My vacation was a busy news week, but I'd be remiss if I didn't devote this small space to a story that all but the Arkansas Times seemed inclined to ignore.
The Times' John Williams broke the news July 31 that there had been four deaths of children in state foster care in the preceding three months. It's a toll that should have caused hearts to stop and voices to rise in outrage. It did not, in part because the Department of Human Services and Gov. Mike Beebe, who appoints the leadership of DHS, have worked strenuously to keep the scandal under wraps.
DHS and Beebe cite the confidentiality afforded ongoing criminal investigations in refusing to discuss the deaths. This is a lame excuse. No investigation was underway when the children died. The state knows who died, the children's ages and the general circumstances. The state well knows the people within the agency, from caseworkers to supervisors, responsible for handling of these cases.
The state — and the governor — can and should talk about these things without compromising the investigation. It is the only way the public can get any assurance that the state agency in charge of protecting the vulnerable has been doing its job. There may be valid explanations and extenuating circumstances in all four deaths. The official silence suggests otherwise. It suggests that alibis are being prepared and butts are being covered.
Some critical commentary last week on the Arkansas Blog about the governor's dereliction finally prompted an official response of sorts from Beebe. It included the revelation, through a gubernatorial spokesman, that a review and reorganization of DHS is underway. New supervisors have been hired. This news suggests 1) that there were serious problems in DHS and 2) the governor has been covering it up.
And so much for that reform. Times reporter Patrick Michel learned further last week that the four deaths occurred AFTER Beebe's vaunted study and reform initiative was underway.
The lack of public accountability was dramatized further by reporters' discovery that a felony battery charge had been filed against a foster parent in one of the four deaths — 22-month-old Keyunandra Smith. Then came the chilling news of 26-month-old Freddy Bradford, whose grievous injuries were reported to police by a grocery store worker in Little Rock. It turned out that relatives had brought the child to DHS caseworkers days before with bruises on his buttocks and back, but DHS sent the child back to his mother, who, along with a boyfriend, allegedly beat the child nearly to death with a belt and extension cord. The mother and her boyfriend, it so happens, were living with a DHS employee.
Still, in the face of all this, silence from the governor. It is no comfort — cause only for more alarm — that his only response is a spokesman's talk of reviews and reforms and other simmering bureaucratic gruel.
Whoever sent Freddy Bradford back on a path to life support at Children's Hospital should have been fired long ago and the governor should have announced that fact to the public. Instead, he partied last week with lobbyists at the Democratic National Convention while a spokesman was dispatched to assure the public that secret correctives of secret problems in the public's agency were underway.
With four state wards dead and blood on the state's hands in another gruesome case, the public is owed a great deal more by the state's chief executive.