Legislation needed: Accountability in protective services for children | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Legislation needed: Accountability in protective services for children

Posted By on Thu, Nov 17, 2016 at 11:13 AM

ISAIAH TORRES: We know why he died. What we don't know is whether the state did all it could to intervene.
  • ISAIAH TORRES: We know why he died. What we don't know is whether the state did all it could to intervene.
The awful death of Isaiah Torres, 6, was a reminder again of a gaping hole in the law pertaining to child protective services.

Torres was killed by gruesome punishment by his father, Mauricio Torres, now sentenced to die for capital murder. His mother awaits trial.

The case is of broad interest because of the Torres family's previous involvement with the child welfare system. The parents had lost parental rights on five children more than 10 years ago. They subsequently had three more children. In 2014, a teacher at a private school attended by Isaiah made a report to the Arkansas Department of Human Services about suspected physical abuse of the child. An investigation was made. It was found to be unsubstantiated. His parents removed the child from the school and instead homeschooled him.

Isaiah died in 2015 after horrific punishment — the insertion of a stick in his anus — led to a fatal infection. His body had marks of numerous other injuries. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy told the jury in the Torres murder trial there was "no doubt whatsoever that this child was subjected to a prolonged period of abuse."

Today, the public has reason to ask a simple question: How did this happen?

It is the same question I asked — and which the governor's office and DHS stonewalled — after a foster father in Van Buren was indicted in federal court for multiple counts of sexually abusing foster children. Again in that case, warning signals had arisen, but children remained in the home.

In either case, the state might well be able to demonstrate proper response, good intentions and a perfect storm of circumstances (for example, parents with practiced dishonesty). But the public is owed that explanation.

I'm moved to write again by tweets yesterday by J.R. Davis, Gov. Asa Hutchinson's press spokesman. He wrote two:

I wondered if he was responding to talk radio discussion of the Torres case. I've since learned that it  was more likely the Hot Springs case where children were temporarily removed from a home by a circuit judge out of concerns for their safety, a case that local legislators, particularly Sen. Alan Clark, won't let go, though the children were returned home and we know of no harm that has come to them.

But my concern about accountability is unchanged.

* Davis is right. Half the facts aren't enough.

* There is no confidentiality or safety to preserve for Isaiah Torres. He's dead. Confidentiality in this and similar cases only serves to protect those who might have made mistakes.

Again: I believe DHS has the hardest job in state government. It has the hardest cases. There are few easy answers. The work is a calling for most who labor there, generally in difficult, underpaid jobs.

But failures must not enjoy the blanket protection of the pretext that confidentiality is all about the children.

Let's change the law, if that's the solution, so that it  allows more discussion of how the state responds to publicly known cases such as these. My guess is it would engender more sympathy, not less, for their work. But I also believe there's a way to discuss these cases now without violating the privacy of children. The governor, who's made some praiseworthy steps to improve the child protective system, could make this needed step happen.

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