8.13.2008

Foster-Kid-Death Probe Sprung at Panel

Foster-kid-death probe sprung at panel session
by Amy Upshaw April 12th, 2008

A state police investigator drew attention Monday from his supervisors and the governor’s office after he appeared before a legislative committee, held his badge in the air and put the director of the Children Family Services Division on notice that he is conducting a criminal investigation into the deaths of four foster children.

A state police spokesman said Special Agent Rick Newton’s superiors did not know beforehand of Newton’s plan to address the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs.

Committee Chairman Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said she called the meeting because she was disturbed to read in the newspaper recently that the Children and Family Services Division had had four foster children die in May and June.

There had been no deaths of children in foster care over the previous three years.
Newton, who has been with the state police since 1989, told committee members that he had been assigned the investigation into the children’s deaths three weeks ago.
“I’m going to be looking into the deaths of four children and some past practices by DCFS. I’ll be traveling all over the state,” he said.

Then he asked: “Is there a Ms. Pat Page here ?” “That’s me,” responded Page, who as the director of the Children and Family Services Division had planned to address the legislators.
“Ms. Page, this is who I am, ma’am,” Newton said, again holding up his badge. “I’ve identified myself to her. If she would, if she sends out an interdepartmental memo to her staff or her field supervisor that during my criminal investigation — I’m going to reiterate that, criminal investigation — and I’d hope that her agency would give me full cooperation.”
Near the end of the committee’s discussion of the children’s deaths, Newton asked to speak again.
“After my investigation is finished,” he told legislators, “if I do not find any criminal wrongdoing, anything I discover during this criminal investigation can be used internally [at the Children and Family Services Division ].” Julie Munsell, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said that was the first anyone from her agency had heard about Newton’s investigation. The Children and Family Services Division is part of the Human Services Department.
“Obviously, we will cooperate with his investigation but [were ] not aware of it before today,” Munsell said.

After the meeting, Department of Human Services Director John Selig contacted the governor’s office, said Matt De-Cample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe. Reached by phone Monday evening, Selig declined to discuss that conversation.

DeCample said someone with the governor’s office did speak with someone at the state police Monday about the situation and the state police will handle the matter internally.
Bill Sadler, a state police spokesman, said Monday that, “With regard to Agent Newton’s behavior in the committee meeting this afternoon — no, this is not the manner in which the Arkansas State Police would have liked to have one of its employees behave in front of state representatives.

“ It is not the way the department would have preferred this investigation to come to light.
“ I can tell you there is an internal review trying to collect information as to what was said, and how it was said and how one’s badge was exhibited,” Sadler said, adding that Newton will remain on the foster-care case and continue his investigation while the review is conducted.
Sadler also said he wanted to clarify that there is no criminal investigation of the Children and Family Services Division. The criminal investigation is into the deaths of the children, he said.
“A natural course of that investigation would certainly cause an agent to believe he will eventually have to investigate the procedures of how these children were selected and placed in the particular homes they were placed into,” he said.

Two of the deaths under investigation involved allegations of abuse; the other two did not, Munsell has said, though no additional information has been released because of ongoing investigations.

Previously published reports show that 22-month-old Keyundra Smith of Eudora was in foster care when she died at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in late May. State police said at the time that they were investigating the toddler’s death. Information about the other children was unavailable.

Because there have been no foster-care deaths in three years, Page told committee members that she thought her agency should take “extraordinary measures” to address the recent deaths.
“We consider any death of a child, especially one in the foster-care system, particularly tragic, and we want to do whatever we can to prevent any occurrence of death from happening,” Page said.

The agency has been reviewing the cases to look for systemic problems. So far, Page said, none of the problems are directly linked to the deaths.
“But as we look at these cases, we see the acute need for more foster homes, the need to have children stable in placements [and ] services for youth transitioning out of the system,” she said. “All of these are items we are working on.” She’s also trimmed staff in the main office so that more people can be out in the field, where some caseworkers are carrying double the load they should be.

But when asked by a legislator if caseworkers are conducting all the required visits with children in foster homes — once a week for the first month and once a month thereafter — Page acknowledged that might not be happening.

“Now does that always happen, I can’t swear it does but that’s what we try to do,” she said.
Some legislators expressed deep concern about the deaths and worried that more employees wouldn’t be enough to ensure that children in state custody are safe.

“This division seems to be a ball of chaos,” said Rep. Donna Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista. “I’d like to give it more money and more staff, but I’m afraid it would become a bigger ball of chaos.”

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