For Chuck Dowdie, losing his granddaughter Hannah was a crushing blow. Losing two more may be too much to bear.
Hannah Dowdie was slain along with her father Michael Palmer, near Sweet Home on Dec. 12. Police say that after Michael Palmer was shot, the not-quite-2-year-old girl was strapped into her car seat, dowsed with gasoline and burned alive by cousins Daniel and Robert Gatrell, after her father ran afoul of former friend Robert Gatrell over a scheme to steal some tires. Her death came after a custody case in which the Arkansas Department of Human Services worked to remove her from the home of a foster family in Malvern who wanted to adopt her, instead awarding her to her father — a man who the foster parents argued couldn't adequately take care of Hannah, who was often sick. The day after she was officially placed in his custody, she was killed.
Though the DHS argued in defense of family placement in the wake of that crime, saying the law and their policies stress reunification with parents and relatives even in cases where neglect and abuse have been noted, Chuck Dowdie and his family said the agency is now fighting to make sure they don't get guardianship of Hannah Dowdie's two younger sisters, who have both been placed in foster care. To help protect their privacy, we will refer to the younger of the two girls as Jane, and the older as Mary.
The biggest issue, the Dowdies say, is that DHS appears to believe they will allow contact between the two girls and their mother Kayla Dowdie, who is Chuck's daughter. At the same time, however, they said they've never been interviewed by the DHS in order to make their case that they won't.
Chuck said that Kayla was placed on medication for mental issues in the sixth or seventh grade. Hannah was taken from Kayla in April 2008 at the age of three months, after police say Kayla admitted burning the girl with a cigarette and trying to blame the injury on a neighbor. At the time, the caseworker noted that Kayla had schizo-affective disorder — which can lead to everything from mood swings to auditory hallucinations — but refused to take medicine to control it. Kayla eventually pleaded guilty to filing a false police report and second-degree battery, and her parental rights to Hannah were terminated in June 2009. Soon after Hannah's death, Mary was taken from Kayla, and discussions about stripping her parental rights to Jane began before the girl was born.
The Dowdies said the biological father of Jane and Mary is not seeking custody. Kayla's brother Charles and his wife, Tiffany Williams-Dowdie, who live in Southaven, Miss., said they tried to become guardians of Hannah, taking foster parent training and getting a home study done, but were denied. Their petition to adopt Mary through DHS was denied in July, but they have filed another petition for a regular adoption that doesn't involve DHS. Their petition seeking guardianship of Jane has been denied, and they have appealed.
They said the process has been frustrating and confusing. In the case of Mary, the first five times the Dowdies traveled to Benton for hearings they were informed upon arriving that the proceedings had been canceled or continued. In another instance, they came for a hearing regarding the adoption of Mary, but were told that the hearing was canceled because paperwork from the DHS didn't come in. After they left, the hearing was held without them. On Oct. 19, Chuck will return to Arkansas to face a charge of interfering with the custody of Jane, who was given to him by Kayla soon after the girl's birth — but before the girl was officially taken by the state. The baby lived in Mississippi with Charles and Tiffany Dowdie for a week in early July before being removed under court order by social workers and returned to Arkansas, where she was placed in foster care. During that week, after DHS discovered that Kayla had given the girl to Chuck Dowdie, a bench warrant for him was issued by Judge Arnold. Chuck Dowdie refused to talk about that charge or the incident leading to it, but said that it stems from a misunderstanding.
While limiting Kayla's access to the girls is a legitimate concern, her grandfather said that DHS is not giving the family the chance to prove that they can and will keep her away.
"Family just wants to take care of family, and it doesn't feel like we're being given the opportunity or the same opportunity other people are being given," he said. "They just don't know our family. They haven't taken the time to know us."
Chuck said Kayla usually calls his son Charles by phone once a week, but stresses that they have no face-to-face contact with her on a regular basis. If those phone calls are a problem for DHS, Chuck said, they can be limited as well. Another issue is who would care for the two girls if they were placed in the Dowdies' custody. The Dowdies are working people, so Chuck's mother Lois, who is 83 and has diabetes, would likely be the girls' primary caregiver during the day. "I feel like they're holding a lot of this against me," Lois Dowdie said. "Age means a lot. I have diabetes, and I take medication for it. But a lot of people have diabetes that take care of their own children. There's no reason I should be deprived of taking care of my own grandchildren because I have diabetes."
Given what happened to his granddaughter and the role the DHS had to play in that case, Chuck Dowdie believes the agency is treating them differently than they would any other family seeking custody of their relatives. "It's almost like they're overcautious about things," he said. "They're gun shy, to put it in that vernacular, because they're scared about making another mistake."
Julie Munsell is a spokesperson for the DHS. While she said she couldn't talk directly about the two girls or the Dowdies' efforts to win guardianship or custody, she would talk about cases like theirs. Munsell said that while the DHS does seek to place children with relatives "by policy, by mission and by law," the safety and welfare of the child is a priority. In cases where a biological parent is a danger, she said, a team of people decides whether or not a potential guardian in the person's extended family can be trusted to keep their kin away from the child. Many people are involved in helping make that determination, Munsell said, from caseworkers to the judge. "[Caseworkers] will ask the questions: If the judge terminates the parental rights ... what will you do to ensure the safety between this child and a mother who no longer has rights under the law? That becomes a factor. I only mention it because it's not only about, 'is the home clean?' "
Munsell said that the law gives preference to family placement because living with family members is often a more familiar and loving environment than a foster home can provide. A significant number of foster children are eventually placed with extended family members, she said, something she said would not be the case if DHS always assumed the family would let the child have contact with a parent who had been deemed a threat.
"Often times," Munsell said, "that part comes down to taking the family's assurances that they will protect the child and they won't allow that child to be subject to the parents that have proved to be such a risk ... It's not about proving a negative. You do have to do your best to make an assessment and see how it goes."
For now, the Dowdies are in a holding pattern, waiting on Chuck's hearing in October. Using their tax return money, Tiffany and Charles have hired an attorney to represent their interests — something they said they probably should have done with Hannah. There is, Charles said, no such thing as a "Custody for Dummies" book. Sitting in a West Little Rock coffee shop after an hours-long hearing and still with the drive back to Mississippi to come, they all looked tired and frustrated.
"We've spent thousands of dollars on attorneys, and to get out here," Tiffany Williams-Dowdie said, "because we feel the best place for these girls is with family. We are willing and able and capable and stable enough to take care of these children, and we don't understand why they're putting a wall up. It hurts."