Arkansas is one of the few states in the country that has observed an increase in the number of youth in foster care during the pandemic, with its total rising by 12% between March 2020 and March 2021. And that surge is almost entirely attributable to its largest county, Pulaski (home to Little Rock) where the entire frontline workforce has turned over since coronavirus set in.
In an effort to turn things around, the state’s child welfare agency will become the first client of a new consulting shop that is working exclusively with systems willing to replace a standard child welfare operation with a process that rarely uses foster care.
The state’s Division of Children and Family Services will use some of its coronavirus recovery funds for a two-year, approximately $2.6 million contract with Family Integrity & Justice Works, a new division of the consulting firm Public Knowledge. The group, run by former U.S. Children’s Bureau leaders Jerry Milner and David Kelly, launched over the summer and has been fielding requests from agencies looking to make drastic changes to business as usual.
The goal is to “work together to redesign around programs that actually serves kids and families before a crisis happens,” said Children and Family Services Director Mischa Martin.
By any measure, Pulaski County’s child welfare operation is in a full-blown crisis. Numbers obtained from the state by Youth Services Insider show that between November of 2019 and September of 2021, Pulaski’s foster care total rose 97%, from 364 to 716 youth.
Workforce trends in the county, which accounts for just over 10% of the field employees for the Division of Children and Family Services, are even worse. Retaining employees is an endemic challenge for many child welfare systems in the best of times, and statewide in Arkansas, frontline worker turnover jumped from 45% to 57% in 2021. In Pulaski County, turnover has reached 105%.
“Two of the jobs turned over twice,” Martin explained, referring to the higher-than-100% rate.
Enter Family Integrity & Justice Works, which launched as a new division of Public Knowledge announced this July. Leading the new venture are Milner, who led the Children’s Bureau for most of the Trump administration, and Kelly, an Obama holdover who served as Milner’s special assistant.
“Internally, our child welfare leadership team was looking to demonstrate a new proof of concept to completely reimagine how we deal with families and children,” Public Knowledge President Stacey Obrecht said in an interview with Youth Services Insider when Family Integrity & Justice Works was announced. “In their work at the Children’s Bureau, that’s where they had been pushing the policy.”
Martin said she first met Milner at a 2016 conference on rethinking child welfare hosted by the Minnesota-based Alia Innovations.
“He’s the real deal,” she said in an interview with Youth Services Insider. “One reason we were willing to partner with Public Knowledge is if we focus now on Pulaski, then we can impact the whole state with this eventually.”
The number of youth in foster care is up 11% statewide, but Martin said that is almost entirely a function of slowed-down discharges out of the system during the pandemic. Pulaski stands out, she said, because they have seen a big increase in entries.
“It is counter [to] the general trend in our state,” Martin said.
High reliance on foster care is not a new phenomenon for the state. In 2016, shortly after Martin became director, a research firm hired by the division reported that a recent surge in removals was mostly attributable not to increased maltreatment, but to “DCFS removing more children [from their homes] immediately upon investigation and the courts ordering removals against the recommendations of the agency.”
Kelly said in Pulaski County, the present-day crisis brought Arkansas to the table, but he sees an “opportunity to really contemplate doing work in a different way.”
An overview of the contract shared with Youth Services Insider tips at a few likely focal points for the game plan, including: working community response options into the hotline reporting process; the development of a framework for child welfare built in partnership by the court, the agency and the community; and pursuing high-quality legal counsel for parents and children before removals occur.
On that latter point, Kelly notes that the county already has “some solid parent defense, although we’d like to see that extended to before formal foster care proceedings are needed,” and that the local Court Appointed Special Advocates program is particularly focused on supporting reunifications for children in foster care.
Martin stressed the need for fresh ideas around the hotline process, which in Arkansas is operated by the state police.
“The problem is not so much about how it operates, it’s about how the community views the way it operates,” she said. “If anything goes wrong with a child, or a family is in crisis … the community’s perspective is you call the hotline and someone deals with that.”
But families need community intervention, especially around issues of poverty, she said, and those cases don’t necessarily need a child protection response.
“That’s what I want Jerry and David to come up with … what’s the other place” for reports of family crises to go, Martin said. “We are hopeful through the partnership…that we will move away from a system in crisis that responds to crisis, and into a system where families feel supported and can get the services, support, and help that they need before calls are made to the child abuse hotline.”
The absence of other ongoing reform efforts in Little Rock was part of the attraction for an upstart looking to create a theory of change around dramatically reducing the need for foster care and family separation.
“We’ve got a real shot to do something in a place that is actually going to be much more difficult than somewhere that is already on the way to transforming its system,” Kelly said. The problems faced by Little Rock “reflect challenges common to many systems, but in the extreme. This gives us and the child welfare leadership in Arkansas a real opportunity to show a better way is possible — to work with communities to build something very different.”
Milner hesitated to put a numerical benchmark on how far down they can get the use of foster care in a two-year window, but said he believed they “could put into place essential supports for families that would greatly decrease the need for foster care” from the 700-plus youth in care today.
“It’s daunting to think about going from a system where children spend the first nights of their foster care experience in agency offices and then go night-to-night from one placement to another, to a system where the first response is to act in the moment to keep the family together safely,” Milner said. “But, that’s exactly what we intend to do.”