Child Protective Services: On the Front Lines

Mischa Martin (left),
Deputy Secretary of Youth and Families, speaks in the governor conference room alongside Christie Erwin, founder of Project Zero.
Mischa Martin (left), Deputy Secretary of Youth and Families, speaks in the governor conference room alongside Christie Erwin, founder of Project Zero.Photo courtesy of Department of Human Services

The knocks on the door go unanswered, but call the office and ask for an infant car seat to be

investigators hear cartoons coming from the apartment. Children are often left unsupervised inside, the apartment manager tells Mischa Martin and her partner, heightening their concern about the hotline caller who warned that mom’s drug use is endangering the children.

It is hot, early July. Mischa had volunteered to work child welfare investigations to help with a backlog. This is her first call. She feels urgent about getting inside to make sure the children are safe; she knows enough of the family’s history. She calls law enforcement for backup.

When police gain entry mom is in bed, and they struggle to wake her. No, the baby hasn’t had milk today, the 6-year-old says; kitchen shelves are empty. Police leave them to execute their plan as it takes shape. Mischa and her partner call the office and ask for an infant car seat to be brought over. Mom rouses somewhat; they ask, will she take a drug screen? Would she consider going into drug rehab?

Suddenly, a pounding at the window, and the baby’s dad tries to force his way through. There are reports that he’s a lead Fentanyl dealer, and Mischa knows she and her partner may be in danger; they quickly call law enforcement again for support. Under police guard and a beating Arkansas sun, Mischa and her partner load the infant seat, and then the children, into their state car.

What next? Mischa may be the director of the Department of Children and Family Services, but she is thankful her partner is an experienced inves- tigator. They call for approval to use the state cred- it card; the children are upset and need formula, food, a fresh change of clothes.

“It really is about having a whole bunch of people who care about you and are investing in you.”
Tiffany Wright, Director of DCFS

“Let’s get this kid some Arby’s and then set up physicals. We call relatives, giving the devastating news and making sure not to disclose too much in front of the kids. I’m getting information about abuse and neglect, because I know I’m going to have to prove the substance abuse case and write an affidavit to prove that these kids are in immediate danger.”

Word reaches Mischa that there’s a third sibling.

“But nobody seems to know where the third sibling is. We’re in the car trying to figure out which office to go to. And the seven-month-old is now fed, but crying and unhappy.”

A foster parent who’d previously known the kids takes the older two for the weekend. The baby goes with a grandma.

“But it’s the 4th of July weekend. There’s no one for me to hand this case off to. I’ve got to get with legal and write my affidavit. That day starts at 8 a.m. and I’m still working that case at 10 p.m.,” Mischa says. “Investigators have the hardest job of anybody because they’ve got multiple things going on. They’re trying to determine whether abuse or neglect happened and whether that child is safe and can remain in the home. And if so, what ser- vices need to be offered.”

These are DCFS’ duties, but the agency can’t – and shouldn’t – go it alone. After seven years as director of DCFS, overseeing more than 4,000 children in foster care and 11,000 families receiving services each year, Mischa says only a scale tipped toward prevention can improve conditions for children in Arkansas. And the community’s help is critical.

“Child welfare is never going to be designed to touch every at-risk child in this state,” she says.

Mischa has since been promoted to Deputy Secretary of Youth and Families; DCFS remains under her supervision, now led by Tiffany Wright. Mischa now also oversees the Division of Youth Services ( juvenile justice) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

“I’m super excited about TANF, which gives us opportunities to invest in prevention,” Mischa says. “DCFS can’t do this work alone ... families are struggling with stability around housing, stability around jobs, food insecurity.

“I was raised in church and we took care of our own. We were small enough that people knew the at-risk families. We took food to them, made sure that the kids had clothes. Somewhere along the line, I feel like (society) started to say, ‘That’s the government’s responsibility.’

Related Story:

Mischa Martin (left),
Deputy Secretary of Youth and Families, speaks in the governor conference room alongside Christie Erwin, founder of Project Zero.
Director Martin: To Save Children, Save Their Families
Secretary Kristi Putnam and Mischa Martin tour Johnson County DHS office
Secretary Kristi Putnam and Mischa Martin tour Johnson County DHS officePhoto courtesy of Department of Human Services

“That’s what I really love about 100 Families ... it’s a perfect partnership of making sure that peo- ple get the available government services and also connect to community organizations that help families get stable.” Tiffany adds that 100 Families teams fill gaps that DHS can’t meet.

“It really is about having a whole bunch of people who care about you and are investing in you,” Tiffany says.

Mischa has followed a particular foster family for several years, watching a couple support the biological mother of children formerly in their home.

“OVER THE NEXT FEW YEARS DCFS WANTS PRIVATE AGENCIES TO HANDLE THE BULK OF FOSTER CARE PLACEMENTS SO IT CAN FOCUS ON KINSHIP PLACEMENT AND PREVENTION.”
MISCHA MARTIN, DEPUTY SECRETARY OF YOUTH AND FAMILIES

“Over the years they’ve supported the mom. ‘Oh, we’re in crisis now. There’s a job situation. She has a fine from 10 years ago that she now has to pay. Or her SNAP benefits got kicked off because she didn’t understand the notice.

“Sometimes these families get some stability, but they still need a support system that they can call to help them navigate a small problem so that it doesn’t become a giant problem.”

“Private programs are increasingly handling the recruitment, training, and support of foster families. It’s still a small percentage, but over the next

few years DCFS wants private agencies to handle the bulk of foster care placements so it can focus on kinship placement and prevention.

“Those agencies must over-recruit foster families to correct an imbalance that causes most children to be placed far outside of their own com- munities and everything that is familiar – not to mention creating huge travel and logistical issues and costs for the agency.

“The move and hope and wish to get kids back in their county is not going to change overnight,” Mischa says.

Tiffany joined DCFS fresh from college, and she emphasizes a need for more staff.

“The job is hard, but it’s worth it. When I started at DCFS, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I wouldn’t change it.

“On the bad days I think about the days that I helped a family. I helped a kid. Reunification. That is why I do this,” Tiffany says. “You’ll not always make popular decisions. People won’t like you. They’ll think that you only care about yourself or only care about keeping everybody else happy. But it’s really about doing what’s best for kids.”

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.

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