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Panel's child welfare role debated

Lawmaker’s push for oversight on individual cases resisted by Brian Fanney | September 16, 2016 at 3:49 a.m.

The co-chairman of the legislative panel dedicated to uncovering wrongdoing by state government said Thursday that lawmakers should have oversight over individual child welfare cases.

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, didn't explain what he meant by oversight at the meeting, in which a lawyer said Clark was on the cusp of breaking state law and a fellow Republican said Clark was badgering state employees.

But Clark told reporters afterward that he would like lawmakers to be able to meet with Children and Family Services Division employees and speak with them about individual cases -- as a group -- during a private meeting. The division is responsible for prevention of child abuse and neglect, protective services, foster care and adoptive programs.

Clark said he wanted lawmakers to review the cases but did not want them to be able to overturn decisions made by the division. Lawmakers are already individually allowed to hear otherwise private information about child welfare cases. The committee discussed legislative oversight issues for an hour and a half but didn't take any action.

"The case-by-case basis is where people are helped or hurt," Clark told reporters after the meeting. "That's where grandparents lose their kids or not. That's where kids are taken out of the home that shouldn't be. That's where kids are left in a home with unbelievable abuse."

But during the meeting, Sen. Missy Irvin, R- Mountain View, said the division already has legislative oversight.

The Joint Performance Review Committee has been questioning division employees for more than a year. The Senate Children and Youth Committee and House Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs Committee also provide oversight on matters involving children.

"It's fair to look at all the problems that have arisen, but I think we've done that in this committee," Irvin said. "I think it's time that we allow things to go forward."

And other lawmakers said they already have an avenue for complaints -- the director of the division -- as well as former Rep. Kelley Linck, a Republican from Flippin who resigned from the Legislature to handle governmental affairs for the Department of Human Services.

"I feel like we need to give this change in culture time -- a little bit of time -- give our new director the benefit of the doubt, if there is a doubt. I feel that changes are being made. Things are so much better," said Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren. "If there are problems, let's take them directly to the director."

During the meeting, Clark questioned Ron Stayton, commander of the Arkansas State Police Crimes Against Children Division; Mischa Martin, director of the Children and Family Services Division; Keesa Smith, deputy director of the Department of Human Services; and David Sterling, chief counsel for the department.

Martin said employees of her division would violate federal law by disclosing children's information to a closed legislative body, and said she had additional concerns about privacy.

"I operate on doing what's right for children and families. I make decisions that are good for children and families," she said. "When you bring issues to me ... I take action and so do my executive staff."

Clark asked Martin what would have been different if a legislator had been apprised of a problem involving a former supervisor for the division. He referred to a Greene County supervisor for the division who was fired after violating an integrity and honesty policy and holding a "team building day" during work hours at her backyard pool, according to documents released under the state Freedom of Information Act.

After Clark asked his question, Martin consulted with Sterling and then said she didn't want to violate privacy laws by discussing specifics of the case. However, she said a lawmaker could call her. She said the Greene County complaint was originally filed with the governor's office.

"I think normally the Legislature thinks that it's their job to decide what to look into," Clark said.

He asked Sterling if he thought the division needed legislative oversight.

Irvin called a point of order to say that the question was unfair.

"You're badgering this person and I don't think that they can answer that question fairly," she said. "They have a response, but they're going to be beat up whichever way they answer your question."

If he said yes, he would be criticized for needing oversight, but if he said no, he would be criticized for trying hide something, Irvin said.

"I think it's up to us as legislators to decide whether we need more legislative oversight or not by reviewing the processes already in place. What committees are already looking to this? What committees are not?"

Sterling eventually responded by saying that his job is to comply with state law.

Smith, the DHS deputy director, then stepped in and said: "There are children involved in these cases and these are things that live on forever."

She said her impression was that Clark was concerned about a specific case.

"The case was messed up," Smith said. "We are working to ensure that that doesn't happen again."

A few minutes later, Clark said he would like to hand out an email -- protected under child privacy laws -- pertaining to his argument, but then Sterling said that would violate the law. Though the department can share private information with lawmakers, lawmakers cannot redisclose the information, and the information cannot be shared in a public meeting, Sterling said.

Clark then adjourned the meeting, and some lawmakers read the email.

Later, Clark introduced Jeanne Henderson, a "potential adoptive aunt," according to the meeting agenda, and said she would like to play a voice mail.

Sterling said playing the voice mail -- if it identifies a child -- might violate state law.

After Henderson stepped outside with Sterling; Marty Garrity, director of the Bureau of Legislative Research; and others, Clark said: "It's been brought to my attention that playing the tape or hearing the testimony might be detrimental to you or your family."

He then adjourned the meeting.

Asked after the meeting who would oversee lawmakers during a private session to discuss child welfare cases, Clark said that was a point to consider.

"There are pitfalls any direction you go, but this is sure: Wherever you have dark areas, you are more likely to have wrongdoing," he said. "When it's transparent, it's much more difficult to do something wrong."

Metro on 09/16/2016

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