A Day in the Life of a Child Welfare Advocate

Jeff Piker, coordinator for 100 Families in Yell and Pope counties and also an associate pastor
at Journey Church
in Russellville
Jeff Piker, coordinator for 100 Families in Yell and Pope counties and also an associate pastor at Journey Church in Russellville
Restore Hope recently sat down with several people working to protect children in Pope County, where a unique collaboration is underway allowing social service agencies and programs to work together to help families in crisis. Here are excerpts from those conversations with three employees of the Arkansas Department of Child and Family Services; a human services worker with the Russellville School District, and Jeff Piker, a pastor and coordinator of the 100 Families office in Pope and Yell counties.

Skye Mitchell spends her workdays searching the Russellville community for schoolchildren plagued by transient living situations.

Children struggle mentally, socially, physically and academically when their families experience hardship and homelessness, says the 17-year veteran human services worker with the Russellville School District. Her immediate mission is to help families acquire stable living situations so the children can become active learners, flourish, and graduate.

“It’s almost impossible to make a child whole without also supporting the family unit,” Mitchell says. “Some of these kids are facing serious challenges at home, and it’s impacting how they be- have and thrive in the classroom.”

The situations, mindsets and despair that Mitchell encounters within families make most days on the job heartbreaking.

“Just within the last month, 12 of the students who were identified as being in transition went into foster care. They came from three families, and each student was living with a parent who is battling addiction.”

Sometimes homelessness follows a specific hardship or event like an illness, loss of job, death in the family, incarceration or substance abuse. Mitchell uses grant money, community programs such as ARVAC, and donations to help families with basic needs – shelter being a priority.

“If we can address the reasons why the family is struggling with substance abuse and get them the help that they need, they can turn their lives around for not only themselves but their children.”


Calls reach Mitchell from school personnel, local non-profits like Russ Bus and the battered women’s shelter, churches, community leaders, Department of Human Services, and 100 Families. She finds some families living in pay-by-the-week motels; others are desperately hopping amongst the homes of relatives or friends.

“Those situations seldom last. The families become extremely mobile and move around so many times in a school year,” Mitchell said.

In the majority of families, at least one parent is working.

“For your average family working minimum wage, the cost of that motel is more than what they make in a given month, not to mention feeding and clothing their children, gas to and from work,” she says.

The Crisis

Envision a caseworker with the Arkansas Department of Child and Family Services and foster care springs to mind. But much more often, Arkansas children remain in their homes while caseworkers help and manage their families with a type of case termed “protective services.” More than 14,000 children are served in this way each year; protection and prevention are the lion’s share of DCFS’ efforts.

Licia Etheredge is a DCFS investigator in Pope County, one of those first to respond when the agency receives a concern about a child, which usually comes via the Child Abuse Hotline.

When Etheredge discovers environmental concerns in a home – such as lack of running water or food or unsanitary conditions – she may elect to launch a safety plan; perhaps starting by picking up a box of food from First Baptist Church Russellville, ensuring the water is turned back on, directing the parents, “Let’s get this cleaned up within this many hours.”

Parents are guided toward improvements. “Maybe they need parenting classes,” Etheredge says. “Maybe they need 100 Families because they’re about to be homeless. Help with their utilities. We’re trying to prevent a removal by keeping a worker in that home and helping that family.”

“We don’t like to take children from their home; it’s tragic. They’re always going to remember that experience for the rest of their life,” says Etheredge, who is married with young children and has been on the job for three years.

Rather it’s the calls received at two or three a.m. from police that are more likely to end with children taken into custody – a toddler unattended in the road, an infant born with controlled substances in its system, children whose parents are arrested and there’s no relative or friend to call.


Under these circumstances, a caseworker like Devin Singh takes over. Singh will meet the child’s immediate needs for hunger or clothing and begin a concerted effort to find someone the child knows and feels safe with to serve as tempo- rary custodian – perhaps a grandmother, an aunt, coach or teacher.

If those options are exhausted, Singh searches for a foster home. That can be grueling – today, there simply aren’t enough to meet needs.

“Immediately you want to look for somewhere in Pope County, because you want to keep those kids close to what they know, in their same school. We pull up (the list) and it’s full of kids that are not even from Pope County. And that’s so hard, be- cause you want to be able to work with the fami- lies in your area and keep kids in the environment that they know.

“So then we branch out to the other counties. At times we’ve called foster homes in the entire state three or four days in a row. Some of us have slept at the office before with kids because we don’t have placement,” Singh says.

“With many of these cases, if there’s multiple kids, they have different fathers. If you’re able to locate a family member, the family member may be willing to take their blood relative, but not the others, which in turn, you have four families taking four kids that come from the same household and they’re spread all over Arkansas.”

Singh will also communicate with the biological parent(s), keeping them apprised of where the children are and what to expect with their case. Her relationship with them may continue for years, depending on the case outcome, and sometimes children transition in and out of foster care more than once.

Caseworkers come to know each others’ caseloads, the myriad families and histories, reaching out when they learn something impactful.

“We’re always checking in on each other, even if it’s not work hours,” Etheredge says. “I will recognize a name and say, “Hey, that’s on Devin’s caseload, let me let her know her client’s in jail, even though it’s not work hours – we’re going to try to figure out what happened because we have kids involved.”

In dealing with parents, Singh says they can react angrily, defensively, or even apathetically – unaware of how their behaviors are impacting their children.

“A lot of them will immediately start telling you the problems in their lives as opposed to the problems in their kids’ lives. The process of case management is (gradually) transitioning that frame of mind into, ‘Your life isn’t just about you, it’s about being a parent and putting those kids first,’” says Singh.

“When those parents are able to stop thinking just about themselves, or can get the help that they need for themselves, they can be a parent who thinks in a way that could allow for reunification.”

