Two lawmakers Thursday told a legislative committee that innocent parents have been the target of child abuse investigations and that many of them lack legal counsel as they fight to clear their names.
But an Arkansas State Police official defended the way cases are handled, saying the system functions properly.
At a meeting of the Legislature's Joint Performance Review Committee, the committee's chairman, Sen. Alan Clark quizzed officials from the Department of Human Services and Arkansas State Police about the regulations and procedures for child maltreatment investigations.
After DHS officials told Clark that they were not aware of any recent prosecutions for false reporting on the child abuse hotline, Clark said that it was "scary" that people who make false reports to the hotline are not subject to the same scrutiny as parents who are investigated after a report of child maltreatment.
"On one hand, we have a preponderance of evidence that, once the charges are made against you, that [the state] has complete power to punish you," said Clark, R-Lonsdale. "But if I report somebody [to the hotline] vindictively, then it's just the opposite. As an outsider, just as a citizen looking in," the system seems ripe for abuse.
Lisa McGee, a DHS attorney, and Capt. Ron Stayton of the state police, said that it is difficult to investigate and prosecute someone for submitting a false report to the hotline because officials would have to prove that the accuser knew the allegations were false.
Although there was no case specifically discussed during Thursday's hearing, Clark and Rep. Mickey Gates, a Hot Springs Republican, said later that they were concerned about how DHS handled a case with a family in their area.
DHS took custody of Hal and Michelle Stanley's seven children after complaints of abuse and neglect in January. The family was reunited in March after the parents, with mediation by a judge, reached an agreement with DHS.
Gates told McGee and Stayton that the state's system of investigating child abuse, and removing children from their homes, seemed out of whack.
The first-term legislator said that of the number of cases where investigators found that a parent was at fault, nearly half of those findings were overturned once they were an appealed to an administrative law judge.
"If 45 percent [of appeals] are overturned, then could we not conclude that our system is failing?" Gates asked.
In Arkansas, a call of child abuse goes to a 24-hour hotline and, depending on the severity of the allegations, is either assigned to the DHS' Division of Children and Family Services or the state police's Crimes Against Children Division for investigation.
In 2014, 63,553 calls came in and, while more than half the allegations didn't meet the criteria of the state's maltreatment laws, the calls prompted 31,110 investigations.
In 2014, 5,797 cases were assigned to state police child abuse investigators and 2,241 of those cases -- ranging from sexual abuse to bruising, abandonment or severe malnutrition -- were found to be "true" by investigators.
The findings, which are civil and not criminal, can result in children being taken away from parents. When investigators determine a complaint to be "true," the offender's name is added to the state's child maltreatment registry, a DHS list that is available to schools, child-care services and other welfare groups.
Offenders can appeal an investigator's findings before an administrative law judge, but too many parents, especially from poorer or rural areas, don't realize they can do that, Gates said.
Gates said that in fiscal year 2015, there were 2,066 appeals filed, and that in 932 of those cases, roughly 45 percent, the judge overturned the findings made by state investigators.
Of those appeals, only 783 cases, or about 38 percent, of the accused were represented by an attorney, Gates said.
"I think our process is broken down," Gates said. "I know a lot of people who don't have the money for an attorney. I think there is a flaw in the system."
Although judges and DHS officials frequently disagree, Stayton said things are working as they should be.
"I don't think the system has failed. I think the system is doing what it's supposed to do. It's due process," Stayton said. "Do I think 45 percent is a little high? I'd like to see it lower. But I'm not sure what the answer to that is."
Clark said that those figures, along with others indicating that Arkansas' reporting and investigations of child abuse are above national figures, paint a dubious picture.
"Due process is the problem. We want to take care of our children but not by violating people's civil rights," Clark said. "Either we're much worse about abusing children, we're much better at catching people, or we're catching some people in the nets that aren't guilty. And it's appalling to me that it's so easy... All I have to do is step outside and make a phone call [to the hotline]."
Stayton said that cases worked by his investigators go through a review by supervisors.
Unlike criminal cases, it isn't necessary for the accused to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order for there to be a "true finding," Stayton said. As long as the preponderance of the evidence points to the allegation being true, the true finding is issued, he added.
Clark and McGee, the DHS attorney, agreed that divorcing parents often call the hotline and accuse their spouses of child abuse. People who repeatedly make false allegations sometimes face civil sanctions, but no one has been prosecuted recently for making false reports, they said.
Stayton said he welcomed advice from lawmakers on how to improve child-abuse investigations but stressed that the safety of children will always be his group's top priority.
"I would say that even one call coming into the hotline, if that reporter is knowingly making a false report, to me that's a problem. We don't need that. I don't have an answer to that, how we can fix that problem," Stayton said. "Are we perfect? No sir, we are not."
Metro on 07/31/2015