Lost in the child welfare system | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lost in the child welfare system

Posted By on Thu, Dec 31, 2009 at 4:10 PM

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News coverage has hinted at further stories about the child welfare system underlying the death of Hannah Grace Dowdie, the 23-month-old whose burned body was found with that of her father Michael Palmer earlier this month in a pickup truck near Sweet Home in rural Pulaski County. Authorities have revealed little about the cause of the deaths or where the investigation might be taking them.

A person familiar with the case has now sent me further details about the child's troubled family life and more details concerning the Department of Human Services' handling of the case. We learned the basic outline of this days ago. It has been the talk of the city in which foster parents had hoped to adopt the child

This is one side of the case -- admittedly sympathetic to a would-be adoptive family. There is another side, but DHS has refused to talk about it. We do know, as a reader noted, that the law favors a natural parent in custody proceedings, which can sometimes mean an iffy choice prevails over a solid prospective adoptive parent.

Still, DHS officials hide behind a shield of state privacy law. I believe they can -- and should -- talk about general circumstances of apparent lapses (or at least awful consequences) in child care. A dead child has little privacy interest left to protect. The primary privacy interest  here is that of state workers protected from public scrutiny.

The state will tell you that the 2009 legislature expanded the amount of information that may be released about brutalized and slain children. It is only a fig leaf, a tiny bit of additional information that is often withheld on the whim of investigators.

The four child deaths and one near death that I wrote about so often in 2008 have still never been fully explained. DHS has never spoken in detail about corrective action --  if any -- for workers who fell down on the job in those instances. (One child battered almost to death was returned by a DHS worker who saw the child's bruises to an abusive home in which another DHS worker lived.)

And now, yet again, the agency is silent in response to allegations of a lack of adequate investigation in removing a child from a foster home and returning her to a natural parent who'd allegedly demonstrated little in the way of preparedness to parent.

I don't think DHS officials are cold to children. But they are freezingly cold to accountability. Gov. Beebe could make them do better. So far, he has not.

AN EDITED ACCOUNT FROM A SOURCE FAMILIAR WITH THE CASE

This statement is written in hopes that none of you ever have to experience the loss of a child.  It is by far one of the most difficult things a parent will ever have to endure.  This tragedy could have been avoided had concerns been taken seriously and addressed by HannahGrace's DHS/DCFS case worker, supervisors of the case worker, attorneys, and Circuit Judge Gary Arnold.
 
Here is some background information that may be helpful.  HannahGrace entered the care of DHS on April 25, 2008.  She was 3 months old.  She had been burned with a cigarette lighter. For the next 4 months HannahGrace was living with a foster family.  On July 22, 2008 another family, the Carrs, completed their training to become adoptive parents.  The Carrs had originally decided that they would only adopt and not foster children.  At their last home visit, they were presented with an option that they had not heard of before.  There was a baby, HannahGrace, that DHS/DCFS wanted to place with a potential adoptive family, but the parents’ rights had not been terminated. From all indications the parents were going to be terminated.  DHS presented this as a legal risk placement.  The Carrs were aware that HannahGrace might  be returned to her biological family if they were able to straighten out the problems that caused HannahGrace to come into DHS care. 
 
All was progressing toward termination until January 30, 2009.  On this date the first case worker the Carrs had worked with took another job, and they were assigned a new case worker, H. 
 
At the next court hearing held on May 29, 2009 that was continued over until June 1, 2009, HannahGrace's biological mother's rights were terminated. She was no longer allowed to have any contact with HannahGrace. At this same hearing, a case was made for removal of the child from her biological father, Mr. Palmer.  Judge Gary Arnold, sitting in Saline County, did not feel that a strong enough case was made and allowed more time for Mr. Palmer. 
 
The next hearing was September 4, 2009.  At this hearing it was recommended by Caseworker H that Mr. Palmer start getting in-home supervised visits and shortly after that date progress to unsupervised overnight visits.  During this time the Carrs made Caseworker H aware of concerns that they had about the ability of Mr. Palmer to properly take care of, and ensure the safety of HannahGrace.  These concerns were also brought before state supervisors. Again the Carrs were told that their concerns were not ones that needed to be worried about.
 
 At the next hearing on October 23, 2009 it was recommended by the case worker that Mr. Palmer be given weekend visits starting on that day.  Then on November 12, 2009 Mr. Palmer would have a one-month trial period with HannahGrace in his care at home. 
 
