Families, legislators rip child removals

Three grandparents traveled to the Capitol and told lawmakers they want to care for their grandchildren -- all removed from their homes by the Arkansas Department of Human Services -- but the department is preventing them from doing so.

They did not dispute the department's decision to take the grandchildren from their parents. Instead, they said the department made it impossible for them to assume responsibility for their families.

"These DHS workers are rude. They are dishonest. They're deceiving and they premeditate their destruction for families," said Nelda Wilson, who appeared before the Joint Performance Review committee. "My heart aches for my grandchildren and for the many children across our state and nation who are being torn away from their families and the ones who love them."

During the emotional hearing, at least two Capitol police officers were on hand to keep order, the committee's chairman said.

Several lawmakers became irate with Division of Children and Family Services Director Cecile Blucker. The division is part of the Human Services Department.

Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, told Blucker she didn't have the best interest of children at heart.

"Thank God, some of the judges just say you're wrong," she said. "I think you've got a lot of work to do."

Rep. Sue Scott, R-Rogers, voice shaking, said she would start working on a bill to fix the situation for grandparents.

"I am so sorry [for] each of you for what you have experienced and I would challenge Mrs. Blucker to make this right, maybe as early as this afternoon," she said. "Grandparents find a way, whether they might be monetarily challenged, it just wouldn't matter for those grandchildren. ...

"You come in time after time and you have no remorse."

At that point, the committee chairman, Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, said Scott had gone too far.

"We need to be very careful," he said. "I agree in emotion, but Mrs. Blucker or anyone else should not have quite that strong a statement made, in the chair's opinion."

Clark told lawmakers that the committee exists to conduct investigations into problems in the administration of state government.

Blucker said the situation is complicated. By law, she said she could not comment on the people who made their cases to lawmakers or comment on any specific case.

"Only one side of the story can be told and only one side of the facts can be told," she told lawmakers.

Generally speaking, she said grandparents can be complicit when they see abuse and sometimes cannot adequately keep their grandchildren safe from the grandchildren's parents.

And she said there are challenges within her department. Arkansas caseworkers have double the casework as their peers in other states. Additionally, she said the job is so hard and the pay so low that most caseworkers don't last a year.

"You cannot do the quality work that is needed if you've got 60 children that you're dealing with instead of 15," Blucker said.

She also said the courts -- which make child placement decisions -- can judge poorly.

But on Tuesday, Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood and Circuit Judge Gary Arnold of Saline County told lawmakers that in order to tackle problems facing child welfare in the state, lawmakers should first tackle an inefficient bureaucracy at the state's child welfare headquarters.

As in past meetings, the families were represented by Joseph Churchwell, an attorney in Hot Springs.

"I've done the choosing" of which people to speak, Clark said after the meeting. "Generally, they have the lawyer not because the lawyer brought the cases to me but because I've sent them to that lawyer. ...

"There are only so many people passionate enough to do it, and he's also done a lot of the work pro bono."

Earlier in the meeting, officials from Human Services and a software contractor announced they had settled a disagreement about how much the state owes the company. The company created software used to evaluate the services provided to developmentally disabled clients.

CoCentrix agreed to recall $600,000 in bills. The department said it would pay the company about $59,000 in travel invoices.

SHI, which hosts CoCentrix software, will also be paid $8,000 per month until the state stops using the software.

Metro on 12/10/2015

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