9.03.2008

Children's Deaths Stir Agency Shifts

Arkansas Democrat Gazette
The Associated Press
August 31, 2008

A “top-to-bottom” review ordered by Gov. Mike Beebe after the deaths of four foster children has resulted so far in “leadership” changes within the state Children and Family Services Division, governor’s spokesman Grant Tennille said Friday.

The state Department of Human Services and the Arkansas State Police began investigations after four children died over a two-month period this summer. The multiple deaths stood out because the agency had not had any foster-care deaths in the past three years.

Julie Munsell, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said Friday that two of the deaths involved suspected maltreatment. Of those, one has resulted in a criminal case while the other is still under investigation.

In the criminal case, Eleisha Sykes of Eudora was charged this month with first-degree battery in the May 28 death of her 22-month-old foster daughter, Keyundra Smith. The child suffered head injuries, brain damage, cuts, bruises and welts.

In the other two deaths, Munsell said, the agency does not suspect abuse or neglect. She said investigative findings in those cases most likely will remain confidential as required by law.
Tennille referred questions about specific changes made in the division to Department of Human Services Director John Selig. Selig said a review of the division aimed at greater efficiency and quality services was already ongoing when the deaths occurred.

He said the deaths and Beebe’s “encouragement” created a sense of urgency.
Selig said about a dozen jobs have been eliminated in the division’s central office, while workers have been added to the field to better serve children and families. Field workers include such positions as investigators, caseworkers and social services aides.

Selig said a few new assistant division directors have been hired, including national child-welfare expert John Zalenski. Also, the Department of Human Services has pulled managers from across the department to help the division in its internal review and the division has created a team of experts from outside the agency to provide further expertise.

The outside team is made up of staff members from the state police, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the Child Abuse Rape and Domestic Violence Commission and the Administrative Office of the Courts.

In addition, Selig said, Arkansas successfully applied to be part of a National Governors Association policy academy to develop child-welfare practices that other states can adopt. The practices are aimed at keeping families together while also ensuring the safety of children.
According to the statement from the governor’s office, Beebe and staff members have been meeting since late April with Department of Human Services and division personnel, state police administrators, family court judges and the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
The governor ordered the review of all state foster-care personnel and procedures and the review has resulted in “leadership” changes as well as beefing up “support to field operations,” the statement said. The governor stressed the state police investigation into the deaths should be “extremely thorough” and should include a review of division procedures.

The statement also said the National Child Welfare Center for Organizational Improvement was helping with a review of the division’s management.

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