Mr. Palmer's last court date was December 11, 2009.  This was a follow-up hearing from his 30-day trial period, and it was determined that HannahGrace would remain in his care.  A day later Mr. Palmer and HannahGrace were found dead
 
The Carrs never had a meeting with the caseworker and she never attempted to build any type of relationship with them as a foster/adopt family.  In all the training that the Carrs received it was portrayed to them that foster families' input was important.  The way the Carrs were treated by  the Department of Human Services made them feel as if their opinion did not count, and that HannahGrace was not their top priority.
 
The Carrs expressed concerns about Mr. Palmer's ability to provide for HannahGrace's medical needs.  She had a swallow problem that required all of her liquids to be mixed to honey consistency.  If her liquids or medications were not mixed properly she could get choked, it could cause aspiration and could lead to death.  This medical problem was also an underlying reason that caused her to have continued congestion.  She was not formally diagnosed with asthma, but was on several inhalers that children with asthma use.  These inhalers help her continued congestion, and breathing issues.  HannahGrace's medical issues required a lot of work for two parents.  It was reported several times that HannahGrace had not been given her medications properly.  The Carrs were told by DHS that they would address the issue, and that it was not one to be concerned about.  However, mistakes and issues kept happening.
 
The Carrs  also expressed concerns about Mr. Palmer's ability to get HannahGrace to the numerous doctor appointments that were required for her medical conditions.  There were several appointments that Mr. Palmer was told in court that he had to attend that he did not, and was allowed to use some excuse as to why he could not attend. Two of those doctor appointments (one a dentist appointment) were canceled in the month of November due to Mr. Palmer’s inability to take HannahGrace.  To the knowledge of the Carrs those appointments were not rescheduled.  This was another concern that was dismissed by DHS workers, but for HannahGrace these appointments were critical.  
 
 Mr. Palmer was not working where he told DHS that he was employed.  There were also concerns about whether Mr. Palmer was working a steady job at all.  His schedule changed very often.
 
Mr. Palmer was accompanied by his mother to most of the visits at the DHS office for his weekly visitation and  the doctor appointments.  This caused the Carrs to ask if Mr. Palmer was able to afford gas to get to the visits and if he had a valid driver's license.  The caseworker said this was not an issue that the Carrs needed to worry about.  To the Carrs it did not seem right that a 28-year-old man would have to be accompanied and driven by his mother to every doctor visit and every visit that Mr. Palmer had with his daughter in the DHS office.  At more than one of the hearings, Mr. Palmer was told by Judge Arnold that he needed to prove that he could do this  on his own.
 
The Carrs have seen a copy of the home study that was conducted on Mr. Palmer and his mother's home.  It states in this home study that Mr. Palmer expressed that he would like for HannahGrace’s biological mother to be able to build a relationship with HannahGrace.  It was after that home study that the mother's parental rights were terminated.  The state and Judge Arnold deemed that it was dangerous for HannahGrace to have contact with the biological mother and terminated her rights.  Mr. Palmer did not understand the danger that the mother posed to the child.  He was in the child's life in April 2008 when the burning happened and allowed HannahGrace to live in conditions in a home that DHS said was unsanitary and dangerous. Mr. Palmer did not feel that it was necessary to remove HannahGrace from this situation.  He avoided DHS from the time that HannahGrace came into care until sometime in late  August or September 2008 when it was proven through DNA that HannahGrace was his biological child. 
 
The following stories confirm some of the concerns that the caseworker and DHS/DCFS did not feel were important.
 
The story referenced here shows an eviction notice on the door of Michael Palmer’s home.  He had lived in this home for a very short time.  This shows that no one verified that Mr. Palmer was able to provide stable housing and that he had enough income to provide for HannahGrace’s needs.

 
The next two stories show the inappropriate contact that Mr. Palmer had with the terminated mother and her family. These stories also show the child's mother stating that she had contact with HannahGrace the day that she was found dead.
 
http://www.fox16.com/news/local/story/Funeral-for-1-year-old-and-father-in-burned-truck/xCX-Duaq402pUo2RMn7aAQ.cspx
 
http://www.fox16.com/news/local/story/1-year-old-victims-mother-speaks-out/LBOZuoU2gEifpWy7dNtyKA.cspx
 
This precious little girl would be alive today had the people charged with her protection and well-being listened to the Carr family.  It is as simple as that.  Instead the Carrs were told countless times that their concerns were not ones to worry about. 

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