Columns » Max Brantley

Kids count, not confidentiality

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MAURICIO TORRES - KRIS JOHNSON
  • Kris Johnson
  • MAURICIO TORRES

The trial for the murder of Isaiah Torres, 6, was a reminder again of a gaping hole in the law pertaining to child protective services.

Torres was killed by his father, Mauricio Torres, now sentenced to die for capital murder. His mother awaits trial.

The case is of broad interest because of the Torres family's involvement with the child welfare system. The parents had lost parental rights on five children more than 10 years ago. They subsequently had three more children. In 2014, a teacher at a private school attended by Isaiah made a report to the Arkansas Department of Human Services about suspected physical abuse of the child. An investigation did not substantiate the complaint. His parents removed the child from the school and instead homeschooled him.

Isaiah died in 2015 after horrific punishment — the insertion of a stick in his anus — led to a fatal infection. His body had marks of other injuries. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy told the jury in the Torres murder trial there was "no doubt whatsoever that this child was subjected to a prolonged period of abuse."

Today, the public has reason to ask: How did this happen?

It is the same question I asked — and which the governor's office and DHS stonewalled — after a foster father in Van Buren was indicted in federal court for sexually abusing foster children. Again in that case, warning signals were sounded, but children remained in the home.

In either case, the state might well be able to demonstrate proper response, good intentions and a perfect storm of circumstances (for example, parents with practiced dishonesty). But the public is owed an explanation, and has been denied it.

Why? It was illustrated by remarks on Twitter, by J.R. Davis, Governor Hutchinson's press spokesman. He wrote:

• "People are free to make allegations. DHS, by law, must keep certain facts confidential for the safety of the child and family."

• And, "If you're listening to talk radio hosts sound off on child welfare cases, remember they're only dealing with half the facts."

I wondered if he was responding to talk radio discussion of the Torres case. I've since learned that it was likely the Hot Springs case where children were temporarily removed from a home by a circuit judge out of concerns for their safety. Local legislators, particularly Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale), won't let go of that case, though the children were returned home and we know of no harm that has come to them.

Davis illustrates the lack of accountability on child welfare. And he is right. Half the facts aren't enough. There is no confidentiality or safety to preserve for Isaiah Torres. He's dead. Confidentiality only serves to protect those who might have made mistakes.

DHS has the toughest job in state government, with hard cases and few easy answers. The work is a calling for most who labor there, typically in difficult, underpaid jobs.

But failures must not enjoy the blanket protection of the pretext that confidentiality is all about the children. Let's change the law, if that's the solution, so that it allows more discussion of how the state responds to publicly known failures. My guess is it would engender more sympathy, not less, for their work. But I also believe there's a way to discuss these cases now without violating the privacy of children. The governor, who's made some praiseworthy steps to improve the child protective system, could make this happen.

PS: After I wrote the above on the Arkansas Blog, DHS again came under fire for failing to respond for hours to West Memphis police, who found a baby abandoned on a fast food restaurant parking lot. In what seemed a clear departure from past practice, DHS provided a detailed explanation of how a new system aimed at being responsive to local police had broken down, in part of because of phone problems. I saw that as a step forward. I hope I'm right.

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