The legislature approved a very conservative budget for state agencies next fiscal year.

One of the few agencies that will get a significant increase in spending authority is the Division of Children and Family Services, which is within the Human Services Department. It administers child welfare programs, such as foster care and adoption services.

At the recommendation of the governor, the legislature approved an increase in the Division’s funding of $27 million a year. That will bring its total funding to about $118 million a year in state general revenue funds.

With the increased money, the Division will be able to hire more case workers and lower the average caseload of employees who investigate allegations of abuse and neglect and who process those cases until children are in a safe place.

Division officials hope to add about 200 staff when Fiscal Year 2018 begins on July 1 of this year. About 150 would be family services workers who work directly with children and their families, and the others would be support staff.

In other good news for the Division, the most recent quarterly report indicates that the number of Arkansas children in foster care has gone down. The drop, from 5,178 in September to 5,129 in December, represents the first decrease in the previous two years.

Adding case workers will lower the average caseload for each, which in Arkansas is now 28 cases per family services worker. The nationally-recommended standard is 15.

A result of high case loads is that the number of children in state custody tends to go up, because individual case workers spend more time on paperwork and transporting children.

That means it takes longer to get children out of the system and back with their families, or in adoptive families.

In a related development, the legislature also approved Act 714 to create a permanent funding source for child advocacy centers throughout the state. The act enhances financial penalties for a list of criminal offenses and traffic violations. The revenue will be allocated to child advocacy centers.

Preventing Human Trafficking

At a bill signing ceremony last week the national head of an organization called Truckers Against Trafficking told a frightening story, which fortunately had a happy ending. It was about how a truck driver in Virginia called the police when he observed suspicious behavior at a truck stop. His phone call saved a young woman who had been kidnapped for prostitution.

The goal of Act 922 is to repeat that outcome. It requires truck drivers to take a course on how to recognize and respond to potential human trafficking. The course will be part of their requirements to get or renew a commercial driver’s license.

Organizations representing truck drivers support the act. They note that on the average stretch of highway, at any time of day, there are more truck drivers than there are police officers.

The sponsors of Act 922 and groups that work against human trafficking hope that the Arkansas law becomes model legislation that is widely copied by other states.