Arkansas foster numbers rise as pandemic closes court hearings

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 4,120 views 

Arkansas has seen an uptick in its foster care caseload during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic as fewer children’s cases work their way through the court system.

Division of Children and Family Services Director Mischa Martin said the total number of foster children on April 8 was 4,445. That number has increased by 150 in recent weeks because of a reduction in discharges and other moves toward permanency. Because courts are no longer holding in-person hearings, children aren’t being adopted or placed with relatives.

The situation may improve now that courts have moved toward videoconferenced hearings.

“Not only is it important to finalize permanency, it’s also important for court hearings to continue to move toward permanency, so we need those hearings to help move cases along,” she said.

Foster children are temporarily removed from their biological families by the state because of abuse or neglect. Reunification is the goal, but sometimes the state must find another permanent home for them with a relative or through adoption by another family.

While more children are in the system because they’re not leaving it, the number of children entering it is falling. DCFS removed 303 children from families in March compared to 287 in February, but removals dropped during March’s final two weeks.

Martin said calls have decreased to the state’s hotline for suspected child abuse and neglect. Many of those calls typically come from schools, which are mandated reporters but have been closed because of the pandemic.

Martin said caseworkers are being encouraged to use technology whenever possible and are accomplishing more tasks remotely. Videoconferencing is being allowed for tasks such as visiting experienced foster families.

But there are still times when DCFS workers must enter people’s homes – for example, to perform an initial abuse investigation. In those circumstances, the investigator must interview the child away from their parent or adult caregiver. Caseworkers have been given limited personal protective equipment and told to use it resourcefully.

“We have not shut down the child welfare system. … What we’ve messaged is, we want to use technology when we can, but for that … initial child abuse investigation, we have to see the victim,” Martin said.

She said caseworkers have told her they are fearful of being exposed to the disease, but they “are very mission-driven, and they want to make sure that kids are safe.”

Rachel Speights, Area IV Investigation Unit supervisor who supervises five counties, said she did six face-to-face interviews in two homes April 7. She wore a mask during the interview process.

Speights, 37, recognizes the risk but hasn’t let it stop her from doing her job. She’s healthy with no underlying conditions and spoke with Talk Business & Politics while hiking at Lake Catherine State Park.

“Yes, the coronavirus is here, and yes, it’s a very scary thing, but I don’t let it stop me protecting these children because these children are vulnerable and they need us, and if I don’t go in there, then who’s going to go in there and help them?” she said.

DCFS works closely with the faith-based organization The CALL to recruit and train foster families. Executive Director Lauri Currier said 176 individuals from 93 families from 32 counties participated in The CALL’s first-ever online training session this past weekend. The CALL typically trains an average of 75 families each month.

Currier said the organization developed the training in about a two-week period after trainings were canceled in March. The foster parents were trained in multiple groups so they could be monitored as per DCFS requirements. The group trainings allowed participants to ask questions about the material, which covers child management issues such as discipline.

“It’s the basics of understanding how foster children placed in your home are different from your own biological children, and how they have to be parented differently than your own biological children,” she said.

Kim Mengarelli, who underwent the training with her husband, Eddie, said it was effective.

“The trainers did awesome bringing a lot of energy into it, which I know has to be difficult just staring at a screen and not seeing everyone’s yeses and nodding their head or energy from a room, but we loved it,” she said.

Currier said some foster families are anxious about accepting placements during the pandemic.

Martin said it was difficult to place children with foster families during the first week of the pandemic. DCFS has tried to communicate with foster parents via videoconference to allay their concerns. Since that difficult initial time, foster parents have been more willing to accept placements, she said.

“There’s always a risk when continuing to take placements in our home, and our foster parents have been amazing,” she said. “The first week was a nightmare for us in making placements because this was a completely new situation. Everybody was scared.”

No child brought into foster care has tested positive for COVID-19 at the time of removal, though two children already in foster care have tested positive. They along with their foster parents have been quarantined. No foster parent has tested positive for the disease.

Children in foster care have supervised and, when appropriate, unsupervised visitations with their biological families while living with their foster parents. DCFS has encouraged more teleconferenced visitations during the pandemic to reduce the chances of exposure to everyone concerned. However, there are cases where a home visit is more appropriate, such as one mother who needs to bond with her newborn.

The pandemic has added to the challenges of being a foster parent as some of the supports, including schools and child care facilities, are not available. DCFS provided a one-time $125 per-child increase in the April payment for foster parents to help with additional expenses and is exploring another increase. Foster parents would be paid an additional $500 per month if the federal government approves a requested Medicaid waiver by Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration.

Jonathan Bailey, a foster parent in Benton, is helping raise three foster children, one of whom has been in his home for 17 months and two siblings who have been there for eight months, along with his and his wife’s three children. In a text conversation, he said schools have helped by providing laptops, “so computers are absolutely everywhere. The amount of food we are going through has increased for sure. (And we’ve gone through our share of TP as well! What many would call stocking up, we call a normal trip to Sam’s.)”