Columns » Max Brantley

Vote ‘No’ on Act 1

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Whatever else Mike Huckabee did during 10 years in office, he didn't leave the state with a Child and Family Services Division worthy of the name.

Though Gov. Mike Beebe has been reluctant to discuss it in detail, word eventually reached the new governor that federal agencies and others had found shortcomings in the child welfare system. That became graphically apparent this year with the deaths of four foster children and the near-death of another whose “welfare” had been reviewed by a state worker.

I haven't been happy with the state's — and the governor's — refusal to provide accountability in these cases. My irritability rose last week when the Times reported that a willing foster parent had been denied participation by a religious organization that recruits foster parents for the state. The woman declined to sign an oath that she was not a lesbian and not having sex outside of marriage (though she could have). She got no response to her direct application to the state. That contributed to the appearance that the state has outsourced foster parent recruiting to an agency that continues to apply the court-invalidated Huckabee-era rule intended to bar gays from parenting.

My criticism did prompt the governor's office to reveal that a “top-to-bottom” review of child services was underway. Legislators shed a little more sunshine with a hearing at which the state confessed numerous breakdowns in the case of a Benton County foster parent convicted of sexually abusing children. This week, the head of Child and Family Services resigned. Other new hands have been brought aboard.

Late last week, Beebe himself provided cause to cheer. He confirmed that the state may junk the rule that prohibits placement of foster children in homes with an unmarried couple. Such a rule can prohibit placement of a child in the best possible setting — say with an unmarried relative rather than a stranger.

This change would be profoundly significant and a timely reinforcement of the argument against Initiated Act 1, which would bar adoptions and foster parenting in homes with unwed couples.

Governor Beebe has artfully clarified the issue. The adoption ban simply goes too far. It's an unwarranted state intrusion into private lives. The foster parenting ban, too, makes it more difficult to find homes for children. Children should be the state's first concern. They should be placed in the best possible home after a review by qualified people. A group of retired judges said this week that obstacles presented by Act 1 would not be in the interest of children in such judicial proceedings.

It seems so elementary. But the Family Council, which is pushing the child-punitive initiated act, believes homophobia can trump common sense. The measure is intended to keep gay people from being parents, though it would hamper straight people, too. Polls show, however, that Arkansans are more conflicted on this issue than on gay marriage. They recognize that all kinds of homes can provide warm shelter for an oversupply of needy children.

Much as I wish the governor would go farther on disclosure and accountability, fairness demands that I acknowledge what a monumental difference a change in administration can make. The governor seems prepared to reverse a decade of discriminatory policy to help the defenseless. Because of the state's sexual politics, this is no small thing. It should not go unappreciated. Plus, it just might have an impact in November. Vote ‘No” on Initiated Act 1.

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