance.
Currier said the number of foster families has increased, but more are needed to allow DCFS to be more selective with child placements. Many children must be placed outside of their home county, meaning DCFS staff must spend a lot of time driving them back and forth for family visitations and appointments.
She said background check processing and home studies traditionally have been slowdown points “because of the complicated nature of those things that have to be done” in vetting foster families. The state has a “bandwidth issue” with available contract providers to do home studies, but DCFS is recruiting additional providers, she said.
Currier said retention is an important issue. The CALL has recruited and trained more than 2,000 families since it was established in 2007, but many families have left the system. It’s a tough job, family situations change, and many families adopt and then close their home.