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Our View

DHS issues put undue burden on children, staff

With all the issues the Arkansas Department of Human Services is dealing with, particularly the problems within the Children and Family Services Division, we were weren’t surprised to hear about the issues a Pulaski County Circuit judge is having with DHS staff.

What we’re being told is that overburdened division staff are intimidated and even fearful of judges who threaten jail time for not obeying them.

This revelation came about during testimony from outgoing Director Cecile Blucker during a recent Joint Performance Review panel in Little Rock.

Blucker told lawmakers of one particular Pulaski County Circuit judge by the name of Patricia James has told her staff she does not allow children to be placed with relatives.

Blucker went on to say, “If (staff) happens to place children with a relative and it lands in Judge James’ courtroom, then we are in violation of her order.”

As a result, this judge has threatened the division’s staff with jail time, yet state law says placement with family members is preferred.

James responded to the criticism by saying she does not and will not place abused children with relatives who have not been properly vetted by DHS.

This judge said it is a complicated issue and that what she saw that was happening was that DHS investigators are doing a cursory walk-through of the relatives’ home with absolutely no background checks.

James also said when investigators take children, they have 72 hours to file a petition with the court.

“It’s a really short period of time they’re working with to get that to the court. And once they get a child in their care they’ve got to figure out a place to put the child. I mean, these investigators can’t go home until they put the child somewhere. So what I saw was a lot of corners were being cut,” James said.

The question lawmakers need to ask Judge James is she aware Arkansas law does require relatives be given placement preference and exactly what it says.

That law states, “A relative of a juvenile placed in the custody of the department shall be given preferential consideration for placement if: (A) The relative meets all required child protection standards; and (B) It is in the best interest of the juvenile to be placed with the relative.”

But James said it’s not in the best interest of children to be placed with anyone who hasn’t undergone a proper background check.

In defending her actions, James said her order did not prohibit relative placement, but rather require DHS staff to prove to her there is a vetting process in place.

This is just the latest in a series of issues the DHS is coping with. It has been made clear the division is beset by dysfunction and bureaucracy, which are situations being seriously addressed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and lawmakers.

It also must be pointed out that the DHS is undergoing major changes including the hiring of Cindy Gillespie, former Mitt Romney Health Care Advisor to replace outgoing DHS Director John Selig. And, Mischa Martin will become the new director of the Children and Family Services Division, replacing Blucker.

We’re told Gillespie has plans to overhaul the DHS from top down and address such issues as those involving Judge James. As we’ve pointed out before, Gillespie has her hands full.