Public Hearing this Week

Panel to focus on state's foster care system

Monday, Sep 15, 2008

By Rob Moritz

Arkansas News Bureau LITTLE ROCK -

A public hearing this week on ways to improve Arkansas' foster care system is expected to give lawmakers a new opportunity to question human services officials about the recent deaths of four foster children in state custody.

State police and the state Department of Human Services have said little about the investigation because it involves juveniles."It is something that is on the people's hearts and minds, so I would not be at all surprised if it is discussed," said Rep. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock.

Also, a Northwest Arkansas lawmaker wants to highlight problems with the foster care system in the aftermath of a Bella Vista man's conviction for molesting foster children in his care.

Chesterfield chairs the House Committee on Aging, Children and youth, Legislative and Military Affairs. The committee is scheduled to meet jointly with the Senate Committee on Children and Youth on Wednesday at the Human Development Center in Conway.

State Department of Human Services spokeswoman Julie Munsell said last week several DHS officials, along with managers of the state's foster care program, are expected to attend the meeting to discuss various safety concerns, along with recent leadership changes within the agency and how those changes will affect foster care in the state.

About 7,000 children are in foster care around the state each year and DHS' Division of Children and Family Services investigates about 28,000 calls of child maltreatment annually, division director Pat Page said recently.

Last month, officials informed the joint committees that state police were investigating the deaths of four foster children, two in May and two in June. Information was limited because of the ongoing probes.

Eleisha Sykes of Eudora has since been charged with first-degree battery in the May 28 death of 22-month-old foster child Keyundra Smith. Authorities said the child suffered head injuries, brain damage, cuts, bruises and welts.

While police are investigating one of the other deaths as possible maltreatment, they do not suspect abuse or neglect in the other two, Munsell said.

Last month, Gov. Mike Beebe's office said a review of the Division of Children and Family Services requested by the governor had resulted in leadership changes within the division.Those changes included the elimination of about a dozen jobs in the division's central office and the addition of workers in the field to improve service to children and families. John Zalenski, an expert on child welfare, also was hired as an assistant division director.

Rep. Donna Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista, said last week she hopes Wednesday's meeting also will bring to light the problems and mistakes foster care workers made while investigating sexual abuse allegations that led to a Northwest Arkansas man's conviction for molesting his foster children.

Brian John Bergthold of Bella Vista pleaded guilty in federal court in May to having sexual contact with foster children in his care and filming encounters. In August, he was sentenced to 70 years in prison.Bergthold was a foster parent in Arkansas for about two years.

He kept about 30 boys between ages 9 and 17 at his home during that time, police said. The single man passed several criminal background checks, DHS officials said."

(State foster care officials) did not keep files, it was very sloppy, very unprofessional," Hutchinson charged. "I told my constituents that when this investigation was over we would have a public discussion and we would find out how this could happen."People in foster care and those staff need to know that every file could eventually become evidence in a criminal trial."

Hutchinson complained there was no communication between state workers and police. "I'm just shocked and I think other legislators will be too in how much disarray the foster care system was in at that time," she said.

The Bella Vista lawmaker also said she hopes state workers working on the current investigation will learn from previous mistakes."I am hoping the current investigation won't have the problems we had in the Bergthold case," she said.Hutchinson said she had had numerous discussions with Page in the past year about changes being made and she is optimistic about the future for the foster care program."I'm hoping that they're learning and that they are keeping better information on children and communication with law enforcement," Hutchinson said. "I'm hoping that this new investigation will not have the problems we had with the Bergthold case."

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