First Lady Susan Hutchinson tweeted a photo today of her attendance at a conference at which she was to talk about Arkansas’s “progressive work” to stop child abuse.
Tuesday in Little Rock, Hutchinson made a speech about child advocacy centers. She grows emotional talking about protecting children at risk and I have no doubt of her sincerity.
But if she really wanted to be a force for good, she’d get her husband to do something about his administration’s continuation of a policy that is bad for children. It’s a resistance to accountability for the state Department of Human Services.
Hutchinson’s speech Tuesday was unfortunately timed. That very day, a nightmarish federal court pleading illustrated in the most graphic terms a failure of DHS to protect children in its care.
That day, a Van Buren truck driver, Clarence Garretson, pleaded guilty to five counts of interstate transportation of children for sex. He admitted rape in four cases and sexual abuse in another. Some children were as young as 9. They included foster children and one adopted child put in the care of Garretson and his wife by the state Department of Human Services. He’d been accused originally of 11 charges involving eight children. Six charges were dropped in a plea agreement.
The children Garretson abused were among 35 children placed in the home by DHS over at least six years of participation in the foster home program, from 1998 to 2004. The Garretsons were listed as an adoptive home through 2015. The case was made when a 12-year-old girl went to Van Buren police this year. The FBI began reviewing the cases of other children who’d been in the home.
What they found was shocking. An affidavit from the FBI agent who investigated said in part:
Your Affiant reviewed DHS records and learned that multiple teenage foster children had reported to DHS that GARRETSON sexually assaulted them while in his care. The DHS reports your Affiant reviewed indicate DHS received reports of sexual misconduct committed by GARRETSON, some of which were unfounded and some were founded as “true.” Reports alleging sexual misconduct by GARRETSON on foster children in his home were made to DHS in August 1997, January 2003, July 2004 and April 2006. Your Affiant noted that the April 2006 report was made after the foster child had been removed from the home. Your Affiant has not been able to review the complete DHS file because it has not been available in its entirety at this time.
Multiple reports of sexual assault. Some judged by child abuse report evaluators to be “true.” Powerful allegations.
Children make false allegations. Allegations sometimes can’t be proved. But a pattern of allegations by different children over a span of at least seven years and there was no change in the status of a home as a place judged safe for children?
What did DHS have to say?
It was sorry, of course. It was a tragic situation. It appreciated the law enforcement work. It acknowledged that the foster system has been used to prey on children. But, a spokesman said, the system for vetting homes is much stronger today. But as to any specifics of this case:
As you know, I am prohibited by law from talking about specific maltreatment investigations, foster care records and calls into the child abuse hotline.
This is the Catch 22 of child abuse that the Arkansas Times has encountered time and again in attempting to explain cases where the system didn’t work for endangered children. A law meant to protect children is used to protect those who failed them.
It might be that a series of innocent happenstances contributed to the creation of a supply of victims for a serial rapist truck driver, who took his children on cross-country trips and raped them in the privacy of his truck cab. DHS has no easy cases, I’d be the first to admit.
But the public deserves accountability. How did the Garretson child pipeline remain open for as long as it did, despite multiple allegations of abuse? Were mistakes made? If they were, what steps were taken to prevent recurrences? Are those responsible at DHS still employed if they did make awful blunders?
DHS would say no more.
I’ve three times sought comments from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. His press aide refused to respond, or even acknowledge, the questions. The governor, you might remember, has proclaimed foster children a top concern of his.
I’ve sent a message to Susan Hutchinson on Twitter. Perhaps she’d see the need for public accountability for raped children, given her high-profile speaking engagements. But she has a Governor’s Mansion to remodel. And Cindy Gillespie, the DHS director, is busy in court attempting to prevent women, some of them expectant mothers, from receiving basic health services from Planned Parenthood. But they all give good speeches.
Talk is cheap.