Review spurs sweeping changes in child welfare system
Posted on 16 August 2009 By Rob Moritz
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — Rep. Donna Hutchinson recalls the “circle the wagons mentality” of state Department of Human Services officials at a legislative hearing 11 months ago held to discuss Arkansas’ child welfare system in the wake of deaths and sexual abuse of children in foster care.
Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista, and other lawmakers heard Assistant DHS Director Janie Huddleston announce Gov. Mike Beebe had ordered a top-to-bottom review of the foster care system.
The comprehensive review of 1,108 child abuse and neglect cases is now complete and its findings, contained in a 79-page-report, have spurred sweeping changes within the department’s Division of Children and Family Services.
The changes, plus legislative action this year and an infusion of more than $9 million, are helping to change the culture and work ethic of the division, and should strengthen the state’s child welfare system, Huddleston said.
“We feel we have started child welfare over in this state,” she said last week. “We got a lot of things accomplished that we said we were going to look at. We feel we’re out of crisis mode, but we still have a long ways to go.”
Perhaps one of the key findings in the review, DCFS Director Cecile Blucker said, was “poor quality and inconsistent case work” by managers, which has caused the division to begin replacing top district managers. The division also plans to hire more than 160 new case workers and staff over the next two years, train retrain existing case workers and staff and improvement its data collection forms.
Also, since July 1, DHS has promptly released information when a child’s death or near-death injury is reported to a state police hotline. The new procedure is the result of Acts 674 and 675 of 2009.
The Legislature approved the new laws after lawmakers complained last year about delays in getting information on the deaths of four children who had been in foster care. Beebe supported the changes.
Hutchinson said she is pleased the review is complete and is looking forward to being briefed on changes being made at an Aug. 26 meeting of the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs.
“I think this is (Huddleston) keeping her word and fulfilling her promise to me and others,” Hutchinson said. “I’m very happy they are doing it.”
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the governor was “happy with the process we’ve seen.”
“Of course we’d like to see more,” DeCample said, noting the recent announcement that the division is to receive an additional $9.3 million, including $4.5 million in federal stimulus funds, to help speed up implementation of the measures being taken to improve the foster care system.
During the meeting last September, DHS officials acknowledged serious lapses in the case of foster parent Brian John Bergthold of Bella Vista.
Bella Vista police detective Barb Shrum told lawmakers several foster children escaped Bergthold’s home but were returned despite telling DHS workers they were being abused. The detective also said state workers did not have photographs of the children in their files and that some of the children were interviewed in Bergthold’s home.
In a search of Bergthold’s residence, police found pornographic images of boys on computers and videotapes.
Bergthold was sentenced to 40 years in prison in September after pleading guilty in Benton County Circuit Court to sexually assaulting two foster children in his care. He also was sentenced to 70 years in federal prison for producing child pornography.
During the September hearing and in subsequent meetings at the state Capitol, lawmakers expressed frustration with not being able to get information on the deaths last summer of four children while in foster care.
DHS spokeswoman Julie Munsell said last week that two of the deaths were medical related. In the third, a Eudora woman was charged with first-degree battery in the death of her 22-month-old foster child. The fourth death — a 5-year-old in Russellville — was determined to be suspicious but no charges were ever filed.
Under Acts 674 and 675, DHS has begun placing a notice on its Web site every time a death or near-death report is received by the state police child abuse hotline. The information includes the age, race and gender of the child, as well as the date of the incident, the allegations and the placement of the child at the time.
This month, the department also released a report on the deaths of 29 children since May 2008 who had some involvement with the Division of Children and Family Services.
Seven of the deaths were from suspected abuse, while 12 others were designated as unknown. Of those unknown, at least half were actual or suspected instances of sudden infant death syndrome, according to the report.
In a number of the SIDS deaths, one of the possible causes was a “co-sleeping arrangement” involving the adults and foster children, the report said.
Blucker said case workers are now receiving trained “about the dangers of co-sleeping.”
This year, the Legislature approved a $15.5 million increase in DCFS funding to hire new employees. Along with $9.3 million in federal stimulus funds recently earmarked for the division, will also officials to hire 163 case workers and other staff ahead of schedule, Huddleston said.
“The system is getting stronger,” she said