Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Monday (Aug. 14) that the state Department of Human Services will seek bids for a private operator to take over day-to-day operations of seven of the eight juvenile treatment centers as part of a broad plan to reform the system dealing with troubled youth.
The announcement comes nearly eight months after the state took over operation of the seven Division of Youth Services (DYS) residential facilities in January after the Arkansas Legislative Council declined to act on a $159 million contract with a private provider from Indiana.
During a press conference at the State Capitol with DHS Director Cindy Gillespie, DHS Deputy Director Leesa Smith, and DYS Director Betty Guhman, Hutchinson said he is accepting DHS recommendations as part of an action plan he requested to make substantive changes that would better serve the state’s juvenile justice system.
“This was done because of the legislative failure to properly review the contracts faithfully,” Hutchinson said during the press briefing at the Governor’s Conference room. “Secondly, it was done so that DHS could get a better handle on the services that are delivered, not just in an oversight role, but it a detail fashion so that we could determine and make recommendation in the future on how those services would be delivered.”
The plan crafted by DHS, the umbrella agency for DYS, looks to strengthen behavioral and education services and family engagement. It also calls for the state to seek ways to increase Medicaid funding for youth services and use $2 million in available funding to review and standard state policies aimed at providing alternatives to incarceration.
“The takeover of facilities that had been run by private contractors for two decades gave us an unexpected opportunity to take a deep look at the behavioral health and educations services being provide to our youth and to look at how well families were engaging with teens in custody,” Guhman said. “When these three things are done well, youth have a better change of successfully being rehabilitated and reintegrating in their home communities so we wanted to make sure we were doing them right.”
According to Hutchinson and Gillespie, the state will seek a private company to take over control of the seven juvenile centers sometime in 2018. A bid proposal is being developed and will be issued for all seven facilities by the end of the year.
RECENT YOUTH CENTER HISTORY
In December of last year, DHS and the state Department of Finance and Administration were thrown into action after the Legislative Council (ALC) failed to give a favorable review of Indiana-based Youth Opportunity Investments. The legislative panel’s original plan was to take over the seven juvenile lockup centers in Colt, Dermott, Harrisburg, Lewisville, and Mansfield after the contract with providers ended on Dec. 31, 2016.
The facilities had been managed by longtime private operators South Arkansas Youth Services of Magnolia and Consolidated Youth Services of Jonesboro before the Indiana firm was announced as the winning bid. Some legislators balked at the process that led to the out-of-state company winning the contract and at the higher fees it was charging. At the ALC meeting in early December, legislators voted to split the vote between the House and the Senate. House members supported the contract review, but senators voted it down.
But instead of waiting on lawmakers to act, Gov. Hutchinson immediately directed DHS to manage the programs for the next six months of 2017 and evaluate the advantages of returning the contract to the private sector. Managing the process for six months will make the state better able to provide oversight if the facilities return to the private sector, the governor said.
Before the state stepped in and took over the seven juvenile facilities in January, notices were sent out to more than 190 employees of the possible change in providers. DHS’s Smith said the state plans to do all it can to keep most of the same staff in place at the centers and hold the job count at current levels.
Over the past six months, DHS officials said they have founded many positives at the juvenile detention facilities, including experienced staff, physical condition of the facilities, and access to local resources and community support. As a result of the review, the agency has already contracted with Community Mental Health Centers to provide a broad array of individual and group mental health and substance abuse treatment services at each regional juvenile treatment center.
DHS said it has also partnered with Virtual Arkansas to provide standardized curriculum used by public school systems that youth can work at their own pace with the help of online teachers and in-person educational coaches. Virtual Arkansas has provided youth at the centers with access to dual credit and coding classes, one of the governor’s favorite initiatives. Those changes have help to eliminate concerns about teacher shortages at the centers’ schools, officials said.
The governor also approved these other following actions as part of his four-step plan.
• A security audit of all seven centers that will identify security weaknesses and ways to address those, prior to completion of the solicitation. This will be overseen by the new DHS Chief of Security, Brian Marr, who recently left the U.S. Secret Service after more than two decades of service. Upon completion, Chief Marr will conduct a similar review of the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Saline County.
• Incorporating the results of the Medicaid funding study and plan into the solicitation for the centers and into the solicitation for community-based services, in order to address the reliance of DYS operations on state general revenue. This study will be completed in September 2017.
• An independent review of the role and work of the Division of Youth Services, similar to the review conducted by child welfare expert Paul Vincent in 2015 for the DHS Division of Children and Family Services.
The DYS action plan is part of the governor’s overall plan to downsize state government and outsource several functions in DHS and other state agencies that have become unwieldy or too costly. (Link here for a PDF of the DYS plans.)
FOSTER CARE SYSTEM
Two years ago, a comprehensive report by Vincent’s Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group of Montgomery, Ala., was presented to the governor recommending that the state expand intensive home and community-based health services and develop a plan to reduce caseloads to address a rising foster care population and a high rate of child maltreatments.
The study painted a picture of a system unable to provide for a rising number of children in foster care. That number is increasing, it said, because while the number of children entering foster care is stable, the number of children leaving it is decreasing. Moreover, the total number has risen dramatically in the past two months, from 3,875 to 4,323.
Hutchinson directed DCFS to conduct the study after Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, had “re-homed” two of his adopted daughters, one of whom later was abused by the new family. During the 2017 legislation session, lawmakers directed $14 million in extra funding to DCFS for the state’s crisis-plagued foster care system.
Originally, Hutchinson had proposed $26 million in fiscal year 2018 and $11 million in fiscal year 2019 to fund 228 additional staff members at DHS’ foster care division, including 150 new caseworkers.