The state and HannahGrace 

The state and HannahGrace

In the article “Gone,” your paper referenced the passing of HannahGrace. This child is an example of just how broken the Division of Children and Family Services has become. It is remarkable that more tragedies have not reached the front pages of the Arkansas Times. Over and over again, a politician will talk about cleaning up the mess at “DHS.” Over and over again, children are mistreated by their parents, or their foster parents. Over and over again, children in this state die needlessly. HannahGrace's story is a preventable story.

My experience of the past year with DCFS has been nothing but negative. People who were hired to fix problems are forced out because they want change. The public has been lulled into a false sense of well-being. Those people up there at the Division of Children and Family Services must know what they are doing because they wouldn't have those high-paying jobs if they didn't, right?! Yet, they don't have the experience or qualifications for their positions. Very few of the top people even know anything about child welfare policy.

How do they get away with their ignorance? Well, they tell people what they want to be true and hope you don't check on it. They go to the legislature to submit the child fatality reports and don't bring anyone to answer questions. They count on the fact that the only citizens who are affected by their incompetent decisions are those who are economically and educationally disadvantaged. DCFS counts on the fact that they can outspend you and outlast any critic.

The governor's liaison to DHS, Joyce Dees, admitted to me in a phone conversation that she had no experience or education in child welfare. DCFS is run by a director who has no knowledge of child welfare policy, laws or regulation. Cecile Blucker's degree and background are in finance. The deputy director of the division has no knowledge or background in child welfare.

Janie Huddleston's experience and education is in early childhood education (kindergarten and pre-school). All the members of the staff lack appropriate training and education. I want a job I don't have the qualifications or the experience for, especially if it is paying $80,000 plus.

Finally, last year when I was testifying before the House Committee responsible for these areas, I was confronted by Connie Tanner. Ms. Tanner told me that she was the one responsible for training the judges. Yet, both Ms. Tanner and Lisa McGee, attorney for DHS, incorrectly testified to the legislative committee about the laws regarding visitation in other states. Further, they persisted in telling legislators, incorrectly, that this law would not impact courts in this state. Either these individuals are incompetent or were lying to a legislative committee. It took me about 24 hours to disprove many of their statements. Some legislators have actually stepped up to the plate. They include Mike Burris, Dawn Creekmore and Johnnie Roebuck.

So what we have here is a perfect storm of untrained, inexperienced and/or untruthful individuals who are in control of the state's child welfare system. When is this going to stop? When are children going to be protected? When will Governor Beebe finally take the reins of power and clean house over there? When will the legislators finally have enough? When will we start paying trained, educated people to handle matters of life and death of children?

Jo Ann Coleman, M.A., J.D.
Little Rock

Thank you for reporting the egregious case of HannahGrace Dowdie.

As a long-time advocate for “children left behind,” any child's death is a time of grief. When a child dies as a possible result of the actions of state agency or the judiciary, my grief is followed by the desire to understand what happened in order to make needed improvements. This understanding cannot be acquired with the constant veil of secrecy surrounding fatalities of children in the state's custody, or as a result of the state's decision-making. Nor do I value the response that some government official or agency is “looking into the matter.” I deeply appreciate confidentiality for protection of the children, but the public's need to understand what happened should not be ignored. I ask the public to show your concern by asking your legislators for an investigation, with full transparency, driven by the positive intent to improve the practices and policies of these agencies.

I have witnessed many dependency-neglect cases where the decisions seemed to have been made before the hearing began. I have witnessed incivilities directed at parents, foster parents and relative caregivers, including an instance where the DCFS attorney moved to the far end of the table and turned his chair away from the parent in a case conference, stating he did not need to look or speak to the parent. I have seen potential foster parents who were indicated as a possible placement for a family member's child rearrange their lives in order to meet the standards for fostering, only to be denied. I have seen grandparents and other relatives treated with contempt and disdain by some caseworkers, similar to the description by Hannah's foster parents who described the new caseworker as unwilling to shake hands.

As Jim Casey, founder of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, was fond of saying, we need to be “constructively dissatisfied.”

Dee Ann Newell, M.A.
Little Rock


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