LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas has made progress in placing foster children with relatives, bringing the state's rate for family placements to the national average.
Nationwide, 29 percent of foster children are placed with family members and in Arkansas the rate is 28.8 percent. Two years ago the rate in Arkansas was 14 percent.
Increasing the number of family placements has been a goal of the Children and Family Services Division. The improvement was commended by the governor and legislators who focus on foster care issues, although everyone involved noted that the state needs to continue making progress.
Last year division officials said that the child welfare system was in crisis. High caseloads were causing unacceptably high turnover rates among family services workers.
New workers needed time to learn the details of individual cases, which slowed the processing of placement and caused more children to remain in the system for longer periods of time.
The number of children under state care grew to more than 5,000 and showed little sign of slowing down. Last year, estimates were that the number of children in foster care would quickly grow to 5,800. However, the reforms put in over the past year have slowed growth and the number of foster children in Arkansas is a little more than 5,000.
The legislature approved the governor's proposals to add staff, recruit more foster families and streamline the regulatory process. Family services workers have received raises. The division plans to add 228 new employees over the current fiscal biennium.
Average caseloads have gone down, from 28 per worker to 22. A national standard for child welfare caseloads is 15.
The number of cases in which investigations are behind schedule has also dropped, from 721 to 51. Overdue investigations prevent children from leaving the system and getting placed with a family. Moving children from one home to another can be emotionally traumatic, and judges with jurisdiction over placements require certainty that case workers have done all they can to further the children's best interests.
Another major factor in the state's improved child welfare system is that religious and faith-based organizations have made it a goal to recruit new foster parents. Since 2016 the number of foster homes has grown from 1,549 to 1,821. Division officials attributed much of that success specifically to The Call and Christians 4 Kids.
In the legislative session earlier this year, lawmakers did more than increase funding for child services. They also approved Act 1116, which requires case workers to conduct an immediate assessment when they take custody of a child, in order to locate a non-custodial parent or a relative.
The list includes parents of half-brothers and half-sisters of the child in state custody. It also includes "fictive kin," which is defined as a person whom the child identifies as having played a significant and positive role in the child's upbringing.
The division will work toward more goals, such as finding homes for foster children who are traditionally harder to place, such as teenagers and children with special needs. Also, even though the number of placements is better on a statewide average, there are particular counties that still need a great deal of improvement.