LITTLE ROCK – The state Division of Children and Family Services continues to struggle with high staff turnover and high caseloads for family service workers. The two problems are closely related.
The division operates the state’s foster care system. The number of children in foster care went up during the pandemic, from 4,415 in March of 2020 to 4,855 in October of last year. By June of 2022 the number had gone back down slightly, to 4,541 children.
The division’s staff of about 1,000 workers frequently had to be under quarantine during the pandemic, causing a backlog of cases that added to the pressures of their jobs.
The average family service worker’s caseload rose from 20.2 in March of 2020 to 24.9 in September of 2021. When caseloads increase, staff turnover goes up.
Last year the turnover rate for family service workers went up from 44.5 percent ni 2020 to 63.2 percent in 2021. The extremely high rate in staff turnover creates additional burdens for those workers who remain, and for supervisors whose duties include training.
The turnover rate for program assistants in the division was comparable to that of family service workers. It went up from 45.3 percent in 2020 to 63.2 percent in 2021.
The division has tried to lower the turnover rate by raising salaries. Program assistants’ pay went from $26,000 to $28,500 per year. The starting salary for family service workers went up to $36,155, and after the worker completes classroom training it goes up by seven percent.
Family service workers have financial incentives to remain with the division, such as a 10 percent increase in salary for becoming a specialist.
The legislature passed Act 574 in 2021 to direct two committees to study the best methods of reducing the number of children in foster care. They are the Senate Interim Committee on Children and Youth and the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth.
The two committees shall submit their findings to the Legislative Council by the first of December.
According to a draft of the committees’ report, the state has partnered with private organizations for additional help. One is called Restore Hope. It works with parents to improve family life, thus preventing the need for the state to step in and find a caring home for neglected children.
Restore Hope works with parents who are homeless, parents who have been in prison and parents who have not graduated from high school and who have not earned a GED. The organization offers help for those parents to attend vo-tech schools to learn job skills. It also helps parents find stable housing.
The division is part of the state Human Services Department. To illustrate the division’s need to reduce caseloads and staff turnover, its director told legislators that Pulaski County needs 174 new positions in the next three years to address a crisis in cases that has built up.
For example, she said, in November of 2019 there were 364 children in foster care in Pulaski County and last November there were 708.
There is a sense of urgency, because those children are at risk not only of neglect but of abuse.