The Columbia county Citizens Review Panel in Arkansas, met monthly to evaluate the state’s Department of Human Services Division of Children and Family Services. The Citizens Review Panel is federally mandated by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.
Problems and Purpose:
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was enacted on January 31, 1974. It has been amended several times, one of which occurred in 1996, after a national study was conducted to evaluate the incidence of child abuse cases in the United States. This study found that the number of abused and neglected children had increased by two-thirds since the previous study conducted in 1986. With these new observations, Congress delegated some control to individual states and the public. This came in the form of various state requirements, including the establishment of Citizen Review Panels (CRPs). As aligned in the amendment, the CRPs had four goals “To ensure that the state was in compliance with the state CAPTA plan; To assure that the state was coordinating with the Title IV-E foster care and adoption programs; To assess the Child Protective Services (CPS) agency in its compliance with the review of child fatalities; and To evaluate any other piece of the CPS system that the Panel deemed important” . In the U.S. state Arkansas, the main purpose of the CRP is to review actions taken by the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) .
Background History and Context:
After a two-thirds increase in child abuse and neglect cases in the United States, a 1996 amendment to the Child Abuse Treatment and Prevention Act (CAPTA) required all states to establish a number of Citizens Review Panels (CRPs) to evaluate practices of their local Child Protective Services agency . In Arkansas, this agency is the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) . Arkansas is mandated to have three review panels across the state. These panels have transitioned throughout time to cover varying issues around the state. Currently, the three are located in Logan, Pope, and Columbia counties . For the purposes of this case study, only the CRP in Columbia county will be evaluated because it serves several other counties in Southwest Arkansas including Hempstead, Lafayette, Nevada, and Ouachita. This panel is the most established in Arkansas, having been founded in 2007 .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities:
The CRP is federally mandated by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. It is overseen in Arkansas by the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services. It is supported by local agencies and local offices of state agencies across the five counties, including the Child Safety Center, Crimes Against Children Division of the Arkansas State Police, and local law enforcement .
Participant Recruitment and Selection:
The participants were recruited on a volunteer basis. CAPTA mandates that CRPs must be representative of the community . The participants represented a variety of agencies and organizations in Southwest Arkansas including the Area 4 DCFS, the Child Safety Center, Crimes Against Children Division, the Prosecutor’s Office, local law enforcement, mental health specialists, juvenile probation officers, and others as needed. The recruitment process targeted community members that had experience working with children and were aware of abuse and neglect policies . The evidence does not show the exact number of participants in the CRP.
Methods and Tools Used:
The panel met once a month in a face-to-face meeting. The county coordinator facilitated discussions surrounding specific cases that DCFS employees were working on, new policies issued on the state and federal level, and any child deaths that had occurred .
The review panel was a one-year commitment, although members are permitted to stay on the panel for consecutive years. New members received training to learn the skills necessary to evaluate the cases brought before them .
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation:
In general, the participants worked together to develop responses to cases and policies. They also collaborated to verbally express concerns about procedures or policies that were then relayed to the state. A representative from DCFS was always in attendance at the meeting. This was to ensure cases were correctly understood and the point of view of the caseworker was taken into consideration  In 2018, after the discussions, the panel suggested three recommendations to the state for continued improvement .
The first was a response to a concern about staff turnover . This concern was verified in the 2018 state report, by the Department of Human Services, that found staff turnover was a major cause of deficiencies. These include: low numbers of cases properly assessed by caseworkers, low amounts of visitation by caseworkers, inconsistent recommendations between old and new caseworkers, falling below performance standards, and failure to properly train new employees . The panel suggested that new staff members should shadow staff with more experience before taking on cases alone .
The second recommendation was for caseworkers to provide a more specialized plan for individual families. This came from the CRP’s evaluation of cases on a monthly basis where they found that the cases seemed too generic to improve the specific circumstances of particular families .
The final recommendation was for the state to require mandated reporters to identify themselves when calling the Child Abuse Hotline. This suggestion stemmed from the difficulty investigators had trying to build a case against an individual. The panel proposed that reporters identify themselves so the investigator could gather as much evidence as possible .
After all communication between the panel and state concluded, both the recommendations from the panel and the state’s responses were combined into a report that was published for public reading .
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects:
Once the county panels gave their evaluations to the state, the state considered them and published a response to each one.
First, the state acknowledged that staff turnover had plagued DCFS for many years . The state reminded the panel that a new, graduated caseload system had been implemented in 2017, and not enough time had passed to see the benefits. The state hopes this will reduce caseworkers’ feelings of stress and unpreparedness. It also does not give a full county load until after a full year of employment. This might also incentivize the employees to stay on board longer .
The state told the review panel that information about cases being too generic would be passed on to program supervisors. These supervisors would be responsible to addressing this issue or implementing more training with employees .
Finally, the state reminded the review panel that anonymity was allowed through federal law. The state also included the stipulations of reporting in their response. Anonymity is only allowed when using the Child Abuse Hotline over the telephone. On-line submissions must include a name, phone number and email . This might influence the review panel to encourage individuals to report maltreatment online, so more information can be gathered for investigative purposes.
Analysis and Lessons Learned:
The Columbia county Citizens Review Panel is an effective way for citizens to participate in evaluating and changing policies regarding child abuse and maltreatment. It is also encouraging that the state is eager to listen to the recommendations from the panel and use them to implement new strategies. This partnership is mandated by the federal government, so the efficiency of this relationship is required. It is unclear based on the evidence if the participants were satisfied with the process of the CRP or the state’s response to the recommendations provided.
 McCoy, L. (2018). Arkansas citizens review panels annual report. Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ouE5eUHh_2Gx7LkCvA6cmLd-K2V4l16l/edit#heading=h.gjdgxs
 Arkansas Department of Human Services Division of Children and Family Services. (2018). Annual progress and service report. Retrieved from https://humanservices.arkansas.gov/images/uploads/dcfs/2019_Arkansas_APSR_9-14-18_FINAL.pdf
 National Child Abuse and Neglect Training and Publications Project (2014). The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act: 40 years of safeguarding America’s children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau
The first version of this case entry was written by Samantha Black, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in the entry are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.