Arkansas Child Protective System Under Scrutiny

. Saturday, August 2

  • In the last two months, four children have died while in Arkansas foster care, and two of the cases are being investigated for abuse.
  • So far this year, 11 children have died within 12 months of an abuse report to DHS, with abuse as the cause of death. These children were not in foster care.
  • The state of Arkansas is rated 45th for child protection because the mortality rate is above the national average.
The article on a local TV station's Web site, Dying in Arkansas Foster Care, includes several reader comments that add dimension to the horror vs. help aspects of child protective efforts.

There were roughly 9,000 children living in Arkansas foster care in 2006. There have been reports of rape, extreme physical abuse and starvation. Some foster children live four to a room, face padlocked refrigerators, prison-like rules and are not allowed to interact with the family. As horrifying as this is, it is not the full story...

What I learned as a caseworker.

Did you ever wonder why you never hear about the success stories of saving children from harm? How is it that thousands of children removed from abusive and neglectful parents to go on to lead happy and healthy lives are never story headlines?

Part of it, of course, is that horrible news sells newspapers. But the majority of the reason is that laws protect minors under the auspices of Family Law by keeping their information confidential and out of the public eye. This protection is an absolute necessity that prevents further victimization and stigma.

The protected and confidential nature of a child's life is damning since it keeps intact those walls and closed doors that so much horror happens behind.

Because so much of what happens occurs out of sight of the public eye, much more of the atrocities happen than is widely known while very little funding is funneled to services to protect children as a result. In Arkansas, child protective caseworkers' starting pay is, on average, $26,000 - 28,000 per year. People who become and stay caseworkers are there to make a difference for as long as they can tolerate the unbearable caseloads, extreme stress and low pay. Arkansas is 88% staffed, yet under a hiring freeze. It is highly doubtful that the situation is any different in most states across the US. Unless it is part of some politician's campaign strategy, very little light falls on child welfare.

The other side of the coin is society's definition of what is and is not child abuse and neglect. A child with an iPhone, Wii, designer clothes, computer and personal credit card may seem like the current standard of satisfactory care, this is obviously not reality. You may run into a mother with a baby in a soiled diaper in a store and immediately think that the mother is neglectful for not changing that diaper, even without knowing just when that baby pooped in its pants. A family may live in the country and allow their children to play outside for most of the day, holding to the tenet that a kid who isn't dirty didn't have fun, while a city-living family may send their child to the shower if its hands look dirty. Some parents spank, and others look at spanking as if it were capital punishment.

Child protective laws, therefore, are based on the lowest socially acceptable standard of care.

While you may think that a house with dust on the bookshelves, clutter on the counters and fingerprints on the windows is unfit for habitation, a caseworker can only remove a child from a home if the child is in imminent physical danger. If there are holes in the floor, exposed electrical wiring, sharp objects (knives, broken glass) and rotting food and animal feces on the floor, then a caseworker can remove a crawling baby from a home. If the child is, say between the ages of 3 and 5, the caseworker may be required to give the family time to clean up before the child is remanded.

Even if a caseworker knows without a shadow of doubt that a parent is drunk or under the influence of drugs, there is nothing that can be done unless that caseworker witnesses the parent taking or smoking a drug or putting a child into a car and getting behind the wheel with an open can of beer in hand.

The majority of a caseworker's job is to make home visits. Trust me when I tell you that any social services person knocking on a door is at risk of bodily harm, and they make home visits alone. Very few people that come in contact with a caseworker open the door with a smile on their face.

It is my understanding that a caseworker must have contact with clients at least once every 30 days, even with children in foster homes or other alternative placements. Required or not, I don't see how that would be humanly possible with 350-500 average open cases at all times, especially in as rural a state as Arkansas is. Many caseworkers go into the job unprepared for what they will face on a daily basis and burn out quickly. They do their best to make a difference while all the time running into brick walls as to what they are allowed to do.

Education is key, or 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.'