The Shift

A while back, a flyer circulated Russellville ad- vertising free training to become a well-compensated truck driver. Singh mentioned it to some of the parents in her caseload.

“Of all the families that I presented it to, not one (was interested). ‘Well, that’s going to mess with my SNAP benefits (for groceries),’ one told me. They don’t always know what their check is going to look like this week versus next week, but as long as they stay on SNAP, they receive the same amount every month and they can base their living off of that.

“Or one said, Fayetteville? It was like I was talking about Greece. They were like, Ooh, I can’t go there. That’s far. It was just too far. It seemed like everyone was living in a bubble. And that breaks my heart.”

Singh, a longtime single parent who worked Child Protective Services in San Diego before moving to Pope County, said parents often don’t comprehend basics such as dressing appropriately and getting a haircut before appearing in court or applying for a job. Modeling success for their chil- dren eludes them.

As an example, a teenager in her caseload recently had a birthday, a girl who’s interested in hair and makeup but had never been to a salon.

“So I scheduled her an appointment at Ulta to get her hair and makeup done,” Singh said. “She said it was the best day of her life and that no one would ever believe what she did on that day.

“I had never been able to have a successful plan-the-future talk with her, but that day she said, ‘Miss Devin, when I get older, I’m going to cosmetology school and I’m going to come back and be the manager.’ All of a sudden she’s thinking about her future, because she’s doing real-life kid things and being exposed to things. And I wish we had the time and dollars to do that for every kid.”

It's Personal

Mahogany Smith is a six-year employee of DCFS and regards herself the “meanest caseworker for Pope County.”

“I’m very straight and direct. I think being honest with parents is always the best policy – I tell them what could happen if they don’t do the steps to get the children back. And I’m honest with the children as far as what’s going on.

“I do have a good success rate of getting families put back together. Of course, I’ve had to terminate some, but those are parents who just don’t want to parent,” Smith says.

“And a lot of times I share with my clients, ‘Here’s my story, just so you know that I don’t think that I’m better than you. Both of my parents were drug addicts at one time, so I know exactly what your kids are feeling because I’ve been there. I’ve been in foster care.

“Both of my parents were drug addicts back when crack was out. Luckily I had good grandpar- ents who stepped in and we went to foster care for two weeks until the paperwork was done for me and my sister to be placed with relatives.

“Some caseworkers can’t relate to these situations because they don’t have children or they’ve never been faced with poverty or having to go without food. I think it makes a big difference on being able to share with your clients real life situations so that they understand, ‘Hey, I can change, I can beat this addiction. I can get my children back and make it better for my whole family.’

“So that’s why I do this job.”

Investigator Etheredge also was in foster care, from ages 13 to 18, because her mother had a drug addiction.

“Foster care work is personal for me. I see these girls who are rough teenagers. And that was me. I was that kid you didn’t want on your caseload,” Etheredge says. “I would disrupt; I would end up in group homes and disrupt that. I was rough, but I was angry. That’s why I’m here today.

“Parents tell us, ‘you don’t know what it feels like.’ No, I don’t know what it feels like to have your kids taken, but I know how it feels to get taken. I see these children, and they’re angry. They don’t know how to show love. People are trying to show them love; they don’t know how to accept that.”

Beyond, Together

Both the school district and DCFS have joined a new lifeline for families in Pope County that’s harnessing all the existing goodwill and effort. It’s called 100 Families and is based on collective impact. More than 80 groups/agencies have formed a community alliance and are linked by a software program called Hope Hub.

The software groups all the agencies and organizations that are helping an individual family and lets them communicate about the family’s needs and progress, with privacy concerns addressed. It’s like having an individual Facebook page for each family, with the agencies serving as the “friends” – able to get real-time updates and discuss needs or setbacks.

The 100 Families office assesses a client, sets up the family’s case in Hope Hub, and brings in ser- vices to address needs in housing, addiction, edu- cation, transportation, finance, health, dental and more – “the whole person,” says Jeff Piker, coordinator for the program in Yell and Pope counties.

Piker is an associate pastor at Journey Church in Russellville, where the focus is to accept, love and serve those in the community. The church decided to open the 100 Families office last year and has already enrolled 80 families.

Referrals again come from the community.

“A DCFS investigator might call us and say, ‘There’s not a case to remove the child, but this family needs help. Can I send them to you?’ And of course, our answer is always yes. We’ve been able to see some really good things happen that prevent kids from going into the (foster) system,” Piker says.


“It’s a holistic approach. It’s not just about pay- ing somebody’s bill. It’s, hey, what if we get you in a position to ask, what do you want to be? What would you love to do? Would you want to dream again? So many of our families have been going from crisis to crisis so long that taking a minute to dream about what their life could be brings them to tears because they’re so caught up in the moment. The thought of what could be – they’ve lost touch with that.”

The DCFS case workers and Mitchell say the alliance introduces them to options and services they didn’t know about.

“Being able to collaborate and share information has been a huge asset to me and what I do for the district,” Mitchell said.

Active since 2017 in Arkansas, 100 Families programs have increased the rate of reunification when children are in foster care from just over 40 percent to about 70 percent.

Piker says this is possible because a 100 Families caseworker stays with the client until the family achieves balance – “from crisis to career.” The various agencies and programs put aside their ten- dency to operate independently and begin to work cooperatively.

“It’s so easy to get caught up in your own hula hoop that you get good at doing what you do, but you lose sight of what’s happening around you. You’re focused on doing your job well, but once you complete your job, you don’t know what’s next,” Piker says. “So we’re taking advantage of people that are doing their job really well, and when our clients receive the service from them, we lead them to another one of our partners who’s able to help with the next phase of their life.”

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

The podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Smart Justice