LITTLE ROCK - On an average night more than 4,100 Arkansas children will stay in a foster home. They were placed by employees of the Department of Human Services (DHS), which works with about 1,150 foster homes.
Arkansas is the first state in the country to begin a new approach toward working with children who have been abused or neglected. DHS applied for and received a waiver from federal regulations, which means department caseworkers will have more flexibility in responding to the needs of children.
The goal is to avoid having to remove a child from his or her family, as long as it is safe for the child to remain at home. Caseworkers will be able to try new solutions, with the intent of improving family life and keeping children from having to experience the emotional trauma of being removed from their home.
The new approach by caseworkers is titled "Differential Response." It recognizes that most child welfare reports are unsubstantiated, while also recognizing the importance of early response and strengthening of families. The division estimates that more than 30 percent of the more than 30,000 cases it investigated would be suitable for Differential Response.
Differential Response is not what the division will use for allegations of sexual abuse, criminal abuse and neglect or serious injuries. It is what the division will use in instances of inadequate food, clothing or shelter and inadequate supervision.
Also, it will be used in cases in which parents or guardians fail to provide the child with medical care, if the lack of care threatens the child's long-term health.
Differential Response will be used in cases of educational neglect, when parents or guardians fail to enroll the child in school.
Arkansas is one of 10 states that recently applied for the federal waiver. The other states plan to target specific demographic populations or smaller geographic areas, while Arkansas will join Missouri and Minnesota in implementing it on a statewide level.
The Division of Children and Family Services is the unit within DHS responsible for investigating allegations of abuse and neglect. Last year the division investigated 33,849 reports of child maltreatment. Almost 8,000 cases resulted in a child being placed in foster care.
The granting of a waiver by federal authorities is significant because for many years Arkansas was under federal court order to improve its child welfare system. As a result, the Children and Family Services Division sets performance standards that it closely monitors, such as keeping track of how quickly allegations of abuse are investigated and acted on.
The legislature has approved DHS requests for more caseworkers, and last fall federal authorities signed off on a satisfactory review of the child services division.
The division employs about 1,000 people and is asking the legislature for authority to add about 200 positions, in the event that funding becomes available.
In the current fiscal year, the Division of Children and Family Services has a budget of $131 million. About 38 percent is state revenue and a little more than 50 percent is federal revenue. The remainder comes from a variety of programs and agencies.
In 1985 the legislature created the division to focus on protective services for children and to operate a system of foster homes. The division also offers a full range of adoption services.