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The Arkansas Department of Human Services and the Arkansas State Police have begun investigations into the deaths of four children who died in foster care in the last two months, an agency spokeswoman confirmed Saturday.

Two of the deaths involved allegations of abuse; the other two did not, spokeswoman Julie Munsell said. However, all four deaths were reported to the state police through their child abuse hot line, and state police began an investigation as they would normally, Munsell said.

Munsell said she could not release any specific details on the four children or their deaths while the investigations were ongoing.

On any given day, Arkansas has about 3,700 children in foster care. In a year's time, about 6,500 children are in the system. Outside the foster care system, DHS has closed investigations this year into the deaths of 11 children. In each case, abuse was named as the cause of death.

Currently, Munsell said, DHS investigators are trying to determine what went wrong and what, if anything, the four foster-care deaths had in common that might be related to DHS practices.

"These cases might have just been isolated incidents that were not preventable or not foreseen," she said.

The multiple deaths over a two-month period stand out because the agency has not had any foster care deaths over the last three years, she added.

"I can tell you anecdotally our concern is looking at systemic issues surrounding those kids in care. We've done some preliminary analysis of these cases and have not found any systemic issues," she said.

Once the investigation is complete, possibly in 20-30 days, DHS officials will decide whether any department practices need to be changed.

Meanwhile, the agency has called in outside clinicians, including a social worker and an Arkansas Children's Hospital doctor, to review the four deaths.

For more information see Sunday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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