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Two little girls, and the ghost of a third 

For Chuck Dowdie, losing his granddaughter Hannah was a crushing blow. Losing two more may be too much to bear.

Hannah Dowdie was slain along with her father Michael Palmer, near Sweet Home on Dec. 12. Police say that after Michael Palmer was shot, the not-quite-2-year-old girl was strapped into her car seat, dowsed with gasoline and burned alive by cousins Daniel and Robert Gatrell, after her father ran afoul of former friend Robert Gatrell over a scheme to steal some tires. Her death came after a custody case in which the Arkansas Department of Human Services worked to remove her from the home of a foster family in Malvern who wanted to adopt her, instead awarding her to her father — a man who the foster parents argued couldn't adequately take care of Hannah, who was often sick. The day after she was officially placed in his custody, she was killed.

Though the DHS argued in defense of family placement in the wake of that crime, saying the law and their policies stress reunification with parents and relatives even in cases where neglect and abuse have been noted, Chuck Dowdie and his family said the agency is now fighting to make sure they don't get guardianship of Hannah Dowdie's two younger sisters, who have both been placed in foster care. To help protect their privacy, we will refer to the younger of the two girls as Jane, and the older as Mary.

The biggest issue, the Dowdies say, is that DHS appears to believe they will allow contact between the two girls and their mother Kayla Dowdie, who is Chuck's daughter. At the same time, however, they said they've never been interviewed by the DHS in order to make their case that they won't.

Chuck said that Kayla was placed on medication for mental issues in the sixth or seventh grade. Hannah was taken from Kayla in April 2008 at the age of three months, after police say Kayla admitted burning the girl with a cigarette and trying to blame the injury on a neighbor. At the time, the caseworker noted that Kayla had schizo-affective disorder — which can lead to everything from mood swings to auditory hallucinations — but refused to take medicine to control it. Kayla eventually pleaded guilty to filing a false police report and second-degree battery, and her parental rights to Hannah were terminated in June 2009. Soon after Hannah's death, Mary was taken from Kayla, and discussions about stripping her parental rights to Jane began before the girl was born.

The Dowdies said the biological father of Jane and Mary is not seeking custody. Kayla's brother Charles and his wife, Tiffany Williams-Dowdie, who live in Southaven, Miss., said they tried to become guardians of Hannah, taking foster parent training and getting a home study done, but were denied. Their petition to adopt Mary through DHS was denied in July, but they have filed another petition for a regular adoption that doesn't involve DHS. Their petition seeking guardianship of Jane has been denied, and they have appealed.

They said the process has been frustrating and confusing. In the case of Mary, the first five times the Dowdies traveled to Benton for hearings they were informed upon arriving that the proceedings had been canceled or continued. In another instance, they came for a hearing regarding the adoption of Mary, but were told that the hearing was canceled because paperwork from the DHS didn't come in. After they left, the hearing was held without them. On Oct. 19, Chuck will return to Arkansas to face a charge of interfering with the custody of Jane, who was given to him by Kayla soon after the girl's birth — but before the girl was officially taken by the state. The baby lived in Mississippi with Charles and Tiffany Dowdie for a week in early July before being removed under court order by social workers and returned to Arkansas, where she was placed in foster care. During that week, after DHS discovered that Kayla had given the girl to Chuck Dowdie, a bench warrant for him was issued by Judge Arnold. Chuck Dowdie refused to talk about that charge or the incident leading to it, but said that it stems from a misunderstanding.

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