- Associated Press - Thursday, July 16, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas’ child welfare system is burdened by a high case load and lack of foster homes, at times leaving children spending the night in state offices because no space could be found, according to a review released Thursday.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters he planned to adopt the recommendations issued by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, which he commissioned to review the state’s Division of Children and Family Services.

The recommendations include cutting the average caseload from 29 to 20 over the next three years, which state officials say will mean hiring more than 200 additional employees and an additional $8 million in funding for the agency.

“There are many challenges here, but there are many opportunities to do something really much better for the children of Arkansas and I think that’s something all of Arkansas will support,” the Republican governor said at a news conference at the state Capitol.

Hutchinson commissioned the report earlier this year after a state lawmaker gave his adopted daughters to a man who later admitted to sexually abusing one of them. Rep. Justin Harris, a Republican from West Fork, has since announced he won’t seek re-election and the Legislature enacted a law banning “re-homing” of adopted children.

The report said the average caseload for DCFS employees in nearly double the national average of 15. Hutchinson said he’ll begin seeking an increase in funding for hiring additional workers over the next three years, but didn’t say how much he’d request when the Legislature convenes next year.

The report also called for an increase in mental health services. Hutchinson did not have an estimate on how much more funding that will require.

The report called for an expansion of available foster homes, noting that there were nearly 4,100 children in the state’s care but only roughly 2,700 foster home beds available. The report said the shortage has become so severe that between January and April, 22 children in foster care spent the night in a DCFS office because no home was available.

“That is an unreasonable burden on our children, an unreasonable burden on our case workers as well,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said he hoped to increase the number of available homes by changing state policies to make it easier to place foster children with relatives. He said he also hoped to find other ways to increase available homes through a summit with faith-based leaders he has planned for next month.

The report noted an increase in the number of child fatalities where the family had prior contact with DCFS, which rose to at least 40 in the fiscal year that just ended from 23 four years earlier.

“It is not clear why fatality numbers are rising,” the report said. “This could be (a) factor of improved reporting or other more complex factors.”

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Online:

DCFS Review: http://ee-governor-2015.ark.org/images/uploads/Arkansas_Report_7.6.pdf

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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