Profile: Arkansas Secretary of Human Services Kristi Putnam

Secretary Kristi
Putnam (left) tours
the Mansfield Juvenile Treatment Facility.
Secretary Kristi Putnam (left) tours the Mansfield Juvenile Treatment Facility.

What seems to be an immense, heart-wrenching numbers of foster children in Arkansas – 4,200 – feels more manageable when approached county by county, says Kristi Putnam, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

“That’s a big number when you think about it from a statewide perspective. What I want to see us do is break that down county by county and help communities understand that they are the solution for helping families become stronger, for helping families reunify with those children, for supporting the caseworkers who are part of the foster care system.”

"When you break it down to a county number and it’s, for instance, 42 kids, it’s much more manageable. People feel like there’s something they can actually do about improving the services to our families and making families stronger.”

And just what can we do?

“Anything, anything small, anything larger,” Putnam says. “The first thing I would say is we do need more foster families. The best place for a child who’s in our foster care system is with a family. And so you can sign up to be a foster family. It’s not for everyone. So if you don’t feel like you are led to foster, then you can support a foster family or encourage someone to connect – you might have a next-door neighbor who’s been thinking about it. Reach out to the Every Child Arkansas website. Everyone who goes on that website to inquire can be connected to a live person who can tell them all about the process of becoming a foster family.”

“You can also support family services workers, the caseworkers who are part of the Department of Human Services. They have a hard job to do, and they deal with the most difficult of circumstances. They’re constantly working with families when sometimes there are no good options for the children,” Kristi says. “Take those workers cookies, write them a note, support and encourage them. Pray for them. These are all ways that we can help with our frontline staff.”

Secretary Kristi Putnam reads to children
during the first birthday celebration of the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education’s early literacy program
Secretary Kristi Putnam reads to children during the first birthday celebration of the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education’s early literacy program

Gov. Sarah Sanders has prioritized prevention services such as intensive in-home supports, work- ing with families before crisis, and providing coun- seling for substance use and recovery. DHS has been teamed with the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Education toward these efforts.

DHS will work more closely with Arkansas school districts to help families understand the re- sources available to them and to form a warmer, more proactive relationship, Kristi says.

“Since most kids are in school, or they’re going to be in school at some point, it’s a natural place for us to really make sure that parents know of the resources that are available to them in their communities,” Kristi says. “We’d like to partner in a more vigorous way with the individual school districts and schools themselves on how we provide not just information, but how do we actively connect and get into the schools and have our folks there to be that warm connection.”

Sanders has directed departments to think holistically about services to support families.

“The answer of, ‘That’s how we’ve always done it’ doesn’t fly anymore,” Kristi says. “So we’re also figuring out new and creative ways that Public Safety and DHS can work together, to perhaps make the the investigation and removal process, if it has to happen, a more gentle process for the family – to make sure that the families understand we’re there to support them and that this is not intended to be punitive, although it’s going to feel that way when children do have to leave their homes.”

“The biggest thing that we can do, in my opinion, is connect all of our resources across not just DHS, but across all of our agencies and across all of our community partners. Our children and families don’t come to us in pieces, but we budget and plan for them as if they do. And that’s my biggest thing, to be interconnected as much as we possibly can, so that we are one team serving these families and children.”

DHS has been asked to streamline the process for placing children with relatives, and to improve the process for children to be adopted out of the foster care system. Services are also to be enhanced and expanded for children who turn 18 and “age out” of foster care, to support them in reaching independence. Investing in interven- tion and prevention promises a significant return, Kristi says. Children who enter foster care are at higher risk for homelessness, teen pregnancy, human trafficking and poverty.

“The risk factors are so much higher when children enter the foster care system that if we are able to intervene sooner, it benefits the whole family. And a family that otherwise would have been disrupted now has the chance to remain whole.”

Gov. Sanders brought in Kristi from Kentucky, where she was Deputy Secretary for Health and Family Services. Kristi also previously served as Child Welfare Services Manager for the state of Florida.

“I do this work because I believe strongly that communities and states and our country as a whole are stronger when we have strong families. And it does really make a difference when just one person, one family, is impacted in a positive way. The other reason I do this work is because I’m both a mother and a grandmother, and I want to have stronger communities and stronger families for their sake as well.”

Every Child Arkansas will be successful when communities have learned to recognize the moment at which a family needs help and is at risk of endangering a child’s welfare, she says.

“There won’t even be a DHS involvement. I’ll work myself out of a job. We won’t need the in- tervention of the state with these families, because the communities have learned to help before anything reaches our level. The communities will have learned and trained each other to recognize when a family first shows signs of struggle, of not being able to parent, whether it’s due to sub- stance abuse or neglect, or because they don’t have enough means. A community will then go to one of its partners or several partners. They will work together as a team to restore that family’s sense of ‘we can do this’ because they have supported the community. And DHS never enters the picture.”

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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