LITTLE ROCK — Lawmakers seeking to address a 30 percent rise in the number of children in foster care interviewed a panel of judges and a Supreme Court justice for more than 90 minutes Tuesday morning at the state Capitol. Members of the Joint Peer Review Committee have been working for several months to identify causes of the increase and to figure out a way to counteract it.
Testifying before the committee Tuesday morning was Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Joyce Warren, Saline County Circuit Judge Gary Arnold, Jefferson-Lincoln Counties Circuit Judge Earnest Brown, and David Sachar, the executive director of the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission.
Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, co-chairman of the committee, said the committee has worked for months to find answers to a few questions, and said judges can often identify problems that affect how they decide cases.
“You have to make some decisions that take, truly ultimate wisdom, where there doesn’t seem to be a right answer, so we want to know how we can help you make sure we’re making the right answers for Arkansas families and Arkansas kids,” said Clark.
Arnold told lawmakers a big part of the problem is the excessive caseloads that create a no win situation for caseworkers.
“We oftentimes set some of them up to fail by giving them more than they can adequately do,” Arnold said, adding that caseworkers are “where the rubber meets the road. When we give them more than they can do properly, it results in turnover and frustration for everyone involved.”
Arnold said such conditions create a cycle that is difficult to break.
“Everyone involved does the best they can, or they quit,” he said.
Wood said the system often fails the children it was set up to protect, with those ages 10 to 17 at particular risk. She related a case she was familiar with regarding emergency removal of a child who was then sent to the other side of the state. Wood said the result was that the youth lost the one thing he was passionate about; sports.
“He lost his educational stability, he lost friend stability, he had no church stability, he lost his family and parent stability, and the only thing he had pride in, he lost as well,” she said. “It ended up just being a ridiculous situation.”
Wood said placing children in their home communities allows them to maintain continuity with school, church, friends, sports and other important and stabilizing influences.
Wood said one problem with the overloading of the system is that judges don’t always receive all the information they need to decide cases.
“Decisions are only as good as the information those decisions are based on, and sometimes we don’t have good information,” she said, the result being that children are often removed from homes with caseworkers and judges being unaware that placement options may exist closer to home.
Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked about options for assistance with faith-based organizations. Judge Warren told him that in Pulaski County, DHS often partners with a faith-based organization named “The Call,” but said those organizations don’t exist in every judicial district.
“They come in and help with transportation assistance, open their homes as foster parents, open their homes for adoption,” said Warren, adding that such organizations can often help as neighbors.
“It’s kind of like help your neighbor,” Warren said. “Years ago when kids were in trouble, parents had trouble financially, or somebody got sick, the neighbors said, ‘I’ll take your kids in. I’ll raise them for a year or so.’ When the state gets involved, of course, they have to make sure that whoever is taking care of these children is going to be competent, protective and appropriate to take care of these children in a substitute situation.”
Wood noted that, regarding faith-based assistance, state statute forbids judges from recommending one care provider over another, but said making such organizations aware of the problems can result in more participation, which is something she said judges can address.
“We have just as much responsibility as community leaders to go into the community and let the faith-based organizations know what the needs are. What I’ve found is when we do that, they respond,” she said.