I've said this thousands of times until I'm blue in the face. It takes education to prevent teen pregnancy, to learn parenting skills, to support the family and money to train caseworkers, teachers and those in the medical professions to educate as well. Kids aren't born with an instruction manual in hand.

I learned a very valuable lesson while doing an internship. I went with a caseworker on a home visit. What I saw when the client opened the door was so much dirt on the floor it hid the carpet, dirty dishes and clothes everywhere, garbage, and a very dirty child dressed only in an extremely dirty cloth diaper in the dead of winter. The caseworker said to me, "What do you expect? The only way that mother has to learn about child care and maintaining a household is watching soap operas on TV. How many times have you seen a soap opera character clean house or change a diaper?"

Take home message.

I've only scratched the surface of this issue. My point is that it is necessary to get far more of the facts than this sensationalist news story presented before you draw any conclusions. Most importantly, just because child welfare isn't in the news doesn't mean that everything is in fine working condition. That so many children have died is proof that everything is not OK.


Anonymous said...

OMG! this made me cry! It makes me feel downright guilty and dirty that I dont have at least one foster child in my very large and roomy home.
The stories about abuse are just awful, and though I dont consider myself a perfect parent ( who could claim that anyway?) Im 100% sure that I could do a better job in my sleep making a child feel loved and accepted than some of the kids I know that have been in foster care.
Just as horrific was reading Putterpies post at the bottom of the article. Do they REALLY put kids in the homes of such illiterates????? PLEASE tell me no! While I myself admit to not using spell check, guilty as charged of typos, & throwing some proper writing out the window at times, MY GOODNESS this woman cant even spell simple words or construct a sentence.
THATS scary! I feel for the child having such a person for a role model. Especailly one thats already have a rough start to life.
ok....where do I sign up? Hrslady

Theresa Komor said...

I've known borderline mentally retarded women that were fantastic parents. One in particular was literate at the third grade level. That did not effect her ability to care for her child in the least. She made sure that she understood and memorized care instructions before leaving the doctor's office. Call your local adult literacy program to get an idea of just how widespread illiteracy actually is.

If you are interested in becoming a foster parent in Arkansas, visit Arkansas Foster Family Services or call Alice Bennett at (501) 682-8537.

The Natural State Hawg said...

Well, you know I used to make my living at a lawyer. I handled a few court-appointed juvenile cases, and I'm here to tell you that everythinng is screwed up in the child welfare system from the courts on down to some extremely unfit parents.

You've scratched the surface of a huge problem, indeed.

Too much to get into here!

The Natural State Hawg

FishHawk said...

Very well written!!!

Anonymous said...

Theresa, I suppose a borderline mentally retarded person with their OWN child is something society has to deal with and its great to hear that some of them do well. However....the issue here is foster care. This poster brings up the fact that some are in it for the money and people that are at the bottom of the barrel intelligence wise are also going to be the same ones that have the hardest time securing well paying employment and in my estimation the MOST likely to be "in it for the money "which is why take in so many. Here in Ar I believe Laura told me the check is $400 a month per child. Is it any wonder she took in FOUR?
In my opinion anyone taking in more than one or two at most should be automaticly suspect of "in it for the money" even though most of us think that kind of "money" is ridiculously little. To the uneducated, nearly unemployable its the rent and some groceries. Taking a kid out of a bad situation and putting them into one just as bad isnt the answer here.
This whole story makes me queasy as did the poster who claims to be a foster parent. Hrslady

Theresa Komor said...

It's my understanding that most states are very, very short of available foster placements. Some kids come with a slew of very difficult illnesses and behaviors that require more care than a standard family is able to give.

That's only one aspect of a very complicated situation all the way around, as Hawg said. For instance, though you may be approved as a foster home, when a child needs a home, you get that child no matter if he or she is within your means to handle. They do try to match as best as possible, but sometimes, circumstances don't allow it.

I once had to take a three year old to a foster home that specialized in drug addicted newborns. She was completely full and wasn't really set up for a child already able to walk. But she took the boy anyway and he did very well there.