Suit alleges rights violations in Arkansas Department of Human Services custody cases

Two state caseworkers routinely took children away from their parents and violated families' civil rights for years, a federal lawsuit says.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services employees, Chelsea Smith and Stacy Houck, are accused of "seizing" children and placing them in state custody without ensuring that parents get hearings in those cases quickly enough.

The caseworkers delayed paperwork needed to start the entire custody process in court, the suit claims.

The suit also questions whether the state's laws involving child-abuse custody cases are constitutional.

In one case last summer, it took a mother weeks to get her children back, even after the court didn't find any evidence of abuse, court records show.

The suit says that the department has subjected hundreds of families to this practice for years and that it isn't only these individual caseworkers at fault. It seeks class-action status to represent all families similarly affected by Human Services Department actions.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," one of the families' attorneys, Lucian Gillham of Benton, said. "The good news is that these parents have their kids back. There are so many cases like this where parents lost their kids."

Amy Webb, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, said that law enforcement officers, juvenile court judges and certain agency staff members are allowed to take a child into custody for up to three business days. Webb said state law prohibits her from speaking about specific child maltreatment investigations and cases.

In Arkansas, children can be taken from home for up to 72 hours in order to protect their well-being; no court order is needed then.

Within those three days, officials are supposed to file a petition asking a judge to put the child in protective custody status. If the petition is granted, officials are then required to schedule a probable cause hearing within five business days.

That hearing is the first opportunity for parents to formally try to get their children back.

Gillham said these Arkansas laws deny separated families due process.

He also questions whether the state agency is trying hard enough to place kids with extended family members rather than putting them in foster care. State law requires that such efforts be made.

"These kids are being ripped away from everything they have ever known," he added. "The amount of damage that's done to a kid is really significant."

According to the complaint, filed Dec. 20 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, one Grant County mother had to wait five weeks to get her children back. The suit shows that Smith was late in filing paperwork for both the protective custody petition and the probable cause hearing, delaying reunification.

In addition to caseworkers Smith and Houck, the suit names Division of Children and Family Services Director Mischa Martin and Human Services Director Cindy Gillespie as defendants.

The named plaintiffs are Katelyn Webb and Jeremy and Tabitha Lay on behalf of their children.

During a separate truancy case cited in the suit, Seventh Circuit Judge Chris Williams had sent the mother to jail for five days because her 10-year-old daughter didn't go to class on the last day of school. Because the mother was locked up, her two children were placed in state custody. Later, the trial court found that there was no proof of abuse, and they returned home.

In another 2017 case, three Pine Bluff children were released from state custody after the mother agreed to a safety plan set by the court. It took her 11 days to get her children back because the hearing had been delayed, according to the suit.

On Jan. 18, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked U.S. District Judge J. Leon Holmes to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the state employees were entitled to qualified immunity, which safeguards officials from civil liability damages as long as they don't violate clearly established constitutional rights.

The families' attorneys responded that immunity didn't apply. They cited a similar child welfare case, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that a caseworker was not protected because a reasonable employee "could not have believed that a post-deprivation hearing conducted seven weeks after the removal of a child from a parent's home complied with due process."

Metro on 03/06/2018