The state’s child welfare agency has improved its performance over the past three years and continues to make progress, according to its most recent annual report.

The Division of Children and Family Services recruits foster parents to care for children who have no families or whose families are not able to care for them.

The number of children in foster care has been going down, from 5,196 in late 2016 to 4,285 in August of this year.

More children are being placed with relatives. For example, in 2016 relatives took over the care of 21.3 percent of the children placed in the system. That number has increased to 30.3 percent.

Another good development is that fewer children are placed in institutional settings. Now, 86.9 percent are placed in a family setting, compared to 77.6 percent.

The division’s staff can respond and get children placed more quickly than before, because additional hirings have lowered the average caseload from 28 to 19. High caseloads are an important factor driving the relatively high turnover among employees. Any reduction in average caseloads will reduce the Division’s need to continue hiring and training new employees.

In August of 2016 the Division had 721 cases in which investigations of maltreatment of children were overdue. In August of this year, there were 104.

Three years ago, there was consensus among Division staff and elected officials that foster care in Arkansas had reached crisis levels.

The governor proposed and the legislature approved funding for more employees.

At the same time, private non-profit organizations and faith-based groups became involved and were given much credit for the significant increase in the number of foster families that have been recruited since 2016.

This year’s annual report is titled “Family First Fits Us,” to emphasize that the Division’s priority is to give every child the opportunity to grow up in a family, rather than in a group setting or in residential housing.

The ultimate goal of increasing staff and resources is not to simply reduce caseloads, but to keep children in their homes. Now that average caseloads have become more manageable for frontline workers, they are better able to provide intensive services to everyone in the family.

Those services include, for example, having someone from the Health Department visit the homes of newborn babies to give classes in parenting skills to the new mother and father.

Another example is sending a social worker from a faith-based organization to spend time with families that constantly argue, with the goal of teaching them to talk and listen to each other with respect. In successful cases, decision making becomes less chaotic and stressful.

In 2018, the Division’s family workers helped about 12,000 in their homes, to prevent neglect and abuse so as to prevent the children from ending up in foster care. During the same year about 7,800 were placed in foster care.

The Division’s leadership wants to continue expanding and improving services for children in their own homes. When successful, the services avoid trauma to children and disruption of families, while breaking cycles of abuse that can linger from generation to generation.

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