Our View: Children at risk of being lost in DHS shuffle

If there is one deplorable aspect of all the ills facing this state’s problematic Department of Human Services, it has to be cases involving children – a situation that should be absolutely unacceptable. Now in question is whether parents and these young children receive fair and balanced representation before judges when DHS workers haul off a child. During a recent meeting of the Joint Performance Review, the issue was brought up as to whether lawyers working for the state on cases involving children are being paid enough. Another situation that must seriously be addressed is the “cookie cutter” approach these lawyers and judges take in dealing with children and parents. During this meeting, Kathryn Hudson, a Little Rock lawyer who represents parents in family-law cases, said she doesn’t see how either party has enough time to prepare before arguing cases in court. Lawyers from both programs, along with court-appointed special advocates for children, appear before judges, who then decide whether children are returned to parents. “One of the most disturbing things that I am recognizing now is the all the cases read exactly the same. They change the names and the dates and maybe a little bit of the fact pattern, but basically these documents all read exactly the same,” she said. “Everybody’s on the same page and once the narrative gets set, you’re a bad parent, and this happened, and you don’t deserve these children,” she said. Then, there is the argument over the lawyer compensation. Most lawyers in the program have separate practices. They are paid a contract rate of $850 per case and can work more than 100 cases per year. Let’s see now how that breaks down on an annual basic. Our math tells us that if these lawyers voluntarily sign on to the DHS program they can pocket up to $85,000 a year plus expenses. Not too shabby when considering how the program is set up where one size seems to fit all. Nevertheless, some lawyers are pointing out that a private practice would charge up to $8,000 to $10,000 per case and the meager $850 is an insult to their profession. Let’s explain, the DHS spends BILLIONS of our tax dollars dealing with this state’s poor people, including the growing number of children. Gov. Asa Hutchinson and lawmakers are fully aware of the problems DHS is having in dealing with the enormous caseloads involving children issues. Compensation for lawyers representing DHS, case workers and others within the state system is now become an issue although, we’re told, the program’s 34 full-time workers are paid between $45,000 and $80,000 a year. The valid point was made that the system is suppose to be adversarial, but when the same judges and lawyers work on the same cases, they get to know one another. One lawyer testified that the cases she’s argued , there were inappropriate communications between the parties. She also said that the rules of civil procedure, which govern how circuit courts decide cases, are simply not being followed. In one particular case, she filed a complaint against a judge in south Arkansas. She said the judge and a prosecutor had an ex parte conversation with her client in the jail, a situation she said, “doesn’t get any worse than that.” Lawmakers were also told that neither the courts nor the DHS prioritizes placing children in the care of family members as opposed to foster care, and in some instances being resisted. As we’ve pointed out, this is a dire situation that must not be ignored any longer.


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