The interim House and Senate committees on children and youth met up in Conway today. This was intended, it seems, at least in part as a dog-and-pony show to help Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway look senatorial.
Befitting a senator who has harrumphed recently about college spending excesses while being at the very heart of UCA's good-old-boy system, the hearing had its Keystone Kops moment. Read on.
But first, the serious business.
Legislators focused mostly on the case of the foster parent in Benton County convicted of molesting two boys. Department of Human Services failings in the case were many, according to witnesses. Bella Vista police detective Barb Shrum said hotlines aren’t responsive, didn’t report calls on kids in the predator’s care, interviewed kids in the home with foster father in other room, didn’t think it was odd there were video cameras all over the house including in the bathroom. DHS also didn’t have photos of the kids in foster care so the detectives could compare them to the porno they found at the suspect's house, The state told Shrum said they couldn’t afford the film processing or to buy digital. One child was returned to the abusive foster father despite having reported a wound from a screwdriver thrown at him.
Alas, though there was much talk about child predators -- U.S. Attorney Bob Balfe said they are hard to identify, work in churches and schools, etc. -- the committee never got around to the deaths of four foster children this year or the case we reported about a child beaten nearly to death after a DHS worker ordered a bruised child returned to an abusive home in which another DHS worker lived.
Two department officials did make repeated references to a “top to bottom review” of agency and said there had been staff changes. But they said more money was needed to hire, train and equip caseworkers, do prevention, etc.
Still, there was no general statement on the four deaths, the abuse case or the problems that prompted Gov. Mike Beebe to direct the "top-to-bottom review." The whole thing has been and remains shrouded in secrecy.
State Rep. Donna Hutchinson did remark: “It’s pretty apparent that foster care [jn Arkansas] is in disarray. I hate to say it, but it was probably in disarray under the previous governor.” She said she knew the agency needed more money but couldn’t bring herself to vote for it because she didn’t trust agency to spend it properly. And: “The governor is the CEO [of the state]. It’s Beebe who’ll have to wake up every day and ask what’s happening in foster care.”
And homeboy senator and former Republican chair Baker, what say you? Cat got your tonuge? Like it does about UCA?
The Keystone Kop moment: With a flourish, grisly details of the Benton County abuse case were passed out to legislators and media. Then, suddenly, a DHS lawyer tried to gather them all back up because the material included information not releasable under privacy laws. The press, rightly, wouldn't give the stuff back. Reporters were asked, pretty please, not to reveal anything sensitive. Funny how much sunshine politicians are willing to spread around when THEY are seeking publicity, but how little the state is willing to share with the public about other tragedies.
We won't reveal any of the personal details. But we will call on Governor Beebe -- again -- to address the state and to release details that ARE in his power to release: What, specifically, prompted the reorganization of DHS? Who, specifically, has been replaced, demoted or transferred? Who has been hired or promoted? What were the general circumstances of the deaths of four foster children since the review began? Have there been consequences in cases where DHS didn't do its job? Have there been any consequences in the case of the child nearly beaten to death after a DHS worker sent him back home to a household in which another DHS worker lived? (Or, if there is an explanation that makes any or all of these cases less troublesome, WHERE THE HELL IS IT?)
Shame on legislators who saw in a mistreatment case an opportunity for publicity. Shame on legislators who concentrated on the pedophile -- safely locked up -- rather than the forest of DHS problems. Shame on the governor for acting as if this is, if not below his pay grade, none of the public's business.
-- Leslie Newell Peacock and Max Brantley