LITTLE ROCK -- The number of Arkansas children in foster care continued to go down last year, after reaching an all-time high in 2016 and prompting dramatic measures from elected officials to improve the state's child welfare system.
In 2019, the number of children in foster care was 4,226. That is down 12% from 2018, when 4,310 children were in foster care, and also down from 2017, when 4,817 children were in foster homes.
In late 2016, the number was close to 5,200 and state officials said the system was in crisis. Staff at the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had unmanageable caseloads, while family and relatives of the children reported a lack of support from within the system.
When legislative committees asked DCFS officials about the spike in foster care numbers, they were told that staff who are over-worked tend to err on the side of caution. That often means they remove children from their family because they don't have time to determine if the home is a safe place.
The legislature approved funding for additional case workers. Faith-based organizations and advocacy groups recruited more foster parents. DCFS developed plans for families to improve overall conditions within the home.
The legislature passed Act 906 in 2001, which mandates that DCFS provide family preservation services when children are about to be removed from their homes.
The National Council on Crime and Delinquency recently completed an independent review of DCFS and its family preservation programs. Those findings were presented to the Senate Committee on Children and Youth.
The review applauded our reduction in the number of children in foster care, and noted that more of them had been placed with relatives. In 2019, a third of foster children were with relatives, compared to 28% in 2018.
The national review recommended that Arkansas improve the stability of foster care placements. In other words, the frequency of being moved for children who spend more than a year within the system. The national standard is 4.12 and the Arkansas average last year was 6.32.
Arkansas is consistently above the national average in achieving permanency for children within 12 months after renewal, with about half of the children in Arkansas who are discharged from foster care going to a permanent living situation. That means they go back to their families, to a relative's home, to custody by a parent who had been non-custodial, to guardianship, adoption or to custody by a non-relative.
Also, Arkansas met the national standard for preventing a child's return to foster care within a year of being discharged. The national standard is 8.3% and in Arkansas it was 7.8% in 2019. That is an improvement of almost two% age points since 2017, when it was 9.7% .
Last year 28,645 child maltreatment reports were investigated in Arkansas, of which 80% were referred to DCFS and the remainder to the Crimes Against Children Division of the State Police. DCFS substantiated 21% of its investigations, which is close to the trend for the previous two years.
DCFS follows up in the 12 months after identifying a child victim of maltreatment. The national standard for recurring maltreatment is 9.1% or fewer, and in Arkansas it was 6%.
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Editor's note: Arkansas Sen. Cecile Bledsoe represents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bledsoe is chair of the Legislative Council.